The Champions League final may be Saturday’s big attraction, but many see the afternoon clash between West Ham and Blackpool in the Championship play-off final as the more prestigious encounter – and with good reason. Around £40m is expected to await the victors, and its frequent tag as the richest football match in the world is no exaggeration.
On paper West Ham are clear favourites, and any psychological cobwebs lingering in the aftermath of their narrow failure to achieve automatic promotion were blown away comprehensively in what could have been a tricky semi-final tie against Cardiff. Sam Allardyce’s side are also bang in form in general, unbeaten in eight matches including a 14-point haul from a possible 18 during April. Many have criticised the Hammers’ style of play, but away from Upton Park they have battered sides left, right and centre, including Blackpool at Bloomfield Road.
In fairness, Blackpool’s form is hardly shabby either. The Tangerines are nine matches unbeaten and have a lucky charm in Stephen Dobbie, who has won promotion two seasons in a row via play-off finals at Wembley. Two seasons ago the attacking midfielder – like this season, on loan from Swansea – played a crucial role in getting Blackpool to the final, and last season he starred for his parent club, scoring one and assisting another for Scott Sinclair in Swansea’s 4-2 win over Reading.
“Honestly, it is absolutely unbelievable. To go to three straight finals at Wembley is astonishing and it’s hard to explain how lucky I am. The first thing I would say is I have played in three great teams. Blackpool in 2010 was a fantastic team with the likes of Charlie Adam and then Swansea last year had a superb side,” he told the Daily Record.
Dobbie hasn’t enjoyed much luck in the Premier League, however, and injuries hampered his progress with Swansea this season with just seven appearances for the Welshmen. In fact, somewhat bizarrely the 29-year-old Scot has been a peripheral figure throughout his time at the Liberty Stadium. He was largely out of favour under Portuguese manager Paolo Sousa, and even under Brendan Rogers was in and out of the side before his heroics last season, with Rogers dipping regularly into the loan market for strikers.
Nevertheless, Dobbie’s quick feet and precision passing were once again on show at the semi-final stage in a Tangerine shirt against Birmingham, scoring the first goal at St Andrew’s in the 3-2 aggregate win, and Blackpool are believed to be preparing a bid to bring him to Bloomfield Road permanently in the summer. Dobbie has been quick to praise his potential future manager.
“I’d say Blackpool are an even tighter group than before and it’s all down to the boss, Ian Holloway. He knows what we can and can’t do. When he gets us onto that pitch, he knows how to get us going. Going to Wembley is special and to go there three times is amazing,” he commented.
Holloway’s recent experience at Wembley will indeed give his side a boost, though Allardyce has been around for a long time and enjoyed success in the same manner for Bolton, albeit back in 2001. The Hammers will be at full strength following midfielder Jack Collison’s return from an ankle injury, and Allardyce insists his side will cope with the pressure.
“We are the favourites with all the pressure on us, so we have to handle that as we have done all season. Hopefully we can deliver and beat Blackpool for third time this season. We will treat them with the utmost respect and make sure we try to expose the weaknesses they have in their side if we can and as early as we can. We’ve got to live with the pressure to spur us on to give us our best performance. The pressure should bring the best out of us and not be one of those games where we actually freeze on the big stage,” he told BBC Sport.
Most West Ham fans will have the luxury of a short westbound trip across London Underground’s Jubilee Line, but Blackpool will be hoping to make their return journeys feel as long as possible.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Blackpool