League left in a tangle by Blackpool's second string
The Premier League find themselves between a rock and a hard place after the excellence of Ian Holloway's reserves at Aston Villa in midweek.
The rock has Blackpool running right through it -- who would have thought the Seasiders could muster two whole teams capable of surprising supposedly superior opponents? -- and the hard place is having to write a letter of apology to Mick McCarthy to accept that Wolves were fully entitled to make 10 changes at Manchester United last year.
Whatever Holloway claims, the two situations are comparable. Most people believe Blackpool's fighting performance, going down to an 89th-minute winner after twice coming back to equalise, means their manager has no case to answer over his extreme selection. Holloway himself is so sure of his ground he has been calling people muppets for questioning his policy and threatening to resign if the league hits him with a punishment similar to Wolves' suspended £25,000 fine. By the time the Blackpool manager was playing to the gallery by asking who the hell were the Premier League to tell him how to do his job, it was permissible to hope someone would fine him just to call his bluff, but let that pass for now.
Just because Holloway is impish and amusing and McCarthy laboured and lugubrious does not mean one should get away with what the other could not.
Neither does the argument that Holloway is entitled to select any combination of a first-team squad of 25 amount to much more than a red herring. While the newly-defined squad size is an innovation this season it does not follow that every club in the league now has two full sides. Most clubs outside the Champions League bracket have a recognisable first team and a number of progressively weaker alternatives, and if you swap one wholesale for the other then quality can be expected to suffer.
That was what happened to Wolves at United last December. McCarthy did not put out a side of unrecognisable stiffs and no-hopers, there were plenty of internationals on show as well as players who featured in the first team before and since, but the quality gap was too great. That, and the manager's none-too-subtle admission that he felt he had a more winnable game coming up at the weekend, was what did for them. That Wolves went on to beat Burnley and to stay up are of interest only to their supporters. The rest of the 73,709 at Old Trafford felt cheated. They had paid to see a contest, not a capitulation, and while it may be true that the Wolves first team might not have done any better than go down by three goals, it is beside the point. The Premier League was obliged to take action because the product it is selling, both around the world and to spectators stumping up Old Trafford prices, is tarnished by even a suspicion of managers picking their matches and teams not turning up.
Granted, Blackpool did not do that. They not only turned up but gave Villa a fright, and no one afterwards was complaining about lack of value for money. Fair enough, but don't forget Wolves had to play United.
Blackpool's reserves found the going relatively easy against a side looking for a second league win under Gerard Houllier. Maybe even Port Vale could make 10 changes and give the present Villa a game, who knows? It is difficult for the league to work out whether a manager making 10 changes is spreading the load around his squad or merely surrendering. While one instinctively feels Blackpool's performance ought to win the argument for Holloway, one also realises that gaining the Premier League's blessing would encourage other managers to rest their best players for testing away games.
Just as a manager can have no real confidence that an utterly rearranged side will perform well, neither can the league, nor, most importantly, supporters of the opposing team who have bought tickets in advance.
All those jumping up to defend Holloway's right to select who he likes and moaning about Premier League interference seem to forget that what is really at issue is the integrity of the competition and a fair deal for supporters handing over hard-earned cash. Roberto Martinez, for example, says: "I don't understand where the fuss is. The manager selects the team and everything else is cheap talk." There speaks a man who did not pay for a seat at United v Wolves last year, or treat his kids that night to a rare Old Trafford occasion when tickets were available.
Talk is about the only thing in football that is cheap. The trouble with placing Holloway in the right is that it plays McCarthy onside too, and anyone else who might care to follow his unedifying example. If it really is a 25-man game now, apologising to Wolves could be the least of the league's worries.