Blackpool, pound-for-pound, Premier League's best
In these times of tight purse strings, a lesson in how to make a little money go a long way comes from the unlikeliest of sources - soccer.
Perhaps only those who got lost on northwest England's M55 motorway or who fancied a frisky dip in the Irish Sea had good reason to visit Blackpool before Ian Holloway took the seaside resort's cut-price team to the promised land of the Premier League this season.
Holloway is a rare breed, not merely because he builds his own chicken coops, but because he is a manager with a social conscience. He acknowledges that while soccer hasn't felt the full force of economic crisis, some of its fans have. He has railed against ''politicians robbing you left, right and center.'' And he has no time for soccer's brats who earn big wages before they've earned their spurs. For these reasons, Holloway stands out among Premier League managers like a communist distributing pamphlets at a Fortune 500 meeting.
''These lads who are given far too much too early, they're monsters in my opinion,'' he says. ''They get far too much too soon and they waste it.''
Little danger of that happening at Blackpool. Ideology aside, one reason that Holloway can afford to be suspicious of the corrosive effects of wealth in soccer is that he doesn't have much of it to work with. Blackpool president Valeri Belokon, a Latvian tycoon who reportedly served as a sniper in the Soviet army in Afghanistan, isn't as free-spending as some of the other sugar daddies in the Premier League.
Blackpool says it pays its players on average just $15,800 per week, still princely in the real world but pauperish compared to the fatter wage packets that top clubs' stars rake in each day: Manchester City's new signing Yaya Toure reportedly earns $293,600 a week.
Blackpool's most expensive signing this August in preparation for the rigors of topflight soccer was forward DJ Campbell, acquired from second-tier Leicester for a bargain basement initial fee of 1 million pounds (1.15 million; $1.5 million) - hardly worth getting out of bed for at Real Madrid. Blackpool's players wash their own training uniforms and the club politely declined when Chelsea said it would charge 15 pounds (17; $23) per head to feed the visitors lasagna after they played the mega-rich London side on Sept. 19.
''We feel like a tramp who has won the lottery,'' Holloway says of his little club's rise to the big league.
But cheap doesn't have to be nasty. As its latest victim, once-mighty Liverpool, can attest, Blackpool is staking a claim as the Premier League's best team on a pound-for-pound basis and Holloway is becoming a good bet for manager of the year. Kudos to him for not playing cut-price soccer. Holloway likes to field four strikers at times.
The long season will deliver the verdict on whether his tactics are admirably or merely recklessly adventurous. When it works, as it did in the historic 2-1 win at Anfield on Sunday, Holloway's attacking philosophy is entertaining and as vibrant as the team's tangerine jerseys. Blackpool also buried Wigan 4-0 in its opening match, its first in the top flight since 1971, downed Newcastle 2-0 and held Fulham to a 2-2 draw.
But Arsenal, masters of the kind of soccer Holloway would like to play, spanked Blackpool 6-0 and Chelsea put four past goalkeeper Matt Gilks, who has made spectacular saves at vital times for Blackpool this season, in a humbling first half at Stamford Bridge.
''The rich are getting richer, the best are getting better and the rest of us are trying to hang onto their coat tails,'' Holloway said after that defeat.
Holloway has told interviewers that it was during a year out from soccer before taking the Blackpool job - when he also built his chicken coops - that he learned from watching games as a commentator that he wanted his sides to be free-flowing.
''I'm fed up of teams getting behind the ball and trying to defend things and boring 1-0 wins,'' he says.
But there will be times this season when Holloway is going to have to ask Blackpool to win ugly, defend, grind out slim victories and avoid late goals like the one conceded in a 2-1 loss at home to Blackburn on Sept. 25. Resilience will be vital toward the end of the season when the pressure for teams battling to stay in the top flight becomes ever more intense.
But so far, so good. In 18 seasons of Premier League soccer, 33 clubs have had the indignity of dropping to the second tier, some repeatedly. But just two - Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion - did so after earning at least 10 points in their first 7 matches, which is what Blackpool has now.
So history is on Holloway's side. His boundless optimism, too. And that costs nothing.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org