Championship play-off final preview: Blackpool can spoil West Ham’s party
Sam Allardyce took over at Upton Park following the Hammer’s demotion last term. His side racked up an impressive 86 points, but missed out on automatic promotion on the last day of the season.
The east London outfit have only themselves to blame for failing to go up automatically, following a winless run at home towards the end of the campaign which saw the team draw many games. With that being said, West Ham United only lost 8 games in the Championship this season, fewer than any other team, while the team set a club record of away wins. They also battered Cardiff City 5-0 to get to the playoff final. They beat their opponents Blackpool twice this season – 4-0 at home and 4-1 away. Their record was equally good last season as the Hammers beat the Seasiders 3-1 with drew 0-0 in the other fixture.
West Ham, then, are unbeaten in their last four games against Blackpool, which makes them favourites today. They have enough firepower within their team to win; Kevin Nolan (13) Carlton Cole (14) and Ricardo Vaz Te (11) have an impressive 38 goals between them. They also have players such as Sam Baldock, Nicky Maynard, Henri Lansbury, Mark Noble and Jack Collison who will look to put their stamp on today’s final.
West Ham scored 81 goals this season, the second highest in the Championship, and had the best defensive record of any of the four playoff teams, form they have brought into the play-offs as the team didn’t concede in either of the two games against Cardiff. The likes of youngster James Tompkins and England goalkeeper Robert Green will be crucial at the back for West Ham today as they look to lift the trophy and move back up to the big-time at the first time of asking.
But although the odds are stacked against them Blackpool are certainly no pushovers. Ian Holloway’s men were a surprise package when they first got promoted to the Premiership. After getting relegated in their first season in the top-flight, many wrote off the team’s chances of going back up after the likes of Charlie Adam left the club.
Holloway himself has said that a win in today’s final would eclipse the achievement of when the side first got promoted. His team got through a nervy 20 minutes against Birmingham as they held on to win 3-2, which shows the resilience and capabilities within the Blackpool ranks. One player in particular would want to buck his own personal play-off trend – Kevin Phillips has been to two playoff finals and lost both. He would hope to end a this playoff hoodoo after contributing much to a Blackpool season that has seen him score 17 goals. He has been a major influence in Blackpool’s road to Wembley.
If Blackpool lack West-Ham’s consistency of pedigree, then they make up for it in leadership. Holloway’s achievements during his time at Blackpool cannot be downplayed and he has a great captain in Barry Ferguson – Blackpool could have only dreamed of signing a player of this calibre a couple of seasons ago. The likes of Ferguson and Phillips will have to be at their best if they are to beat a very strong West Ham team today.
Other key players for the Tangerines will be youngster Matt Phillips (12 goals this season) and Gary Taylor-Fletcher (8 goals) who stuck with the team despite their relegation last term.
One thing’s for sure, anything can happen in a one-off game in any sport. There is all to play for today – today’s match is the most valuable match in football, financially speaking. It is worth an estimated £90 million to the winner. The loss, however, can have a simply devastating effect on the losers; both teams are already close enough to the holy grail to feel as if they have fallen off a cliff if they don’t quite achieve it. Both teams will be raring to go come 3 o’clock this afternoon with their fans singing their hearts out at the historical venue that is Wembley. West-Ham are favourites but, as is often the case, it will be more of a surprise if it is as smooth running as the form book suggests.