Lee Clark’s Blackpool might be down, but they’re not out
WHEN Lee Clark picks up the phone, he has just dropped son Bobby off at Newcastle’s academy for an Under-11s match against Sunderland.
“He’s a midfielder, like me,” says the Blackpool boss.“But he’ll probably end up a bit quicker, not that that’s too hard!”
In years to come, we may see Bobby Clark strutting his stuff at St James’, supplying future superstars just as his old man once loaded the bullets for the likes of Alan Shearer and Andy Cole.
Mind you, if the youngster had turned up at Bloomfield Road last summer, he’d probably have been offered a contract there and then.
A bitter transfer standoff between then manager Jose Riga and spendthrift owner Karl Oyston saw the Seasiders enter the final fortnight of pre-season with barely a five-a-side team.
A goalkeeper was finally procured with 13 days to spare. The subs’ bench for the season opener at Nottingham Forest was emptier than a Glitter Band reunion gig. And as for the freebies, loanees and youth-teamers on the pitch…well, it was obvious even then that the Seasiders were a lost cause.
Fast forward ten months and Clark is the man at the helm of this holed, sunken hulk. Relegated to League One with potentially the lowest points total in Championship history, a reviled owner who puts his hand in his pocket only to speed-dial his lawyers. Protests outside the ground. Protests inside the ground. Players who pass through the club faster than a laxative.
Once a side who wrote fairytales, Blackpool are now the League’s biggest joke. So why, just weeks after he was sacked by Birmingham, did Clark walk into this madhouse?
“I didn’t want a holiday,” says the 42-year-old, who replaced Riga on October 30th. “I wasn’t tired or disillusioned. I wanted back in and I genuinely believed I could save them.
“You look at the points total – six from 14 games – and you know it’ll be tough. But it’s only when you get in and see things first-hand that you realise you’ll need a miracle.
“In seven weeks, they’d had one pre-season game against Penrith and one Lancashire Senior Cup game. They didn’t even have the numbers to do physical sessions in training.
“If you talk to any footballer, they’ll all tell you that their best seasons have followed a full preseason where you get really sharp and play in every game. Not a single player at Blackpool had that base. “My first game was early Novem
ber, a time when everyone should be fresh. But I had lads going down with cramp, players fatiguing after 70 minutes, players picking up injuries. And it wasn’t one or two. It was the whole group.
“You try to fix it with signings, but that doesn’t work. Because let’s face it – if someone’s a free agent in November, they’re hardly going to have had a perfect pre-season either.
“It got to the point where we were trying to build mini pre-seasons in between games, but that came at the cost of tactical work.We were snookered off the break and that was the downfall of the club.”
Humiliations were myriad; a 6-0 hiding at home to Blackpool, a 7-2 surrender to Watford having led 2-0 at half-time. But Clark is in no doubt when the impossible dream finally died.
“The day I knew we were done was the Wigan game (a 3-1 defeat on the final day of February) at Bloomfield Road,” says the former Huddersfield boss.
“That was a fantastic opportunity. If we’d beaten them, we’d have climbed above them and off the bottom for the
first time since August. It might not sound much but psychologically that would have been a huge boost. "We'd beaten some decent sides here. I was genuinely optimistic. But we turned in a really flat perform-ance. I think the pressure of the situation just got to us and from then on I realised we were swimming against the tide" For supporters, of course, Black-pool's problems run deeper than one duffpre-season. Even in the Premier League, Holloway was forced to cast around for scraps. Training facilities are dire. The Bloomfield Road pitch is a ruin. Fans are in no doubt – their club has been left to rot whilst their owner pockets the profits.
Clark is careful not to criticise Oyston, and with good reason. Earlier this week, Blackpool fan, 67-year-old FrankKnight, was forced to pay the Seasiders' chairman £20,000 and issue a public apology for defamato-ry comments made on Facebook. If a man with £32m in assets is capable of suing a pensioner, sack-ing a manager would hardly trouble hisconscience. "Fans pay hard-earned money to come and watch a team who gives ther performances,” says Clark, who kept Birmingham in the Championship on the final day last season. “When you fall short, they become frustrated. We all know there are other frustrations off the pitch – that’s not for me to talk about.
“But I respect those frustrations totally and you will never find me criticising a supporter because, at the end of the day, I am one. I stood on the terraces at Newcastle as a lad and if I hadn’t been lucky enough to make a career in football, I’d still be there now.
“I know what it means to care for a club. I share their hurt. This is the first time I’ve ever been relegated – as a player, a coach or a manager – and it’s an horrendous feeling.
“These supporters lived the dream. Ian Holloway and his players took the fans beyond their wildest dreams, beyond the limits of what anyone ever thought was possible.
“Five years later we’re in League One. It’s an opportunity for everyone to take a step back, realise things haven’t been done the right way and make sure they are this time.
“I can’t promise we’ll bounce straight back. But I can say that, this time, we’ll have a competitive team.
“Whatever is going on behind the scenes, however they feel about our owner, if we can put a team on the pitch that does the business, those supporters can at least see something worth paying for and enjoy their Saturday afternoons again. That’s what I can do.
“But as I’ve said many times, don’t talk the talk, walk the walk. Right now, I can only talk because we can’t actually recruit players. But we can put things in place, then when that window opens I can walk the walk.”
Clark says the new-look side will have experienced players “who aren’t looking for one last payday”, coupled with youngsters who will catch the eye of bigger clubs. And even failure in his latest trick hasn’t dampened Clark’s belief in miracles.
“When I came through at Newcastle in the early 90s, the club was at death’s door,” he recalls. “Then Sir John Hall came in and five years later we were top of the Premier League. It can happen. Ollie showed here that anything is possible. And if it can happen before, it can happen again.”
HEYDAY: Clark nets for Newcastle
LOSING BATTLE: Blackpool boss Lee Clark tries to get his message across
INKING FEELING: Wigan’s Harry Maguire scores the
econd in their 3-1 win at Blackpool, while Tony McMahon ums up the easiders’ season