Filed: Friday, 11th May 2012
By: Paul Walker
So it’s Blackpool we will face at Wembley in the Play-Off Final, and I suppose most of our fans will be happier with that than another collision with Birmingham, a side we have beaten only once in six meetings over the past two seasons.
As for Blackpool, we have battered them twice this season scoring four on both occasions - including the best away display of the term when we won 4-1 at Blackpool with Henri Lansbury in goal for much of the second-half.
We also won 4-0 at home this season and 3-1 away to Ian Holloway’s boys last term, plus a numbingly bad 0-0 draw earlier that season when the Lancashire side were penned back in defence for much of the night.
So with Birmingham a constant problem - in particular the giant striker Nikola Zigic - and Blackpool always happy to open the game up and attack, surely they are a better bet at Wembley on May 19.
Trouble is, none of this means a jot. It doesn’t matter how we have played against them in the past or how often Holloway talks of how we physically over-powered his side on both occasions this season.
It’s all just words and statistics. The play-offs are a nightmare for everyone involved, and loved only by the uncommitted onlookers, seemingly with the morbid fascination of waiting to see how many people they can spot crying at the end.
What we dare not do is allow ourselves to think we can master Blackpool because we had the upper hand over them in the league. That would be fatal.
It’s what Cardiff did a couple of years ago when Blackpool surprised everyone by winning their way into the top flight. Cardiff were convinced they only had to turn up to beat a poverty stricken, little Lancashire club whose ground was not even finished.
I recall talking to some FA of Wales officials during the build-up to that Final. Cardiff and Wales used to share the same hotel and training facilities in the Vale of Glamorgan, and the FAW lot got a first-hand look at their preparation.
I was told they were amazingly over-confident, sitting around the hotel talking about what they would do in the top flight and how this was the beginning of a new era for Welsh club football. They even staged a grand press conference, put on by smug, arrogant people. Humble they were not, and it even annoyed the FAW people.
I tell this story to show how easy it is to look beyond the game itself and start believing your own publicity. Cardiff had drawn twice with Blackpool that season but still the alarm bells didn’t ring.
A Welsh mate got me a ticket for the final, in the Cardiff end, and I witness first-hand the tears, anguish and sheer horror of losing at that last stage. That must not be us.
Holloway is no mug. He comes across as a quirky cartoon character, but he is clever and can galvanise a team and will love the underdog tag. He will also watch every second of the tapes of the two games against us this season and be sure to come up with something new, different and certain to disrupt and surprise us. Do not be fooled, Holloway has been this way before and we dare not be even slightly off our game for this one.
I hate the play-offs, more because of the concept of the event that has been around now for 25 years, than anything else. They are basically unfair and little more that bear-baiting in public for the on-lookers’ enjoyment but certainly not ours.
A whole season’s hard graft can go up in smoke with one duff performances under pressure. My good lady asked this week why if they wanted three teams promoted, they couldn’t just promote the third placed club., because anything else is unfair. I didn’t really know where to start, other than to consider the ‘out of the mouths of babes and innocents’ quote.
She is living with and putting up with an obsessed, nerve-racked old fella who has trailed the country from Middlesbrough to Southampton this season determined to see the Irons back into the top flight. Telling her it is all about money and TV revenue seemed hopelessly inadequate at the time. Still is. The play-offs are immoral because they take away the basic sporting theory that the best succeed.
West Ham have benefited from both ends of the spectrum here. When we went up through the play-offs in 2005, we had crawled into sixth place and knocked-out third placed Ipswich in the semi-finals, despite finishing 12 points behind them.
The year before when we lost to Crystal Palace in Cardiff in the final, they had finished sixth and we were fourth.
Just for an example, please tell me what is fair about Wrexham’s plight in the Conference. They finished second behind Fleetwood a cool 17 points ahead of Luton, but it is Luton going to Wembley although Wrexham had beaten them three out of four meetings this season.
One of my best mates in football has been unpaid chief executive of Wrexham for six months - money is so tight - and he is having to contend with this injustice after virtually keeping the Welshmen afloat for much of the season single-handed. I have commiserated, but it is hollow words really.
At least Cardiff, who have created a reputation now of not really trying for automatic promotion but just content to nick a place in the play-offs at the last minute while milking the loan system to the extreme, did not benefit against us after finishing 11 points behind.
And for that we can thank Sam and the lads for a near perfect handling of the semi-finals. Two outstanding performances full of calm confidence and dogged determination and not a little flowing football.
The display at the Boleyn on Monday was one of those memorable days nobody who was there will ever forget. Watching it again on TV later in the week just underlined what a quality display it was, front to back, organised, solid , assured and a masterpiece of preparation from Big Sam.
Right from the start he had a calm hold on the situation. The build-up was intentionally low-key with the manager not attending either of the press conferences for the matches, and then not even doing the written press interviews after the first-leg in Cardiff.
Malky Mackay, his players and the rent-a-quote lot of the local South Wales media were full of suggestions that West Ham would struggle, they were under pressure and had brought this situation on themselves.
Nathan Blake, the former Wales striker, does a ghosted column for the local paper in Cardiff and was tempted into describing us as “damaged goods” for whatever reasons. That on behalf of a club who have been fighting off the Revenue, avoiding administration, sometimes unable to pay wages and struggling to fill their stadium - even for a play-off clash. Just who is “damaged.”
There was none of that sort of stuff from Sam. Another reason he ducked the interviews was of the close proximity to Roy Hodgson’s appointment to the England job. Sam didn’t want to talk about that, it would have been a big distraction from the matches in hand, and you can bet the national writers would have got him going on the subject.
You can stand Sam in front of a camera and just turn him on. Just ask him to put out the lights when he has finished! He still seems to feel slighted about losing the job to Steve McClaren, and any talk about England would have made him looked precious about his own position ahead of two crucial ties.
For what it is worth, when Sam failed to get the job after doing a good interview, so it was said, an old friend of mine in the north who is still high-up in the FA and would have had a say in an England appointment, told me Sam would get the job over his dead body. And as the old buffer is still with us, I assume that threat still stands.
Last Monday was a stunning day. I have been struggling to recall how many times we have reached Wembley following a home semi-final victory, and I can think of one. The League Cup semi-final second leg win over Coventry back in 1980-81 springs to mind. But nothing else. I wonder if any Hammers historian can think of any more.
The European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final back in ’65 saw us needing to survive in Zaragoza, and we did that with a 1-1 draw and a John Sissons goal to set up the final clash with TSV Munich. So Monday’s win over Cardiff really was something special to remember.
I just pray now that we have another day to remember next weekend at Wembley. The seats I have acquired for our group include numbers 64,65 and 66 - for old timers like me those were the greatest years of our lives, and I hope it‘s an omen. My son has never seen us play at Wembley, neither have his mates. I want it to be memorable for them. For all of us.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
by Robin Essex
06:52PM 11th May 2012
''A fantastic piece and totally true about our friends from South Wales. West Ham and us fans can be proud of this season, defeated only eight times in the league, a trip to Wembley and a full house at Upton Park nearly every game. A three-year run @ Wembley, '64, '65 and '66; 2004, 2005 and 2006?''
by mr moon
12:40PM 11th May 2012
''Paul - good piece but there is another way of looking at the play-offs. Every club knows the rules at the start of the season. Two go up automatically and if you miss the boat then then you get a second chance to put your failure right. I think it is wrong to assume that the third placed team is being deprived of their rightful promotion. I loved the semi finals and looking forward to a day in the sun with 35,000 of us. (I hope I will be as cheerful at the end of the day!)''
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