Cardiff v Blackpool, Championship play-off final, May 22, 2010
Cynics may argue that it’s the underdog versus the even bigger underdogs in this season’s Championship playoff final. Moreover, whichever of Cardiff or Blackpool reach the hallowed Promised Land will be immediately earmarked as next season’s Premier League whipping boys. But all that will matter little to Bluebirds and Tangerine supporters as they head to Wembley on Saturday for a match that is usually one of the best of the season.
At the start of the season no-one would have predicted that Blackpool would be in the playoffs come the end of the season. The northern minnows were hand-picked for the drop, with the bookies pricing the Seasiders as joint 7/4 favourites with Barnsley for relegation. But what do the bookies know!
Under the management of firebrand Ian Holloway, arguably the manager of the season in the Championship, the Tangerines eeked out a 1-all draw with Bristol City on the final day of the regular season to secure sixth spot and a shot at the Premier League. Blackpool then progressed past third-placed finishers Nottingham Forest in a thrilling 6-4 aggregate win in the semis, with striker DJ Campbell stealing the headlines with a second-leg hat-trick.
Making Blackpoolâ€™s success all the more sweeter is the fact that their achievements have been reached on a shoe-string budget. Being one of the most unglamourous sides in the division, virtues of self-belief and bravery have been cited as the defining qualities which have accounted for Blackpoolâ€™s magical season, while there has been barely any cash to splash in order to support their lofty Premier League dreams.
Hand in hand, Ian Hollowayâ€™s record in the transfer market this season must be lauded too. Pool have used the loan system to their advantage to bring in the likes of DJ Campbell, Stephen Dobbie and Barry Bannan. And when they did open their purse they did so wisely, with free-kick specialist Charlie Adam one of the buys of the year at Â£500,000. Adams ended the domestic season with an amazing 16 goals to his name.
Adam, alongside marksmen Brett Ormerod (11 goals this season) and DJ Campbell (nine goals in his last eight appearances), will form the main goal-threats for Blackpool in the playoff final.
Their opponents, Cardiff, after finishing the regular season in fourth and having edged Leicester in a dramatic penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals, will arguablly be the slight favouirites ahead of Saturday’s big kick-off.
Their slight edge is the product of the Bluebirds’ greater threat with one of the best offensive quartets in the division. Peter Whittingham, Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd and Chris Burke contributed a whopping 57 league goals between them in the regular season, and all four forwards should be fit and able to contribute one last time this season at Wembley.
Cardiffâ€™s attacking riches go even further. With rumours that he handed in a transfer request earlier in the year, Ross McCormack may not have experienced the best of times this season. Yet last seasonâ€™s top goalscorer for Cardiff remains a potent threat up-top, and in the biggest match of the season the 23-year-old Scottish international has the chance to reclaim the spotlight.
Elsewhere, Cardiffâ€™s shining light in the middle of the park is the hugely talented Joe Ledley. Blessed with a sweet left-peg, the young Welshman has long been linked to a raft of top flight sides being a solid, reliable performer who rarely puts a foot wrong. Cardiff will also look to the likes of Stephen McPhail alongside Ledley in midfield to help dictate the pace and tone of the final.
Separating Cardiff and Blackpool has been almost impossible this season. The two teams met at Bloomfield Road early in the season where Michael Chopra put Cardiff City ahead after just twelve minutes but Ian Evatt earned the Seasiders a point with a goal in first half injury time. The return match at Cardiff in January also ended 1-1, this time Mark Hudson giving Cardiff City the lead after nine minutes before Charlie Adam equalised shortly after the break.
Picking a winner is always going to be difficult in such pressure-cooker circumstances, however one can predict that most neutrals will be hoping for a Blackpool victory. Everyone loves a rags to riches story, and with Ian Holloway – one of the best personalities in British football – in charge, many will be hoping to see his bizarre press conferences and post match interviews in the Premier League next season.
Further, working on the totally unreliable sod’s law principle, the final weeks of the season have seen very few surprises in all the main competitions. Chelsea predictably won the double, Barcelona predictably won La Liga, and Inter Milan swept the honours in Italy. All in all it’s been a rather smooth final few weeks of the 2009/10 season, so it would be fitting for the northern Seasiders to crash the party and join the big-boys in the Premier League next year.
Here’s hoping for a cracker!
101gg predicts: Cardiff 2 – Blackpool 3 (27.50)