by Alan Jacobs · April 9, 2011
Fulham-Blackpool—the encounter I watched last Saturday with real attentiveness—is, in a weird sort of way, my kind of match. Not that I don’t enjoy the big clubs with their expensive workforces: especially when they play one another there’s an entertaining Clash of the Titans feel to the enterprise.
But the inevitable major storylines are not altogether to my taste. Will this catastrophically costly player justify the billions spent on him? Will he be able to play effectively with Catastrophically Costly Player #2? If not, when will the manager be fired? How will CCP3 deal with getting only two brief substitute appearances in two months and otherwise spending games in a parka, blowing onto his hands and huddling with the other benchwarmers? What silverware will the team win or fail to win? And above all: how close is the team to bankruptcy?
It’s not that such narratives are wholly absent from Fulham-Blackpool. Managerial uncertainty is nearly universal in top-flight soccer leagues, and money troubles are constant. But the players’ stories are different, and different in interesting ways.
The second-tier teams tend to have a good many players whose careers are in transition or whose quality is debatable, and I find these matters interesting and fun to think about. How good are Clint Dempsey and Charlie Adam, after all? Does Damien Duff have anything left? Has Bobby Zamora been underrated all these years, or is he just having something of a late(ish)-career blooming, thanks to a combination of his using his own skills intelligently and the team’s knowing how and when to employ him? What would Blackpool have to do—what strategies, what tactics, would they need to adopt, what levels of energy and resourcefulness would they need to achieve—to evade relegation? Who on that team has what it takes to draw them together and bring out their best, or at least something much better than their average? (The answer to that last one is clearly Adam, whose role greatly resembles that of Joey Barton at Newcastle, but he can only do so much; and if it had been hard to imagine Blackpool staying up before the Fulham match, it’s close to impossible now.)
Yes, when Fulham play Blackpool greatness is rarely on display. The strikes aren’t quite as powerful and accurate, the passing combinations tend to lack elegance and precision, the playmakers aren’t quite as quick and imaginative as you might see at the very highest level. But those are, nevertheless, superb athletes out there, and when the moments of great skill come—as they do, if not as often as in Camp Nou or Old Trafford—they can be all the more exciting for their unexpectedness; if you look at the spectacle in just the right way. I can’t wait for Sunderland and West Brom.
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