Last week we looked at the progress, or lack of, of Blackpool FC in the first half of the 1990s.
Relegation to the basement division in 1990 had been followed by promotion to the third flight two years later. A couple of serious flirtations with relegation had ensued, before a promising 1994-95 season, the first with Sam Allardyce at the helm, had led to a seventh place finish.
Coming into the 1995-96 season then, Blackpool were installed as being amongst the favourites to push for automatic promotion. Chairman, Owen Oyston, had promised available funds for Allardyce to strengthen the squad with, as well as underwriting a ground redevelopment project that would see the decrepit Bloomfield Road stadium torn down and rebuilt.
That was the plan, anyway.
To be fair to Oyston, Allardyce was given his head and made important signings in Andy Preece, signed from Crystal Palace for £200,000, and Marvin Bryan from QPR for £100,000.
A solid if unspectacular start saw Blackpool in sixth place in the table by the end of August, but it was September that saw the club truly establish their promotion credentials. Four wins that month saw the calendar click over into October with Blackpool firmly in second place with nineteen points from ten games.
The only side ahead of them at this point was Steve McMahon’s Swindon side that had suffered the indignity of two successive relegations and were banking on an immediate return to the First Division.
Form over the next three months was a trifle inconsistent as Blackpool fluctuated between second and sixth spot in the table. A 2-1 away win at Carlisle United on New Year’s Day 1996 left the Tangerines handily placed in fourth spot behind Notts County on goal difference and five points off the pace being set by Swindon and Crewe.
A steady January and a positively good February pushed Allardyce’s men back into the automatic promotion spots, and all looked rosy in the shadow of the Tower.
If the Second Division table made good reading for Blackpool fans at the end of February 1996, it was nothing compared to that of a month later. In March 1996, seven league games were played by Blackpool and six were won with only a single draw spoiling a fantastic run.
With seven games to go, Blackpool and future England manager, Sam Allardyce, sat proudly atop the Second Division with 77 points from thirty-nine games. With the top two sides being assured of automatic promotion, Swindon were in second spot five points behind but with three games in hand.
Next came Crewe, who had played one game less than Blackpool but were ten points adrift, while Oxford United were fourteen points behind in fifth place and had eight games to play.
Let’s repeat that.
With eight games to go, Blackpool were fourteen points ahead of Oxford United.
Can you see where this is going yet?
Having only lost six of thirty-nine games thus far, Blackpool somehow now contrived to lose four and draw two of the next six games. Awful defeats to Chesterfield and Rotherham came either side of a crucial 1-0 defeat at Oxford.
A creditable 1-1 draw with Swindon in Blackpool’s 44th league game meant they still held a five-point lead over Oxford at this stage who had one game in hand. Oxford themselves were on a storming run, however, and were to win six and draw two of their final eight games.
Into the penultimate weekend and Blackpool still had their fate in their own hands. That all changed with an awful 2-1 home defeat against mid-table Walsall on the day that Oxford leap-frogged them into the second automatic promotion spot.
A final-day win at York City was academic as Oxford also won and so went up alongside champions Swindon. Big Sam and his not-so-merry men were consigned to the playoffs.
It was a truly remarkable blow-up of epic proportions. Just how does a side blow a fourteen-point lead with eight games to go? At the time some fans blamed what they saw as Allardyce’s overly negative tactics for the sudden demise in form. With the finishing line in sight, Allardyce took to playing five at the back, some said, in the misguided notion that just a win or two more would be enough to nudge the team over the finishing line.
Others were of the opinion that it was the players to blame and having got themselves into such a promising position they simply bottled it.
Others believed, well, others believed and still do to this day, that there were other factors possibly at play.
By the time the regular season had come to a close, the delightful Mr Oyston was otherwise engaged. A number of serious allegations had been made against him and he had stood trial in two high profile rape cases. Acquitted on both charges, he was charged with rape once again regarding a separate incident and on May 22, 1996, found guilty and sentenced to six years imprisonment.
Blackpool FC thus limped into the playoffs that season in less than sterling form or mood. The chairman was facing jail, the manager was under fire, the players were being abused and accused of not being up to the job, and the supporters were wondering just what the hell was going on.
If Blackpool’s sudden free-fall at the end of the regular season had been both spectacular and baffling, then it was nothing compared to the events of the playoffs.
Matched with Bradford City, who had finished nine points back in sixth place, Blackpool suddenly found their form again in the first leg at Valley Parade. In a return to March form, a tremendous performance saw Blackpool come away with a 2-0 victory and surely a place at Wembley for the final beckoned.
Blackpool certainly seemed to think so. Sam Allardyce was said to have talked about getting ‘measured for his Wembley suit’ in the post-match press conference, while somebody thought it a good idea to bedeck the programme for the second-leg with instructions on how to apply for Wembley tickets.
Bradford City and their manager, a certain Chris Kamara, were not amused.
On a bleak day in Blackpool’s history, the inevitable happened. Playing once again with five at the back and content to go for a 0-0 draw, Blackpool didn’t know whether to stick or twist. In the event, they did neither and in probably the most abject display of the past forty years were beaten 3-0 after extra time.
To throw away promotion so dramatically once almost beggars belief, but to do so twice in such astounding circumstances is practically unbelievable.
Indeed, there are those who do indeed refuse to believe it to this day.
Almost a quarter of a century has passed and even now rumours refuse to abate regarding the goings-on of those few spring weeks. Although they have indeed never been more than unsubstantiated rumours, tales have been whispered of irregular betting patterns over the north-west of England following Easter, and insurance policies being taken out to guard against certain scenarios playing out.
It has been specifically alleged that certain people placed large bets on the unlikely scenario of Bradford City winning the second leg of the playoffs by a three-goal margin.
In addition, the signing and subsequent commitment levels of certain players who featured in the closing weeks of that season have also been particular bones of contention throughout the years.
Anyway, back to Owen. Languishing in his prison cell he was not amused to hear of Blackpool’s failure in the playoffs, nor was he particularly enamoured by Allardyce’s request for both a new contract and increased transfer funds.
Unsurprisingly feeling rather cheesed-off with life, Oyston promptly sacked Big Sam and Gary Megson was installed in his stead for the 1996-97 season.
The new season couldn’t come quick enough after what was perhaps the most disappointing and strange season in the club’s history. For the record, the FA Cup third round was reached, while Blackpool crashed out of the League Cup 5-3 on aggregate to Bradford City, of all teams.
Tony Ellis and Andy Preece were joint top goal scorers with fourteen goals apiece.
In the third and final instalment of this series we will look at the remaining seasons in the decade as the club tried to shake off the horrors of the season that was 1995-96.