Often contested by recent Premier League competitors, this year's Championship play-off final featured two clubs who last played in the top division in 1971 and 1962 respectively. Cameron Carter reports
Wembley, on a luridly hot day in May. Almost lost among the blue and tangerine hordes, down for this afternoon’s promotion showdown, glimpses of everyday north London life – the dreaming bouncers outside pubs, the Wembley branch of the school-age outdoor drinking club soliciting help to buy alcohol, the brightly-plumed, chirpy Lidl in the retail park. For the most part, though, this pocket of London is just Cardiff and Blackpool, ribbons of blue and tangerine filing magnetically towards the Wembley arch.
The two sets of fans spilling out from the Tube station seem to have different expectations. Cardiff, a mass of blue replica shirts, descend in a businesslike manner, in the knowledge there is important work to be done – this is simply the 47th league game of the season.
The Blackpool fans, on the other hand, wear “Glad All Over” T-shirts, “Twat-In-A-Hat” headwear and appear to take this game as if they were the Top Gear hearties being challenged to drive a tank through a car wash. A solo Welsh tenor alludes to this apparent insouciance with an improvised “You’re only here for the occasion”, trying to squeeze too many syllables into the refrain and thereby losing something in impact.
Walking up Wembley Way, it is a full-time job ducking out of the photographs and videos of others. A Blackpool fan, positioned behind a mounted policeman, becomes the latest in a very long line to pretend to slap the horse’s rump to make it bolt. The police, even with their backs to you, are trained not to find this funny. A man in shirtsleeves stands to one side talking authoritatively into a microphone.
Some turn his way, preparing to heckle a BBC or Sky reporter, but no, he is promising us the peace that passeth all understanding and eternal life, so we just keep on walking. Because there is no need for the gift of eternal life on a day like this, when your team is at Wembley, playing for a place in the Premier League.
In fact, it is probably best not to look further than a few months ahead, because the prize, while a glittering and lucrative one, is also likely to turn into something less glorious in time – like an early morning start in January to drive hundreds of miles to witness another plucky away defeat. This, for the realists and pessimists that make up 75 per cent of a club’s support, makes the Championship play-off final a time to truly live in the moment, to soak up the occasion and pay no heed to the ominous predictions for tomorrow.
On Fulton Road, in the shadow of the stadium, there is an almost medieval scene. A small but significant Welsh encampment, like a portable family enclosure, has been set up on one side of the street. Men, women and children lean against the fence or sit on car rugs and canvas camp-chairs, preparing for the huge upheaval ahead. Rather like the last hours before Agincourt, if you substituted the smell of suncream for campfires.
Ten-to-three and the teams come out to be greeted by crowd roar, bright sunshine, soaring flames and fireworks. Bombarded by sensation after the last quiet word with oneself down in the dressing room, it must be how the newborn feel, hauled out of the womb into a maternity ward full of strip lighting and people who profess to know you.
On taking my seat I am advised by the elderly man on my left that he got his ticket outside the ground by eliciting sympathy through the well-judged flourishing of his retractable white stick, which he then flourishes with practised skill. My first fear, that I am sitting next to the greatest con-artist in Europe and am having every penny siphoned from my account somehow just by talking to him, is quickly replaced by a more rational and selfish one; namely, that he will ask me to commentate on the game for him for the entire 90 minutes.
Instead, he sits back and follows the game by the sound of the crowd. After only three minutes he is clearly aware that Cardiff have gone very close, Michael Chopra getting across his defender and flicking the ball onto the near post from Peter Whittingham’s cross. Five minutes later, Cardiff are ahead. Chopra plays possum behind the Blackpool defenders, who obediently ignore him, only for him to nip back onside to take Whittingham’s through ball. With no defender near him, he shoots immediately from the edge of the penalty area to give Cardiff a ninth-minute lead.
There is no time to dwell on this, though, because Blackpool are back raiding at the other end and have a free-kick, 25 yards out, for handball. Charlie Adam, at £500,000 Blackpool’s biggest current signing, steps up and bends it into the top corner. David Marshall waves a paw at the ball as it flashes past him like a man trying to hail a taxi while carrying a microwave.
Jay Bothroyd has to be substituted and as he limps to a seat, Blackpool, building from the back, start to dominate. Cardiff respond with Whittingham creating two half-chances before creating a real whole chance for Joe Ledley in the 38th minute. Ledley controls the ball cleverly and loses his man before passing to Whittingham, who slips the return pass into the left side of the penalty area. Matt Gilks comes out to meet Ledley but only manages to signpost just where the ball should slipped past him. It’s 2-1 to Cardiff and they have looked like scoring on every attack.
This would have acted on many teams as a mortal blow, but Blackpool take falling behind in a Wembley final as an inconvenience and, in the manner of a chap who has lost his front door key and has to get another one cut, trot off up the other end to equalise. Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s shot hits the post and the ball is scrambled away. From the resulting corner, DJ Campbell’s shot is saved and Ian Evatt’s overhead kick is blocked on the line but Taylor-Fletcher stoops to head in the rebound.
So that’s it. A highly eventful, free-flowing first half, with honours shared between two teams quick and deadly in attack, but winningly vulnerable at the back. Except, even as the public address system is announcing two minutes of injury time, Blackpool score again. Campbell half-weaves, half-stumbles his way into the box but his attempt on goal is smothered as a SWAT team of Cardiff defenders converge on him. The ball bobbles clear and ends up at the feet of an unmarked Brett Ormerod, who hurries the ball into the net. And still, preposterously, there is time for Cardiff to go up the other end and have a goal disallowed for offside.
The PA announcer, clearly one of those men who does not dwell on recent failures – such as talking all over the fifth goal – is perky and modern as the teams run back on. “Reintroducing Cardiff City! Reintroducing Blackpool!” he yelps. A strange word, “reintroduce”, and not obvious when it would be correct to use. If you have been introduced to someone, the next time you meet would not be a reintroduction surely? Unless one of the parties suffered from vascular dementia: “Dr Witherow, this is your wife.” “My wife? Hello!” But no, our confident young friend was not catering for those in the crowd with poor short-term memory, but attempting to wring one last drop of value out of something that has already happened once, identically and very recently. Rather like Jan de Bont did with Speed 2.
Both teams carry on where they left off, trying to score as quickly as possible. Adam attempts to cut out the middleman by taking a shot from well inside his own half. This goes so wide no one knows quite how to react. Audacious but piss-poor, it’s a species of onfield act for which there is, as yet, no registered response. With 55 minutes gone, the ball is smuggled through to Chopra, whose snapshot from 18 yards flicks off the Blackpool bar. A voice two rows behind remarks conversationally to his friend, “You’re looking a little tense there, Brian”, and with the ball pinging from end to end, but Cardiff looking more threatening, the Blackpool fans are starting to question refereeing decisions and bemoan poor passes. In fact, some are so on edge now they can no longer help prod the orange balloon along as it passes down the rows.
Cardiff come close a couple more times but they are slowing down in the heat and there are longer gaps between chances. With ten minutes to go, the Blackpool back four are no longer building patiently but hoofing it forward anywhere. Four minutes of added time cannot help Cardiff who, like their opponents, have little left to give.
The final whistle is greeted with as much stunned disbelief as euphoria in the Blackpool sections until the PA master of ceremonies, like a DJ with two more gigs to go to this evening, runs through a standard victory medley and the bouncing up and down begins. A glance over at the other side of the stadium as Is This The Way To Amarillo bleeds into Don’t Stop Me Now reveals the Cardiff seats entirely emptied, a stark visual reminder that one half of this stadium is feeling the exact opposite of the joyous, hugging other and is already outside, facing reality without the goodtime soundtrack.
Walking back to the Tube station in a scent cloud of deep-fried chicken and body odour, the Blackpool fans are strangely quiet. Variations of the remark “Can you believe that?” or “I still can’t believe it!” waft back and forth. There is little bitterness aimed at them from the remaining Cardiff fans they pass. The worst barracking they get is from their own kind – a small contingent implore the rest to sing but have to give up when their efforts are met only with a contented silence, as if 30,000 people had just eaten a very good meal. The sound of the Cardiff fans, meanwhile, is a hauntingly melodic change of plan to getting the next available train back to Wales, in a minor key.
In the tin gloom of the train, a group of distraught Cardiff fans eye their restrained Blackpool counterparts with distaste. One, a young man who has listened to his girlfriend being philosophical in defeat a little too long, can bear it no more. He gets to his feet: “What’s the matter with you Blackpool? You’ve just been promoted! Cheer UP!”
The Blackpool fans smile back apologetically. But, contrary to appearances, this glorious, unexpected triumph is not wasted on them. Everyone in tangerine knows what has been achieved today, a return to the top division after a gap of 40 years for a club with average gates of 8,500. Brett Ormerod said it best, just after the final whistle: “It feels like we have landed on the moon without a space rocket or a helmet.” His manager, reining in his natural impulse for automatic speaking, kept it simple: “Life’s great, isn’t it?”
From WSC 281 July 2010