Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to avoid "doing a Hull"

With their second win in three road matches, the Tangerine Army have vaulted into fourth on the EPL table with seven points from their opening four games. Manager Ian “Olly” Holloway seems to have inspired his men with that crucial sense of self-belief and Blackpool are defying the predictions of practically everyone who tipped them pre-season for relegation.

Where did such a result come from? Certainly not from the stats, where Blackpool conceded 22 Newcastle shots while generating only eight themselves; they allowed Toon 57% possession and were caught offside on ten separate occasions. After being selected as relegation certainties in the Championship last year, Olly's men surprised everyone playing an attacking, fluid brand of football and upstaged Cardiff City last year in the playoffs to clinch promotion to the Premier League. It now appears they have what it takes to make a fight of staying up.

Always known as a character and a genuine bloke, there's no secret that Holloway loves his current charges – perhaps to his own detriment. As an example, he signed striker DJ Campbell during the transfer window even though his premier league pedigree is questionable at best. Part of his modus operandi has been to show faith in the squad which earned that magnificent promotion last year. Upon the last whistle in the Playoff Final last year he rambled “I just wanted to give some of my boys a pay raise for all they've given me” indicating the automatic raise clause in player's contracts generated by promotion.

So it goes that Ian Holloway, after ten years in management, has earned his stripes as a Premier League man. After leaving Plymouth Argyle for Leicester City and sitting at home for a year following his subsequent dismissal, Olly reflected about that chastening experience in the following terms: “I had a year out of football and had to think about what went wrong in my life. I was given some decent values from my mum and dad in our council house and one of them was honesty and trust and loyalty, and I forgot to do all that at Plymouth. I left them and I made the biggest mistake of my life. But I ended up here and it was the best thing I have ever done”. All this sounds like a man who'd learnt the lessons that life tried to teach – lessons that he's now said include eschewing boring football for an attacking mindset and a refresher course in loyalty.

All this bodes well for Blackpool. As a club there's no question they were unprepared for the jump in both quality and professionalism that promotion to the Premier League involved – chairman Karl Oyston's resignation statement three weeks ago said as much – but as a group they are well grounded and may just have the humility required to stay up. Two years ago when Hull City reached the top of the table after only five weeks in the Premier League, the overreaction was both remarkably quick and ridiculously over the top; it's little surprise the consequences for Hull were appalling. Suddenly Phil Brown was the toast of the town and the belief evident in the play of his Hull Tigers meant he became the “automatic choice” for next England manager. Unfortunately, Hull City believed the hype, if only for a fortnight and after leading his charges to an away win at Arsenal, it seemed Brown began to believe he could walk on water. His ego grew so large that he thought it appropriate to finish the season serenading the Hull faithful even though they had survived through none of their own achievements but the utter ineptness of the Newcastle United management.

That he's humble and gracious really suits Olly. In his post-match interview on Saturday, he mentioned his surprise at his boys trumping a club who finished 32 points ahead of them last year in the Championship; what was touching also was telling the world that Saturday's victory was his “proudest moment”, including even the Wembley Playoff victory last year. It seems that the higher-placed the manager, the more excuses they are able to spout to justify their teams performance. This is obviously a factor of expectation: no-one expects Blackpool to win much this year, so Holloway can afford some humility when they're winning. No one would deny that he faces a completely different line of questioning to Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson.

The gulf in quality between England's top two divisions is self-evident. In the last ten years, 15 clubs have been relegated either after their first or second season in the top flight and only once during that time have all three promoted teams survived. Olly knows he's facing an uphill struggle and has chosen to inspire confidence in his charges and a knit together tightly his playing group while maintaining his down-to-earth nature. When Hull thrived and faltered, it didn't take long for Phil Brown's ego to run away from him beyond all control. The more successful promoted managers of the past five years have been Tony Pulis, Steve Coppell and Alex McLeish – those who've sought expediency rather than a footballing philosophy and, McLeish excepted, are “back-room boys” and not front-men. Team which insist on playing beautiful football on promotion often find themselves demoted even before the season is half over.

Perhaps the pass-the-ball-into-the-back-of-the-net philosophy doesn't work, but what may be successful is the “Us against The World” mentality, where a small club is taught and guided to trust and depends on each individual teammate to pull their weight. Some days one player will carry the team like goalkeeper Matthew Gilks did on Saturday, on other days no-one specifically steps up and a team performance will win or lose the day. The accountability of mateship is much stronger and plays a much greater role any players performances than accountability to a contract or to money. In his book Showtime, NBA supercoach Pat Riley diagnosed “The disease of more”. He describes it taking place when a team has achieved a certain measure of success and suddenly the players lose focus on team goals and begin to focus on “getting theirs” within the framework of team achievement – in basketball this usually represents more shots or more minutes. In signing players hungry to play his type of football rather than those who are trying to prove they are of Premier League quality, Olly has any short-circuited any potential cases of “the disease of more”.

Every single player, from Gilks to Adam started playing the game because they love it, rather than as an opportunity to make money. Perhaps this is Mad Olly's best piece of scheming – bring back the love of playing with each other, bring back the accountability and bring back the sheer enjoyment of playing footy. He, like other grounded managers realise that players always play best when they enjoy themselves.

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