So West Ham blew it in the regular season, coming third in the Championship – drawing too many home matches at the business end of the season and being caught out by the remarkable winning surge of Reading in the New Year. Towards the end of the season though, the form was good: a 6-0 thrashing of Brighton the highlight. I watched them cruise to a 4-0 victory at Barnsley on Good Friday (bizarrely it was live on BBC 1) and it felt like the team were just too good for this division.
The playoffs are horrible though. A whole season’s effort expended coming third and you can be knocked out by the team coming sixth. 11 points behind, as Cardiff were. The nerves were jangling as that first leg in Cardiff kicked off. But the late season form held true. An easy 2-0 victory in Cardiff, followed up by a 3-0 walk in the park at the Boleyn. Meanwhile Blackpool ousted Birmingham in the other semi, which was a relief, as we struggle against the Brummies for some reason.
So it was Blackpool at Wembley!
I was hoping to go with my son, as I knew someone with Club Wembley tickets. But it turned out that they weren’t valid for the playoffs, so we settled down for an eight hour Sky Sports marathon: the Hammers v Tangerines, followed by the Heineken Cup rugby final – Leinster v Ulster – and then Bayern Munich v Chelsea in the Champions League final. All great games, with Chelsea’s penalty shoot out the headline grabber today. But the only one that was truly dear to my heart was the one involving the happy Hammers.
It was a scruffy, tense game. So much at stake. They call it the £45m, or £90m or £50m game, depending on whom you read. It’s the amount of money missed out on if you don’t get promoted. A season of not being in the Premier League. That might be what the accountants care about: what the fans care about is playing Arsenal and Man Utd, rather than Barnsley and Cardiff – with no offence to those clubs, it’s just for illustration. And while it is fun winning loads of games rather than worrying about relegation, there’s no substitute for being part of the elite.
Blackpool started brightly and had a couple of chances before West Ham started to exert control. It was no great surprise when West Ham took the lead late on in the first half – lovely through ball by Matt Taylor and superb control and power from Carlton Cole. His touch seems to be getting better and better. Vaz Te had chances to make it 2-0, but 1-0 felt OK at half time.
But what did Big Sam put in the tea at half time? They were all over the place and Blackpool had figured that balls put in behind the centre backs could cause havoc. It was all Blackpool. They deservedly equalised and continued to play the better football. I was beginning to reconcile myself to another season in the Championship – it wouldn’t be that bad, surely we’d stroll away with it this time…. as long as we kept our best players. Ah. Robert Green, the keeper, would surely move on. James Tomkins, dashing centre back, would be tempted by at least a QPR or Villa, if not Arsenal or Spurs. Mark Noble, all action midfielder, would decide it was time to get into the Premier League before any chance of making the England squad faded. Carlton Cole would finally go to Stoke, to join their collection of battering ram centre forwards. And Big Sam? Well there has never been a love affair, so the fans would be clamouring for his dismissal.
Oh God, it would be a disaster! What would happen to the Olympic Stadium plans? How dodgy would the club’s finances be when the parachute payments dried up?
1-1 it stayed. Extra time loomed. Kevin Nolan hit the bar with a lovely volley. Blackpool spurned a couple of sitters. Extra time, and then, and then… penalties! Oh no! An unbearable prospect…
Three minutes to go. Kevin Nolan went wide, put in a low cross. Carlton Cole controlled it, wriggled past a couple of Blackpool defenders. The ball fell to Ricardo Vaz Te, who’d been having a bit of an off day – by his high standards. He slammed the ball high – it was going over… no it was going in! The roof of the net. 2-1!
The clock ticked down. It had been the cleanest of games, no injuries, barely a booking. Surely there could only be a minute or maybe two added on. But no, Fergie time prevailed – another four minutes! Why?
Time moved slowly, but Blackpool looked a bit drained. The boys were in control, the ball mostly at the right end of the pitch. Finally, after almost FIVE minutes, Howard Webb blew his whistle. Maybe he’d confused Blackpool with Man U. But it didn’t matter any more. We’d done it. Back in the Premier League!
Yeah, well, of course I knew we’d always do it…. Didn’t I ?
Give it up to Big Sam!