Always The Bridesmaid: Blackpool 2-1 Imps

We were beaten by the better team on the day.

Is that enough? It does sum it up I think and I wish that I could stop there. We didn’t play badly, but a better team played well and won the game. I said on the way home we could go back today, play the game again and we might win it, whereas the day we played Bournemouth back in 2003, we could have played for the next six weeks and lost every game. It was always going to balance on the edge of a knife and so it came to pass.

If anything, the early goal was a bad thing, certainly from a fan’s point of view. The ball hit the net, we all went mental and for a short moment, all you could hear were City fans. I sang (all game, by the way, in case someone out there is keeping score), I cheered and I hugged my Dad. I looked up at the scoreboard and realised there was still 89 minutes to go. That in itself was a bit deflating, knowing that although we had the advantage, there was still a whole game to go. From only leading for a single minute across two matches in the regular season, we’d have to lead for a full game.

This was a game of small margins. Had that curling effort later in the half not struck the crossbar, we might be a Championship side now. I seem to think we hit the post in the first period too, again, small margins. Sadly, a slip by Grant saw them break and net, levelling the tie, and I felt there would only be one winner after that. They controlled possession better, they stopped us playing our game more effectively and when they got a shot away, it was usually on target. In 90 minutes, we didn’t make Chris Maxwell make a save and that’s why we’re going to Cambridge and Cheltenham next season, not Fulham and West Brom.

There are no excuses either. Sure, the referee seemed below par from a red and white perspective, and I felt there was a good shout for a penalty in the second half, but did his decisions change the game as John Busby’s did at the start of the month? Nope. I wouldn’t want Mr Harrington in charge if we made this stage again in the future, he did seem to have a Blackpool bias, but so did Wembley. Before their team got read out they had a rousing speech about play-off games past, whereas Alan Long got to read out the teams and thank us for our support. Accidental? Maybe, but everything felt weighted towards Blackpool.

For a long while, we have been the story wherever we go, but these last few weeks have proven us not to be a good enough tale for anyone. Peterborough were a good story after they were ‘cheated’ out of promotion (in their eyes) last season. Sunderland were a bigger story, certainly for Sky, in the EFL Trophy and the play-offs and post-Oyston Blackpool seemed to be the darlings of the media yesterday. Each time, we have rolled up simply to play the opposition, the Big Ger Cafferty to their Rebus, the Moriarty to their Sherlock, the Baron Greenback to their Dangermouse. I’m not getting a complex, by the way, it’s just the way it is and of all the clubs in the EFL, Blackpool are one I begrudge it to the least because their fans went through hell. Remember, they didn’t see a home game for ages, not because of Covid, but because a convicted rapist and poisonous ownership were tearing their club apart and they stayed away in protest. We had redemption in 2017, our current situation is evolution and progression, but for Blackpool, they’re just getting back to where they feel they probably belong. Fair play to them too, as painful as it was to watch.

The second half was good and bad from our point of view. They scored a carbon-copy goal which sealed the tie, and after that I felt we were the better side, but we lacked a cutting edge. Tom Hopper has been superb these last few weeks, but he was lost in the game yesterday and sadly his replacement, Callum Morton, looked less likely to affect the game than 3,000 people singing. You can make all the noise you like, it doesn’t put the ball in the net and since his return from injury, neither does Morton. He tried, he worked hard, but his attributes and our style are not aligned and it really showed. When we made our first change, I was a bit gutted it wasn’t Harry Anderson coming on. Harry on the right, Johnson in the middle and Tom Hopper kept up top for ten might have given us more potency, but Michael is paid to make these decisions, not I, and his choices have got us to within 90 minutes of the Championship. However much it stings, I’ll take that.

We huffed, we puffed, but we got nowhere. I don’t think any player was particularly bad, but there wasn’t anyone who was great either. It was the biggest game of the season, we had our full first team to pick from (give or take the odd body) and we came up short. That’s the fact of the matter, we lost because we didn’t put the performance in on the day, we were managed by a very good side and the right team won the game. I find that harder to take than anything. There is no blame. It wasn’t the supporter’s fault, it wasn’t the referee’s fault, no one player was to blame and the team selection wasn’t wrong. We lost, and that’s the bottom line. I hate losing fair and square because there is no solace, no shelter and no protection from the searing disappointment and cutting pain.

That’s it. In terms of this season, that’s all she wrote. I tipped Blackpool, Hull and Peterborough to go up this season and I’ve never been as gutted to get it right. All three celebrated their promotion against us, three times our players have been forced to watch on as someone else has their big day. It is the third time we have been forced to hear a final whistle and the roar of delight, be it from the bench, players or fans, as someone else has their moment. Alas, not us, but we’ve had a few ourselves over the last five years and I guess we have to grit our teeth, look ahead and be happy at the progress and achievements of the season.

I’ll do more on the future later in the week, as well as our Player of the Year article tomorrow, but for now, I’m going to focus on anything but football. I’m working today (the perils of following the Philippines calendar and not the UK one), so that will take my mind off it. If anything, I only have one thought in my head today anyway, or at least one that overrides all others: I came home alive yesterday, and I saw the final moments of a poor soul who did not. With that in mind, does it really matter which division we’re in tonight? We have a future, we have plenty to look forward to and be thankful for and that is the solace, protection and shelter that I need from the sting of a play-off final defeat.

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