Saturday 27 May 2017

Holloway set for dreaded drop

Frank Malley

Ian Holloway is a contender for manager of the season.

There is no doubt about it. The Blackpool manager's side have entertained wherever they have played. They have scored 53 league goals, as many as Tottenham who lie in fifth place.

They have beaten Newcastle and Tottenham, won home and away against Liverpool and were leading Manchester United 2-0 before going down 3-2 after being denied an obvious penalty.

They have brought thrills and unpredictability to the Premier League and proved that the little boys, with nous and determination, can mix it with the billionaires.

Yet while football's most used phrase of the past 10 months has been 'Holloway has worked miracles', his team face being dumped back into the Championship on a weekend which promises to be the most compelling of a non-vintage season.

The title race is done. Manchester United have lifted their 19th league crown but down at the bottom it is as frantic and as tense as sport gets.

Any two of five clubs - Blackburn, Wolves, Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan - could still go down along with already-relegated West Ham.

One point separates the five, Blackburn and Wolves on 40 with the rest on 39. Intriguingly, goal difference is just as tight, throwing up the possibility that the survivors could yet be the teams who lose least heavily.

By another twist Wolves and Blackburn play each other at Molineux in a match in which neither team can afford to play for a draw because results elsewhere could send them both down.

With relegation costing around £35million a year in television revenue alone the stakes could not be higher.

It is likely to come down to those most precious commodities in football, confidence and momentum.

Wolves have plenty of both, having beaten West Brom and Sunderland 3-1 in their last two matches. They also have a manager of pleasing honesty and no-nonsense character in Mick McCarthy who is used to dealing with the pressures of relegation.

Wigan also can ride on the crest of their 3-2 victory against West Ham last Sunday when they fought back from two goals down to keep their survival hopes alive.

They play Stoke at the Britannia stadium, not the venue they might have chosen with a victory quite possibly required to stay up, but the emotion of Stoke's FA Cup final defeat last Saturday and their midweek mauling, again by Manchester City, could well have left Tony Pulis' side drained and dispirited.

A point could do for Wigan, who have won friends during their stay in the Premier League if only because of their commitment to playing attractive football.

A point could do because it is difficult to see Birmingham taking anything from Tottenham at White Hart Lane, especially as Spurs need a win to stay in fifth ahead of Liverpool.

Birmingham have lost four of their last five league matches, including a 2-0 defeat by Fulham at home last weekend. They have the look of a club in free-fall, one which has lost its focus at the worst possible time. One which appears to have 'clocked off' after winning the Carling Cup against Arsenal.

The news that several Birmingham players were out drinking until the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, which manager Alex McLeish described as an "error of judgement", does nothing to suggest they are in the right frame of mind to scrap for their Premier League lives.

The same could never be said for Blackpool and Holloway who will go to Old Trafford and play the only way they can, with fire and daring, against Manchester United.

Unfortunately, whatever side United boss Sir Alex Ferguson puts out with next weekend's Champions League final in mind, the quality resides with the champions.

It is why the smart money says Blackpool and Birmingham will take nothing but the drop from the season's last afternoon while Wigan could just wrest the point which would then guarantee survival.

It would be cruel on Holloway, but football has never been long on compassion.

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