On 23 May 2008, Ian Holloway and Leicester City parted company by ‘mutual consent’. The announcement came several weeks after the eccentric Bristolian had presided over the Foxes dropping into the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.
Almost exactly three years later Holloway would again taste relegation, this time with Blackpool. The circumstances on this occasion however, could not have been more different. Though Leicester bowed out for the Championship with a whimper, the Tangerines lost their Premier League status in a blaze of boyish charm and glorious, attacking football.
It was an appropriate ending to a lengthy, meandering tale that began on that fateful day in Stoke when the Foxes lost their place in the second tier.
The relegation had a profound effect on Holloway. He had walked out on Plymouth – the most enjoyable job of his career by his own admission – to take up his post at Leicester and his failure led to him reevaluating his entire coaching philosophy.
In his early managerial career, Holloway had been entirely results driven in typically English fashion. Direct passing, beefy centre-forwards and of course, 4-4-f**king-2 were all tropes of Holloway’s sides, which struggled to stand out stylistic in the dirge that was mid-2000s lower league football in the UK.
However, inspired by the sexy play exhibited by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Roberto Martinez’s Swansea closer to home, Ollie made a promise to bring about beauty whenever he was offered a route back into management.
His next job finally came along in May 2009 when he received a call offering him a chance to take over Championship plodders Blackpool who has just secured a 16th placed finish. He joined a club run by thrifty – and that’s an understatement – owners who seemed content to settle for second tier mediocrity… but Ollie had different ideas.
He inherited a squad of outcasts and supposed has beens and began to wheel and deal in order to strengthen his hand. Charlie Adam – who had impressed on loan during the prior campaign – was snapped up permanently while DJ Campbell, Seamus Coleman and Barry Bannan were brought in on loan as the season progressed.
Holloway’s band of merry men played an open, expansive brand of attacking football and snuck their way into the final play-off place on the final day of the season – despite conceding five more goals than 21st placed Crystal Palace.
The semi-final first leg at Bloomfield Road saw Blackpool secure a 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest in an uncharacteristically cagey encounter. The second leg was far more on brand with Holloway’s men winning 4-3. Loanne Campbell even bagged a hat trick.
Onto Wembley then, where the Tangerines again upset the odds. Charlie Adam, Brett Ormerod and Gary Taylor-Fletcher scored to cancel out Cardiff goals from Michael Chopra and Joe Ledley and earn Blackpool a place in the Premier League for the first time in their history. It was the crowning moment of Holloway’s career.
Though the play-off victory had been heroic it was blatantly obvious that Blackpool would need to significantly strengthen in order to have any chance of holding their own in the top flight and fans spent the summer salivating at the prospect of a spending spree.
June went by. No signings. July went by. Still, no signings. August began…still no signings. The situation was compounded by the fact that the expiration of several loan players’ contracts and the retirement of Stephen McPhee left Holloway with just 15 senior players.
It took until 11 August – three days before their curtain raiser against Wigan Athletic – before supporters had any new arrivals to toast and none of them were exactly household names. The pick of the bunch was Marlon Harewood – a player who had made just 15 appearances in the Championship the previous season.
Despite all of this, Blackpool incredibly managed to defeat the Latics on the opening day and that’s not it – they also scored four goals without reply. Confidence was high going into the next fixture against Arsenal – which they lost 6-0.
Though 36 games would follow in the Tangerines first and so far only Premier League campaign, these first two contests pretty much tell you everything you need to know about their approach.
No matter the opposition Holloway’s default setting was to attack and entertain. Their defensive line was high – definitely too high at times considering Ian Evatt’s questionable pace – Charlie Adam roamed around in midfield spraying Hollywood passes, while up front the lovable quartet of Campbell, Taylor-Fletcher, Luke Varney and Matt Phillips took it in turns to be fleetingly brilliant.
Holloway’s relentlessly coached the attacking phases of play making all of his forwards play each different role in training so they always knew what to do regardless of where they found themselves on the pitch. This meant defensive practice was somewhat overlooked and it very much showed in the Tangerines’ results.
For every 3-1 win over Tottenham, there was a 4-0 defeat to Wolves. For every 4-3 win over rivals Bolton there was a 5-3 defeat to Everton.
The duality of Blackpool’s footballing DNA also becomes apparent when you analysing their performance over time. At the halfway point of the season, they sat in seventh place – albeit with a minus three goal difference. The second half of the season did not go as well.
Unsettled by speculation linking star man Adam with a January move to Liverpool and with more teams figuring out that stopping the Scotsman was key to stopping the team as a whole, the Tangerines sunk without trace, winning just four of their last 19 games.
Going into the final day of the season they were one of five teams that could potentially fill the two remaining relegation spots. They were playing Manchester United at Old Trafford and nobody gave them a prayer. Blackpool being Blackpool though they snuck into a 2-1 lead just before the break, courtesy of a trademark Adam free kick and swept finish by the long serving Taylor-Fletcher.
The champions extinguished this flicker of hope soon after, with three quick fire goals condemning Holloway’s side to the drop. It was a fitting way to go out. Only one other side had scored twice at Old Trafford all season while the four they conceded made sure they earned the worst defensive record in the league.
That was Holloway’s Blackpool though. Irresistible going forward, leaky at the back and one of the most joyous if short-lived teams in Premier League history.