STILL FIGHT­ING

Lee Clark’s Black­pool might be down, but they’re not out

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

Stand­off

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

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.

Frus­tra­tion

“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

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

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

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