Since their promotion to the Premier League last summer, Blackpool have received an abundance of praise for their refreshingly scruff-of-the-neck attitude. However, Ian Holloway’s decision to field an ‘under-strength’ side against Aston Villa in November resulted in a £25,000 fine. The verdict has been widely derided and criticised – but let me explain why I find it difficult to sympathise too much with the Seasiders.
Let me first dispel a myth. The Premier League were not penalising the club for making 10 changes from the squad that faced Everton four days before. The punishment related specifically to the strength of the line-up announced at Villa Park – which the league felt didn’t fulfil rule E.20: “In every league match each participating club shall field a full strength team.”
The nature of a ‘full strength team’ is very, very tenuous. Who are the Premier League to make that judgement? Well, in truth, they didn’t have to. Ian Holloway’s starting XI had a miserly combined total of 11 league starts in the three months before visiting Villa Park – ample evidence that Ollie held little faith in those players.
I admit, Blackpool’s second-string acquitted themselves brilliantly in spite of a 3-2 loss. The BBC’s correspondent confessed he had to ‘fiddle with his notes’ upon seeing the squad, and Villa’s players seemed equally perplexed. The element of surprise caught Villa cold, who were pegged back twice before snatching a fortuitous stoppage-time winner, and the peripheral players treated it as a rare chance to impress.
However, the squad was selected with one eye on the upcoming home tie against relegation-candidates West Ham. Holloway hoped to nail the Hammers and didn’t expect to steal anything from the Villans. In the cups, the loser pays the price by exiting the competition – but in the league, every result affects every team.
Rule B.13 states, “Each club shall behave towards each other club and the League with the utmost good faith.” There was an absence of dignity in the Tangerines’ actions, and the £25,000 levy could be a small price if Blackpool retain their top-flight status. It was also an insult to those Seasiders that had made the 250-mile round-trip to the Midlands, only to see their stars bench-bound.
Holloway’s charismatic persona has the press eating from his hand. Two years ago, Martin O’Neill effectively fielded a reserve side against CSKA Moscow, prioritising a fourth-place finish. The Villa fans – 13 years without silverware – were incredulous. Negativity swathed the club and they slumped to sixth. Holloway, conversely, has engineered a victim-complex which has rallied his side and ostentatiously offered to resign, which was emphatically rebuffed.
Holloway’s Blackpool are an entertaining outfit – last season’s 3-3 draw at the Keepmoat is living proof – but this was an unsightly blip that undermined the spirit of the competition.
This article was submitted for publication in Doncaster Rovers’ matchday programme for the npower Football League Championship match against Portsmouth on Feb 12th 2011.