I last wrote about Blackpool shortly before the end of the transfer period in January, when they were considering the sale of Charlie Adam. Ultimately, the Seasiders did not sell Adam but instead chose to keep him for at least the balance of the Premier League season to aid in their fight to stay in the Premier League. They were twelfth in the twenty team Premier League at that point. On February 23, Black Dog Pat and Mike W came over to my place and watched Blackpool play Pat’s team, Tottenham Hotspur, at Bloomfield Road. It was never really in doubt, as Blackpool seemed to climb out of a bumpy patch with a 3-1. At that point, the standings (at left) showed Blackpool comfortably out of the relegation zone, with only eight points needed to reach the 40 point mark at which teams are generally considered to be safe from relegation. Things changed.
5.7.2011 TOTTENHAM – With three games to go in the Premier League season, things did not look good for Blackpool. A stretch of four home games in April that looked to be the likely salvation of the season (Arsenal, Wigan, Newcastle and Stoke) saw the Tangerines pick up only a pair of points from draws with Newcastle and Stoke.
This was problematic for the Tangerines, as their final three games were against strong opponents – on the road to Spurs (fifth in the Premier League and Champions League quarter-finalists), at home to Bolton (eighth in the Premier League) and on the road to Manchester United, (who appeared to be cruising towards a record 19th Premier League title). With the easy games, such as they were, gone from the schedule, it was going to require a bit of a miracle finish, which we hoped to witness in person.
Accordingly, we came to be wandering in the vicinity of Victoria Station on May 7, looking for the Prince of Wales Pub. We had been assured that it was a gathering point for Blackpool supporters in London. As we rounded a corner, we saw them: dozens of tangerine shirted men, women and children, most of whom were drinking beer in the street, which I understand to be legal in England. Aside: things like “playing ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ while a man of Asian descent walks past” and ‘reporting factually accurate things like ‘Manchester United star Ryan Giggs had an affair with Imogen Thomas‘” are not. Shared history or not, it’s a different part of the world.
Blackpool fans seem to travel well (Blackpool is about 240 miles north of London), as there were dozens of them at the Prince of Wales and, as we would see, thousands in the stadium. This was dozens and thousands more than I’d seen previously; to this point, the only other Blackpool fan who I’d met is my girlfriend, who was also the longest standing Blackpool fan I knew – lacking my experience with terrible teams and the consequences of supporting them, she converted to Blackpool’s cause well before I did. Walking through the crowd outside of Prince of Wales Pub, I noticed that it was a working class, older group of fans; not at all like the crowd that you see at BMO Field in Toronto. In most cases, they had more tattoos than me and, in many cases, they had fewer teeth. The sponsors on the various editions of the Blackpool shirt seen in the crowd were like a Blackpool business directory. These were not the people that you would see at a Maple Leafs, Raptors or Toronto FC game.
The bar had been suggested to us by a Blackpool fan by the name of Chris who writes a blog called Up The Pool. Our plan was to meet him there but I had only the faintest idea of what he might look like, gleaned from a photograph of himself that he’s using as an avatar on Twitter. A walk through the bar didn’t really produce anyone who jumped out at us, so we grabbed some drinks and retired to the street. A short time later, we were approached by a guy who asked whether we might be the Canadians he was expecting – as it turns out, he was able to identify by the fact that I was wearing a ballcap.
Introductions made and drinks consumed, we set out towards White Hart Lane. This involved a Tube trip to Seven Sisters and then a walk. A long walk. I’ve been to a lot of stadia in North America and I can’t recall, at any of them, a half hour walk from the nearest subway station to the park outside of the Senators in Kanata.
As you approach the park, the police presence is relatively heavy by North American standards, although there didn’t seem to be much in the way of crowd control that was required. White Hart Lane itself is a pretty cool place, a sort of Fenway Park with horrible services in the stadium. Located in Tottenham (near Edmonton, a borough of London with a stabbing problem; some cultural traits are shared), the park was built in 1899 and seats only 36,000 or so, which isn’t really that many by the standards of large teams in the United Kingdom.
There’s a growing divide in the Premier League between the wealthy teams and the less wealthy ones and one of the ways in which it seems to manifest itself is in stadium sizes. Manchester United and Arsenal have become brands that swamp their English competition in terms of the size of their fanbases. They both play in massive stadia that permit them to bring in more money, ensuring that they can continue to afford the best players and that they have the best shot at winning. It’s a hell of a cycle and, for teams like Spurs and Liverpool, which play in smaller, older stadiums, they start every season at a disadvantage to teams that either play in massive stadiums and have the fanbases to fill them (Manchester United/Arsenal) or are owned by men of means, looking to buy some soccer glory (Chelsea/Manchester City).
For a team like Spurs, looking to compete with teams like Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, a big stadium (particularly if subsidized by the government – sound familiar?) seems to be a sort of holy grail. Spurs and West Ham United had a big fight earlier this year over which proposal for redevelopment of the 60,000 seat Olympic Stadium would be accepted – West Ham won at the government level, although Spurs are now apparently seeking a judicial review of that decision.
With money being such a critical factor in terms of competing in soccer, the difference between the commercial side of the operation in North America and the commercial side of the operation in England is somewhat surprising. Spurs is a big business – they had revenues of £119MM last year, which would probably put them in the top three of NHL teams if they were one. Interestingly though, almost half of that revenue comes from the Premier League’s television deals. Their local revenues are simply not that large by the standards of North American professional sport.
Once you eyeball the inside of the stadium, the relatively small local revenues become easier to understand. Basically, the only thing on sale within the stadium other than beer (which cannot be consumed within sight of the field, lest you be overcome by the intoxicating combination of beer and soccer and put a dart into someone) are four choices of food at a concession: hamburgers, hot dogs, pies and wraps. There are, however, two types of pie available. So that’s good. I didn’t have the courage to try one of the pies but can report that the hot dog was ghastly. While I don’t personally care about the level of services provided at the stadium, North American teams seem to be far more efficient at picking you up and shaking the money out of your pocket once you’re there.
Food aside, the experience was pretty incredible. We had seats in the first row above the disabled seating which meant we were about ten feet way the field, in the closest point to the net in the Blackpool section. As you walk from the concourse into the stadium, you’re just hit with a wall of noise. While I generally prefer to sit higher so as to see the play develop, I didn’t mind being so close and right beside the Spurs fans on this occasion, as it permitted us to get a feel for the flavour of the thing, although it was difficult to understand them at points (“Premier League…you’re having a laugh” does NOT mean that you find it really easy in the Premier League.)
The game itself was a worthy addition to the 2010-11 Blackpool canon. The Blackpool rightback for most of the season has been a little Welshman by the name of Neil Eardley, who is a bit of a Marc-Andre Bergeron figure. He’s really struggled this year to control players coming down the right and was, for a period earlier in the season, routinely getting destroyed one-on-one to the point that he was removed from the lineup for a while. Like Bergeron, he’s a respectable offensive player which is probably what keeps him on the field. He can also throw a hit. Both of these traits featured in the first half.
One of the stars at Spurs is a guy by the name of Gareth Bale, subject of the fantastic Youtube clip seen above, which was put together after he annihilated Inter Milan over the course of two games earlier this league in the Champions League. There seemed to be something of a deliberate strategy on Blackpool’s part to put the body into Bale. Eardley ran over him with a bodycheck that Raffi Torres would have considered late. He was about as effective defensively as usual in the first half, as it seemed that Spurs cross after Spurs cross would find its way through the Blackpool box from his side, with only the want of a Spurs foot or head on the end of the crosses keeping them out of the net. The excellent Zonal Marking noted that Bale had only one assist to this point in the season, suggesting that it might be because he fails to delay, giving his strikers time to get on the end of the ball. In any event, it served my purposes to have the crosses sail through the box untouched. Blackpool had a few decent chances as well, with the best chance of the half probably belonging to Charlie Adam, who was denied by an excellent save by Heurelio Gomes.
Things did not get any better for Bale in the second half, as Blackpool continued to ensure that when he touched the ball, he paid a price for doing so. Finally, as Bale tried to skitter out of a tackle from Blackpool’s Keith Southern, Charlie Adam broke him. Adam had been lining up for a tackle/hip check himself and Bale’s movement kind of threw his timing off – Adam is not graceful. You can see the result below. Bale was finished for the season.
A strong Spurs push to open the half made it seem inevitable that a goal would come. Blackpool kept hanging around though until, in the 75th minute, madness. Video of the entire sequence is available here. Blackpool was awarded a penalty after Adam (something of a deadball specialist) whipped in a corner that Spurs defender Michael Dawson inexplicably threw up his right arm to deal with.
Adam, who had converted ten of his last eleven penalties and taken every penalty for Blackpool since April 18, 2009, stepped up to face Heurelio Gomes with a shot to make it 1-0 Blackpool with – to go. He took an excellent shot – hard and low to the goalie’s left but Gomes, who had more saves off penalties in the Premier League than anyone since 2009 guessed correctly and got his left hand on the ball, diverting it around the post. Corner kick to Blackpool. Adam picked up the ball and ran over to take the corner.
He whipped it in again, looking for a header on the near post. Gomes, who also leads the Premier League in penalties conceded since 2009, stormed a long way off of his line and leaped for the ball, deflecting it to the feet of Blackpool’s Gary Taylor-Fletcher and colliding with his own defender. Gomes landed off-balance and stumbled forward. As Taylor-Fletcher trundled (Fletch doesn’t run; he “steams” or “rumbles”) towards the empty net, he got a bit of a bad touch on the ball, knocking it a bit too far ahead. Gomes turned and dove, lightly catching Taylor-Fletcher’s left (non weight bearing) leg as he stepped forward. Taylor-Fletcher, who wasn’t really in a great position to score anyway, went down. It’s not entirely clear to me how a tap on his unweighted leg took him down but I had no complaint. Penalty to Blackpool.
At this point, Adam and DJ Campbell, Blackpool’s lovable neck tattooed, gold toothed, baby voiced, bizarre tweeting striker get into a dispute about who would take the penalty. With Adam having taken every penalty since April of 2009, it seemed pretty clear to me that the considered view of Seasider management was that he was the best taker of penalties. Moreover, up until the preceding penalty, he’d been aces, burying every penalty this season. The miss on the preceding penalty hadn’t been a bad miss either, in the sense of being flubbed or nailed into Row Z; Gomes guessed right and made a good stop. I couldn’t imagine any reason not to go back to Adam, given the demonstrated preference for him over the past two years.
Of course, I also couldn’t believe that the coaches hadn’t considered this sort of thing before (the possibility of a second penalty in a game after one was missed) and instructed the players as to how it would be handled. After the game, Olly mentioned that he thought Campbell had the better argument to take the penalty than did Adam. So, not only does it seem that there was no particular plan for this possibility, but I can’t quite understand Olly’s reasoning when he considered the question after it arose.
Adam won the argument to take the penalty. As far as I can tell from the video, he wins it mostly because he got the ball first – possession is 9/10ths of the law in these things – and shoved Campbell away as he walks to the penalty spot.
I enjoy watching the second penalty because my girlfriend is clearly visible in the shot. We hadn’t kitted her out in tangerine yet and she’s got on a purple jacket which stands out against the sea of tangerine. A year ago, she didn’t know what a Manchester United was; now, her hands went involuntarily to her head as Adam stepped up to take penalty number two. Adam slotted it away and the Blackpool end went berserk. All that remained was to see things out for fifteen minutes and injury time and three massive points would be in the bank.
There was an event after the Adam goal that led to me having a bit of a Twitter dispute with Luke Moore, one of the guys behind the excellent Football Ramble podcast. Adam, who is understandably rather jacked up, sprints over to celebrate in front of the Blackpool fans. He points at the Blackpool crest on his jersey, as if to indicate some sort of affinity for Blackpool. This rubbed Moore the wrong way, and he tweeted the following:
That’s right Charlie, you love Blackpool, hence you pointing to the badge. You duplicitous fucking charlatan. Pathetic.
Who remembers Charlie Adam having a face like a slapped arse when he was interviewed shortly after the window closed in Jan? #shortmemories
When I suggested that this was, perhaps, not entirely reasonable, I was accused of being a fanboy, unhappy to see a criticism thrown at one of my boys. While I don’t expect English soccer guys to know anything about my hockey writing, it’s been a while since I’ve had that accusation tossed at me.
Some back story: as those of you who read this post will recall, Adam was a hot commodity during the transfer window, as Aston Villa, Liverpool and Spurs all took runs at him. The Liverpool bid seemed most serious – Liverpool’s run by a Scot named Kenny Dalglish and they were after Adam throughout the transfer period. It was reported at various times on the final day that a deal was done but the Liverpool deal ultimately fell through. The Spurs deal seemed a bit more ethereal – Harry Redknapp, who comes off as a bit of a basset hound faced buffoon, didn’t quite seem to know Adam’s name when discussing the offer afterwards and his version of events didn’t seem to make sense. In any event, there seems to be little doubt that Adam wanted to go at the end of January.
To Adam’s credit, there was no public discontent since the transfer window closed. There were no questions that could be raised about his work ethic or intensity during games. As far as anyone outside of the club is aware, his conduct around the team was unimpeachable. While he clearly wanted to go in January, he didn’t say anything negative about the club or about Blackpool – he wanted a chance to go to a bigger club, where successfully avoiding relegation wouldn’t be a tremendous accomplishment, where he’d get a chance at playing in Europe and be surrounded by better players. He wanted to challenge himself at a higher level. There is, it bears mentioning, more money associated with playing in Liverpool than Blackpool but there’s no reason to think that Adam was motivated by money in making the move – he came to Blackpool in the first place because he thought it would be good for his career.
The January transfer window strikes me as a pretty ugly scene, all in all. As European soccer players aren’t treated like pieces of meat in quite the same way that North American professional athletes are, they’re required to consent to a transfer. Blackpool can’t just decide to sell Adam – Adam would have to agree to a new contract with the purchasing club. The result of this is that you can’t really have quiet discussions, discussions that occur without the agents knowing. Teams interested in acquiring a player will make sure he’s aware of their interest, so that he can pressure his current team to let him go.
Those are the rules though. That’s the game. Adam was perfectly entitled to ask to go and behaved appropriately after being told that he couldn’t. Unless you have the sophistication of a child who thinks that people can’t genuinely hold conflicting desires, you would accept that it’s not inconsistent to both care about the fortunes of the club for whom you are playing at which you’ve enjoyed tremendous professional success while at the same time wanting to go and achieve greater professional success yourself elsewhere. Adam may well be a duplicitous charlatan, but Moore’s evidence (“HE ASKED TO GO AND WAS UPSET THAT HE WASN’T ALLOWED TO”) doesn’t get close to establishing it.
This is a bit of a thread that I’ve noticed running through English coverage of soccer – the people who cover it (and, even more so, the people who support clubs) seem to expect that the owners and players will have a relationship with the sport that is on the same footing as their own relationship with the sport. Once Charlie Adam revealed himself to have financial and other professional interests, he’s a duplicitous fucking charlatan, regardless of whether he’s played his guts out for Blackpool or not.
Liverpool had a bit of an ownership meltdown earlier this season after the previous owners – Tom Hicks and George Gillette – were, in part, chased out of town by fans who were enraged that they’d purchased the team with debt and were using money generated by the club to pay down that debt. When the team was sold, generally sensible newspapers like the Guardian were running stories about whether or not John Henry intends to use funds generated by the team to pay off the acquisition cost. This seems, to me, to be insane: the expectation basically seems to be that a billionaire (or, at smaller clubs, a millionaire) will invest his money in the club and expect to generate no return from that investment. Manchester United is experiencing something similar with the “LOVE UNITED HATE GLAZER” movement.
It’s a naive way to view professional sport but I can’t help but be a little jealous of it. Whereas North American fans have sort of come around to accepting that sport is a business controlled by people who are trying to operate it for a profit, in England and the rest of Europe, they seem to have held on to the idea that you should buy a club because you want to win things. A club isn’t a business, it’s a trust that you’re expected to pump money into or, at the very least, not withdraw money from. While it doesn’t seem particularly realistic to me to expect that people will put hundreds of millions of dollars into a club for no return, there is something to be said for maintaining constant vigilance against your club being turned into a business, a fight that North Americans have long since lost. I’ve been to games in Turkey and England now and there seems to be a different relationship between fans and their clubs there. We enter into commercial transactions with our teams here; the supporters there are far more resistant to their relationship with their club being reduced to that. Unreasonable? Sure. Preferable to what we have? I think so.
Duplicitous charlatan or not, Adam and Blackpool had a game to see out. Unfortunately, Blackpool does not see games out. Blackpool plays chaotic, chance trading soccer and their attempts to see out a game felt awkward and forced all year long. At the time of the Spurs game, Blackpool had given away nine points due to goals after the 85th minute and gained none. Craig Cathcart, who’d been a starting central back for Blackpool for a large part of the season but who had fallen out of favour, was subbed in by Olly to give Blackpool five players at the back to try to hold on to the lead. In the 89th minute, the ball came to Jermaine Defoe just outside the box. Inexplicably, Cathcart didn’t immediately close on Defoe. This briefest of delays lets Defoe get a shot off and it’s 1-1, which is how it finished. Make it eleven points given away after the 85th minute and none gained. Blackpool escaped with a point that, as unlikely as it might have seemed at the start of the day, felt more like two points lost. Two points lost or one point gained, it was enough to push Blackpool back past Wigan, who had drawn earlier in the day, outside of the relegation zone once more.
Unfortunately, a 3-1 win for Wolves over West Brom the following day meant that Blackpool would enter their game on May 14 against Bolton sitting in 18th place, a point away from safety. Still though, with two games to go, they were alive, a far cry from the 10 points and elimination by October that many expected before the season.