Tomorrow, the richest game in world football takes place as Blackpool and West Ham United prepare to battle it out for an instant return back to the biggest league on the planet.
A packed Wembley stadium will host the 2012 Championship play-off final, and while the Hammers start off as favourites to get back into the Premier League, the Seasiders‘ attacking intent means there is every chance of a tangerine party.
Both teams had rather different passages to the final; West Ham eased past Cardiff 5-0 on aggregate, while Blackpool had to resist a stirring Birmingham fightback to edge the Blues 3-2 over two hard-fought legs and earn a crack at reaching the big time again.
Now they are just 90 minutes away, and going into the match there is certainly a contrast between the levels of pressure that each manager will face.
Hammers boss Sam Allardyce was brought to Upton Park following their hugely disappointing relegation last May with the aim very much in securing an automatic return to the top-flight.
The former Bolton, Newcastle and Blackburn manager was given the financial backing by owners David Sullivan and David Gold, with players such as Kevin Nolan, Matt Taylor and Abdoulaye Faye brought in as well as the large nucleus of their squad being retained.
West Ham looked well on course for securing automatic promotion, but a string of draws and continual struggles at Upton Park meant that it was they and not Southampton that became the victims of Reading’s stunning march to the title.
Allardyce also came in for plenty of criticism from the supporters over his team’s style of play, with his more direct approach frustrating fans that take pride in watching the Hammers produce fluent, attacking football that’s easy on the eye.
But as the 57 year-old has pointed out, his primary aim is getting the results required to get the club back amongst the country’s elite, and despite the heartache on missing out on the top two, their dismantling of Cardiff in the semis demonstrated that they have recovered mentally from that disappointment and will take some stopping tomorrow.
They have a solid defensive nucleus led by England goalkeeper Robert Green and the maturing James Tomkins, while Mark Noble has helped pull the strings in the middle.
Nolan is always capable of providing a goal or two, while Carlton Cole can provide a real handful for any defence. However, their gem in the pack is Ricardo Vaz Te, whose pace and eye for goal has made him one of the top players in the Championship this season.
After guiding the Tangerines to the promised land in his first campaign in charge (also via the play-offs), Holloway made sure that his squad maintained their fearless attacking approach at the highest level, only for their defensive deficiencies being their downfall and relegation being confirmed on the final day – but not before winning many plaudits in the process.
Following the drop, key players such as DJ Campbell, David Vaughan and Charlie Adam departed from Bloomfield Road and Holloway was given the difficult task of rebuilding in key areas for another promotion push.
Thankfully Holloway was shrewd in his dealings; he invested in a blend of youth and experience, attracting Kevin Phillips and Barry Ferguson to help aid the growing maturity of up-and-coming stars Matty Phillips and Thomas Ince.
Blackpool have once again been full of goals, with only Southampton scoring more goals in the division than the Seasiders. But they also conceded considerably more goals than anyone else in the top six, and this has already been exposed by West Ham on two occasions this year.
After a 4-0 thumping in East London back in October, Blackpool suffered again at home to the Hammers in February. Despite West Ham playing much of the game with 10 men, Allardyce’s men ran out 4-1 winners.
West Ham found a way of soaking up the Blackpool pressure and hurting them on the counter-attack, and Holloway’s side will need to find a way of preventing a repeat of this outcome.
But the greater pressure is certainly on United; the club have already sold over 40,000 tickets for Wembley, and with Blackpool selling around 26,000 seats for the showpiece event, the West Ham players will be aware of the expectations.
It will be a wonderful contrast of style, culture and expectation, and it’s sure to be a stellar final as the two teams stand just one win away from a £50 million bonanza and getting back amongst the big boys.
Prediction: Blackpool have adapted a character under Holloway that’s allowed them to consistently defy the odds and they will relish this latest challenge, but if West Ham are at the top of their game then they will have too much for the Tangerines. West Ham to win 3-1.
So what do you think? Who will prevail in tomorrow’s final and return to the Premier League at the first time of asking? Leave a comment and let us know your views.