‘…With big Maloney boots on their hassling me,
Seaside’s lonely banter- a frightening scene
The sheer thrill of violence on a warm August night
Much rather run than get stuck with this fight,
Hey! When the sun goes down! I’m in a seaside town!
With a bunch of single tickets the trains pulling out,
Goodbye pier, tower and autumn lights,
The pungent smell of adrenalin,
Seaside mafia met in town tonight…’
(the Membranes ‘Tatty Seaside Town..’ 1988)
It’s a glorious sight.
Everywhere I look I see tangerine wizards, elves, tango men; Tangerine wigs and tangerine shirts, it’s an endless sea of tangerine going through the emotional ups and downs of a crazy afternoon in the sun as Blackpool are 3-2 up in the play off final against Cardiff City. Emotions are running high and there is an air of surrealism about this very Blackpool moment.
It’s about 40 degrees, stupid hot on one of those rare British days when the heat goes off.
I’ve never seen so many Blackpool fans in one place at one time. There’s four minutes of injury time left and the tension is unbearable. Everyone is looking at their watches and praying for the unbelievable.
It’s been an amazing game. Only the most confident, crazed, the blind faithful or genius manager Sir Ian Holloway had believed we could get anything out of this. Favourites to go down and the smallest club in the division Blackpool just shouldn’t be here. Instead they are winning. they won’t give up and they play expansive attacking football- is this for real!
The club comes to Wembley armed with a proud history and little else. The ghosts of Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen flicker like the great black and white footage of the legendary 1953 cup final. There was the 30 odd years at the top flight from the thirties to the sixties- the glory days back in the days of black and white TV. There was a time when Blackpool was the team to watch- the best players, the flashest style.
Most of my adult life, though, has seen the club in the doldrums. By the time I started support the seasiders in 1971 we were on the last pinnacle- promotion to division one and winning the Anglo Italian cup. In the seventies we used to go to every match- our knuckles frozen white at Bloomfield Road, often outnumbered by the away fans who came in their thousands for the weekend out up the Pool.
In those days we were regular promotion contenders, often missing out by the closest of calls, a thousand of a goal on goal difference or a bad run at the end of the season. We had Mickey Walsh’s famous goal of the season against Sunderland in 1975- I was there and it was my first TV appearance running onto the pitch at the end of the match.
We had a good solid team and some great personality managers like Bob Stokoe and Alan Brown. Brown was sacked in the late seventies by the chairman for calling him a back stabbing rat and the club, who had been second at Christmas, managed to get relegated by a freak set of results at the end of the season- the next thirty odd years would be about decline and desperation.
Growing up in Blackpool was the same. It had been the golden town of the first half the century- a fantasy escape for millions of workers and the second showbiz town after London in the UK.
Frank Sinatra sang there several times, George Formby- the biggest star in the UK was based there and The Beatles played Blackpool 14 times. Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar on stage in Blackpool, Jethro Tull, Roy Harper and an endless list of great showbiz and pop figures came from the town until we arrived on the scene.
The town, like the football club, in the mid seventies was beginning its long decline, the package resorts stuffed Blackpool and the decay was slowly and almost unnoticeably taking hold. There was a brief revival in music with punk and post punk scene in the town, Section 25 were making waves and we followed on with the Membranes and there were punk legends the Fits and One Way System. A brief flurry of activity before the inevitable decay.
I grew up in seaside suburbia – dawn chorus, local shops, shuffling grannies, cafes with milky tea and too many sugars, strange gift shops with pointless plastic souvenirs, stray holiday makers, rusting trams, a beach full of sewage and lots of rain and a small resilient community of chemically fixated youth.
As the never ending salty wind whistled down the Lane, and the shops shut early- punk rock and John Peel were our lifelines- giving us a glimpse into another exotic world of like minded teenagers with high octane creative impulses dotted around the rest of small town England.
This was our backdrop- Blackpool in the early eighties was a town dedicated to everyone else apart from those who lived there who wanted to do something different. Despite all this we loved the town and its chintzy lights and amazing garish ballrooms. We understood the exotic beauty and the faded grandeur. It was our backdrop and part of our DNA- didn’t every town have a pleasure beach?
This faded grandeur was fading fast and the football club was following suit to disrepair and slumped to near bottom of the 4th division, the famous tangerines of Mathews final 1953 were sliding out of the league.
Many of us moved out of the town. I went to Manchester but I never gave up on Blackpool, people would often say your from Manchester but I always corrected them, I loved coming from the tatty seaside town and even if it was imposable to conduct this kind of life from their my veins would still bleed tangerine.
There were many of us ex pats there on Saturday afternoon at Wembley willing the Pool on. We had been brought up to be losers, the civil service for the best of us, the town offered us nothing but ghosts of a recent past. Somehow we were still in love with its very English weirdness and we loved the stark beauty of the Victoriana, the quaint eccentricity of the tower (they should have built it taller than the Eiffel tower though) I loved the confusion in peoples faces when I told them were I was from- ‘no one is from Blackpool’ they would say. People would run the town down all the time, the media would endlessly review it sneering at the place whist bigging up Brighton which somehow won city status whilst Blackpool was laughed at for daring to get city status at the same time, despite being a bigger place and a far more poplar resort. Blackpool was in danger of becoming a ghost town there was the casino farce, the endless recessions, the crumbling town centre…and then…
And then oddly the football team started to stir, there was the irregular and unlikely promotions- the grafting character managers came back- Billy Ayre became a Blackpool legend when with virtually nothing in the bank he started to turn the corner, Steve McMahon was solid and steady, Simon Grayson pointed us in the right direction before offing to Leeds a year ago. It looked like we had peaked and the Oystens made them inspired choice of bringing in Ian Holloway- the extrovert, hilarious man of the people with a madcap sense of humour a fistful of great quotes and an inspirational manner and fierce football brain. In one year he had turned the relegation favourites into a club that was here and now four minutes from the Premiership.
Holloway was the type of extrovert, colourful manager that suited the club and the town. This was the real Blackpool. The Blackpool of showmen and big ideas, the Blackpool whose motto was progress, the Blackpool of the world’s first electric street light and tramway, the Blackpool that invented itself in the 19th century as Europe’s number one resort, the Blackpool of free flowing, attacking football and the Blackpool of Matthews and Mortensen and seven English internationals in one match of the fifties. This was the Blackpool of the years before we had been born- the one that we lived in the shadow of.
Holloway embodied that spirit and infused the club with it. The team were suddenly non-stop attacking marauders who never gave up- this was the true spirit of the town…
The town was already looking better. Money had been spent on the prom- it now winds its way along like an art deco, concrete snake, there was loads of grass on the prom breaking up the concrete, there was talk of the council buying the Winter Gardens. Lots of great ideas and passion- a great comeback from the town that is still embedded deep in the northern psyche.
And here we were at Wembley. Minutes to go the premiership just there…as the minutes ticked away the sweat, the adrenalin and nerves were shredded till that glorious final whistle…
No-one really believed it- something had to go wrong. We had spent a long time growing up as losers and suddenly we were winners. The tangerine army went berserk. The town turned a corner and Blackpool were in the premiership.
The elation is hard to describe. Grown men were in tears.
Suddenly Blackpool was a town of winners.