The biggest game of the year. More than $100 million dollars at stake for the winner. Pressure, and lots of it. A tremendously long and sad off-season for the loser. The Champions League Final, you say? No, we're talking about the Championship Playoff, which ended yesterday with West Ham fans blowing bubbles all the way back to the Premier League, overcoming a fanciful and determined Blackpool side which could easily have won the game, 2-1. To Wembley for our Game Day Report:
o Blackpool's Matt Phillips will long regret flubbing his lines in the game's early going. The Tangerines should really have been up 2-nil before the Hammers had even a sniff of goal, but Phillips was less than cool under the big game pressure cooker, offering only a tame roller that could have doubled as a safe back pass, and then missing an open corner of the net with his second attempt. With the ageless wonder Kevin also on the pitch, Tangerine Coach Ian Holloway must have been upset that the opportunities ultimately fell to the wrong Phillips. o By the game's half hour mark, West Ham had worked their way industriously -- if not quite as entertainingly as their opposites -- back into the game, having survived Blackpool's initial salvos. Despite finishing 11 points below the Hammers in the league table, the Tangerines looked more comfortable on the ball, confidently knocking it back and forth, and found themselves able to put it into more dangerous positions. By contrast, West Ham looked more at home on set positions -- albeit their first corner didn't come until the half hour mark was breached. Although three more followed in quick succession, West Ham found themselves unable to score, despite Blackpool 'keeper Matt Gilks doing his best impression of the Queen's royal wave as the ball flew past him in the air. o Much maligned West Ham striker Carlton Cole did well to control the ball that led to the game's opener. Not known for his touch during his prior appearances in the Big Leagues, Cole showed every bit of composure and touch that Matt Phillips lacked in giving the Hammers a lead and growing confidence heading into the locker room. o Paul Ince's son, Thomas, showed his footballing bona fides shortly after the re-start, showing none of the fear in front of goal displayed by his teammate earlier. Tucking the ball safely by Robert Green, Ince put a serious crimp in the plans of West Ham fans that were planning a second half-long celebration.
o West Ham survived the Hammer's second half flurry well, although to be fair the Tangerines carried most of the latter 45 minute's attacking play. Steven Dobbie squandered a near certain go-ahead goal near the 70 minute mark, conspiring to let an unmarked slow roller stick between his feet when even the simplest of finishes would have sufficed. o But the bubbles didn't truly begin to fly until Ricardo Vaz Te almost knocked the back of the net off with a booming finish of a goal that was completely and utterly set up by Carlton Cole. Working hard to keep the ball out of Gilks' hands, Cole unlocked the Blackburn defense, which left Vaz Te with a virtually unmarked finish into an open net to kill off the game and win the big game of Premier League roulette.
Welcoming West Ham back to the top, and bidding a fond adieu to Blackburn for at least one more season -- we miss you, Ian, we really do! -- this is farlieonfootie for May 20.