John Secker reflects on Blackpool’s inability to escape the lower divisions since the trauma of a fluke relegation in 1978
In the good old days of the Sixties and before, Blackpool were one of the teams who could lay claim to a First Division place pretty well permanently. Along with teams like Preston, Burnley and Bolton, they were part of a Lancashire tradition of strong town teams that went back to Victorian times. Even in the Seventies Blackpool were a strong Second Division side, just missing out on promotion in 1974 and featuring on Goal of the Season in 1975 (Mickey Walsh against Sunderland).
In early 1978 Blackpool were sixth in the old Second Division and had just overwhelmed Blackburn 5-2 (Bob Hatton’s fourth hat-trick of the season), when the chairman Billy Cartmel took exception to something manager Allan Brown said to the press, and sacked him. Blackpool then plummeted down the league, winning only one more game all season. When they had finished their fixtures there were still half a dozen teams below them, and only a miraculous series of results could put them down. Of course it all happened as if it was scripted, with Orient winning at Cardiff on the final day, and down they went, a single point behind seven other clubs.
Despite confident expectations, they have never returned. Like Blackpool, the three Lancashire clubs mentioned above have also fallen as far as the bottom division, but they seem able to climb back up, while Blackpool limp along on faded memories and hopes which are always dashed. What is it that prevents us making a comeback?
The first thing to consider is the map. Take a look at Blackpool and you will notice that a large area around the town is coloured blue. The fact that we are a relatively remote seaside club means that the potential catchment area, and therefore the resources available to the club, are limited. However, this theory cannot explain everything, since other comparable coastal towns support more successful teams.
Blackpool’s real problem lies in its demographics – it has the smallest proportion of native-born inhabitants of any town in Britain. Put simply, if you are born in Blackpool, then you are very likely to move away to find a job. On the other hand, a large number of people retire to the Fylde from other parts of the country.
The result is that the club has a smaller core of bred-in-the-bone loyal supporters than you would expect from a town of its size. Football fans who have moved into the area may go along to the games, but they tend to be more critical and less likely to keep going if the entertainment is not up to scratch. When Blackpool were doing well in 1996, looking like promotion certainties, they filled the ground for every game. However, when times are poor, as this season, the support vanishes to a hard core of a couple of thousand.
Furthermore, the crowd are much less supportive of their own team than you will find at most grounds, and are very quick to get on the backs of the players if they are not doing well. Finally, and reasonably enough, these people are not prepared to put up with the condition of the stadium at Bloomfield Road, which is a disgrace. One end is closed “for safety reasons” and the whole ground is in a state of decay and disrepair.
We have been hearing for over a dozen years about plans for a super-stadium, or a new development elsewhere, but nobody believes any of the stories any more. Even in January the Kop was supposed to be demolished, as the start of a “rolling redevelopment”, but it still stands. While some clubs in the region have built new grounds (Bolton, Wigan) and others have refurbished impressively (Preston, Blackburn), the state of Bloomfield Road must be depressing Blackpool’s gates by several thousand – only the committed will put up with such conditions, and few parents would bring their families there.
Interestingly, the poor support at home is reversed for away games. Wherever they go Blackpool find a large number of exiles who will turn up, and our away attendances are always among the best in the division. Both this season (Preston) and last (Man City), a visit from Blackpool has provided the Second Division’s highest gate. We took well over 3,000 to Highbury on a cold Monday evening for an FA Cup tie before Christmas. In addition, the travelling fans tend to be more blindly loyal to the team than those at Bloomfield Road.
Even if we had someone prepared to spend millions on new players – passing over the current argument about whether the presence of the Oystons in the boardroom is good or bad for the club – we would still have problems because of the fragile loyalty of the crowd.
Over the years they have always been quick to take against a player and slow to forgive, and many talented individuals have left the club because the supporters would not give them a chance. Many times I have heard players booed when they are brought on as a substitute or when their name is read out before the game, from Alan Ainscow in the mid-Seventies to Andy Preece, who was hounded by the supporters and released by the club in 1998 despite being our only reliable goalscorer at the time.
Perhaps even more than most clubs, too, Blackpool have suffered from too many managers (thanks partly to the misjudgments of chairmen such as Cartmel), and the worst of them were the best players. The most extreme example was Alan Ball, an unmitigated disaster on the bench in the early Eighties. Not far behind was Nigel Worthington, whose 60-odd international caps did nothing to compensate for a very poor record as a manager.
Even with the right man in place (and Steve McMahon’s early weeks look promising) and however much a benefactor is prepared to spend, a team will tend to struggle without the fans on their side. Even a huge wage packet is not as good for the confidence as an unquestioning crowd cheering you on. Blackpool seem doomed to finding themselves forever with crowds smaller than their ambitions require, and supporters more demanding and less tolerant than most.
Having said all that, like all supporters of lower division teams, I am compelled to believe that Blackpool will bounce back one day – maybe even this season. If we win all our remaining games, we can still make the play-offs...
From WSC 157 March 2000. What was happening this month