19 May ~ It is not by chance that West Ham find themselves as one of the two Championship teams whose summer holidays will start that little bit later. Top of the table in February, the Hammers quickly self-destructed courtesy of seven consecutive home matches without a victory, before winning six and drawing two of their last eight fixtures. Supporters have endured a season of extremes that will now end in either triumph or disaster. Automatic promotion may have been missed by just two points, but fans have been resigned to the play-offs since late March, when Reading left Upton Park having won the ultimate six-pointer.
The reality check provided by accumulating just three points from a possible 18 against the other top-four sides means fans go to Wembley this afternoon embracing the opportunity presented by the play-off final, rather than contemplating what might have been.
West Ham's opponents this season have been keen to emphasise their underdog status, believing it will heap pressure on the Hammers players. Blackpool defender Ian Evatt took the tactic to a whole new level this week, when he was fooled by a hoax photo suggesting that West Ham had already produced a new away kit for next season featuring the Premier League logo.
He called West Ham "disrespectful" in thinking that "they're already up". Hammers fans, fond of a certain song with the line "like my dreams they fade and die", were amused both by Evatt's gullibility and the suggestion they would ever take success for granted.
Evatt's reaction would seem to indicate more about his own mindset than that of West Ham, which is understandable given that he forms part of a defence that has shipped eights goals against the Hammers this season. If the 4-0 win at Upton Park back in October was impressive, then the 4-1 win at Bloomfield Road with only ten men for the last 40 minutes (including playing midfielder Henri Lansbury in goal) was quite simply the result of the season.
A repeat scoreline is unlikely today against a Blackpool side that has reverted to a more cautious approach. In any case, this West Ham team is far from infallible. Top scorer Carlton Cole's tally of 14 is half that of the division's leading scorer, Southampton'svRickie Lambert. And while Nicky Maynard and Sam Baldock appear to offer useful alternatives, Sam Allardyce has rarely utilised them, so goals are not guaranteed this afternoon.
The West Ham defence has been strong, with James Tomkins the standout player this season, but when they have a bad day, they are awful. In April, Birmingham City and Reading scored seven between them at Upton Park, while in January struggling Ipswich Town put five past Robert Green.
The odds may suggest that West Ham will have too much for Blackpool, but the reality of Championship football is that there is little between any two teams. That is why so many neutrals will tune in to watch what promises to be an absorbing game. West Ham fans watching their team at Wembley for the first time since 1981 are revelling in the pre-match build-up. Once the game gets underway though, they may just be in for a nailbiting afternoon. Neil Fairchild