Monday 20 November 2017

'Penguin' Holloway's redemption anything but black and white

Rory Smith

It is one of the more bizarre realities of modern football that today's most lucrative prize awaits not Bayern Munich or Inter Milan, competing in Madrid for the European Cup, but Blackpool or Cardiff City, 90 minutes away from taking their place on one of the 20 velvet thrones at English football's top table.

Or rather, 90 minutes plus extra-time and penalties, according to Gypsy Petulengro (his real name is Langton) on Blackpool's Golden Mile.

The Golden Mile, that stretch of litter-strewn, kiss-me-quick promenade between the North Pier and the South Pier, will for once fit its name if Ian Holloway and his players end up travelling along it on an open bus tomorrow.

Sitting in front of journalists, contemplating the biggest game of his career, a fixture worth £90m to the club he manages, Holloway is surely the only man in English and possibly world football who could say: "Some of us dressed up as women. Not me. I was a penguin."

He takes his Blackpool side to Wembley hoping to secure their return to the top flight of English football for the first time since 1971. The Premier League is a world apart from the old First Division. If Blackpool go up, they may not know what has hit them.

Dozens of cosseted multi-millionaires will not know what to make of the bijou Bloomfield Road, with its temporary stand and patchwork pitch, which houses a team whose players still wash their own kit and clean their own boots.

The polished sophisticates, the Roberto Mancinis and Carlo Ancelottis, who will lead their teams there, may not know what to make of Holloway, the stream-of-consciousness beat-philosopher, part Alan Partridge, part Bristolian Confucius.

Holloway is best described as a cult figure, the sort of character associated more readily with the spit-and-sawdust of the lower echelons than the sanitised world of the Premier League.

He is the man who has all but trademarked the bizarre analogy, comparing his team to ineffective burglars after an away defeat -- "I'm not condoning it" -- or, most famously, a hard-fought win to meeting women in a nightclub.

He has endured fractious, febrile relationships with his former clubs, Plymouth, Leicester and, most notably, Queens Park Rangers, whose then chairman Gianni Paladini, speaks of the duo's "crazy" rows. Asked in court in 2006 if he had ever threatened to kill Holloway, the Italian said: "In a funny way, yes I did, but it did not mean anything."

Holloway, in a sense, courts the chaos. It may be a stretch to say that he constructed his Olly persona, but he plays up to it. Or did, at least.

Perhaps this afternoon, if the Blackpool team he took from relegation certainties to promotion hopefuls on one of the Championship's most restrictive budgets reach the promised land, it will be time for a re-assessment.

Holloway has made a conscious effort to escape his caricature in his time at Blackpool, although, as witnessed by his penguin comment on his squad's fund-raising efforts, sometimes he cannot help himself.

There has been a sea change, though, driven by the year he spent out of the game after his departure from Leicester.

"I looked at what I was doing and there was fear behind every move I made," he said. "That year I was paid to watch a lot of other teams at a higher level and I could see the overall picture.

"There were people doing things I did not do and I thought I'd rather be like that. I watched Spain play England and it was embarrassing. I watched Roberto Martinez's Swansea. He's Spanish. His entire culture is different. I thought that was how I wanted to do it."

It is an approach which has brought Blackpool to the cusp of the Premier League and the club's manager, for so long the class clown, to the brink of redemption and respect.

Blackpool v Cardiff, live, Sky Sports 1, 3.0

Irish Independent

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