Cool heads required in richest game

The needling has already begun. Ahead of Saturday’s winner-takes-all Championship play-off final between West Ham and Blackpool, the east London club has already managed to put the nose of its Lancashire opponent out of joint.

Photos leaked this week that appeared to depict a new West Ham away kit for next season – with Premier League badges already sewn on to the sleeves. “If you listen to them, they’re already up, aren’t they?” blustered Seasiders defender Ian Evatt to the local newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette.

“If I was them I wouldn’t be counting my chickens just yet because what I’ve learned over the past five or six seasons is these players never give up,” continued Evatt, who chided West Ham for its “disrespectful” attitude. “I’m not going to sit here and say Blackpool is going to win, but we’re going to give them a better game than they think we’re going to give them.”

West Ham have officially denied having anything to do with the pictures, but it remains perhaps the worst Hammers shirt-related faux pas since Paul Ince was snapped wearing a Manchester United top in 1989 before his move to Old Trafford was completed. Such photos must be taken with a rather larger pinch of salt – this is the age of Photoshop after all — but the incident highlights how tense things are as the big day approaches.

This is a big Saturday for British soccer: in the morning, as West Ham and Blackpool bring a packed Wembley crowd to the edge of their seats, Hibernian and Hearts will face off at Glasgow’s Hampden Park in the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final for more than a century. In the evening, Chelsea will attempt to become the first-ever London club to be crowned champion of Europe.

In terms of financial reward, there really is little comparison between the trio of matches. Since the Premier League defied a frosty global economic climate to broker a record domestic TV rights deal in February 2009, worth $2.8 billion and covering the period from 2010 to 2013, there has been no doubting the value of securing a place in England’s top twenty.

The Championship playoff final has become known as the richest match in world soccer, offering the winner a potential haul in excess of $160m.

Hence nothing is being left to chance. Hammers boss Sam Allardyce admitted that his side has been practicing penalties on a daily basis ahead of Wembley – matching the policy of cross-London neighbor Chelsea and Allardyce’s counterpart there, Roberto Di Matteo, ahead of the Champions League final.

Blackpool coach Ian Holloway and his team have been here before, promoted two years back after beating fancied Cardiff City in the final. So it’s easy to follow the tried and tested template. Blackpool is staying at the same London hotel as it did ahead of the 2010 final. It will again train at Bisham Abbey, where the England national team practices ahead of internationals.

“It’s not about superstition; it’s just about organization,” Holloway shrugged this week. “We’ve learned that your rest is as important as your work in the build-up to these matches, so hopefully we’ve got the mix right again.”

The calm before the storm has been a key part of both coaches’ philosophy before the big day, and with good reason. The Championship’s grueling 46-game regular season takes some getting over, and regenerating a degree of physical – and mental – freshness is a crucial part of getting on track for Wembley.

This is the case even for the most experienced of players. West Ham captain Kevin Nolan has already played 13 more matches in this campaign for the London club than he did in the service of Premier League Newcastle United in 2010/11.

Nolan is almost certain to emerge as a central figure in West Ham’s effort to bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt. He has been here with his boss before; he was a part of Allardyce’s Bolton side that beat Preston in the 2001 playoff final (then held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium) to secure a top-flight place. That Allardyce moved swiftly last summer to make Nolan his team’s totem after the latter’s contract negotiations with Newcastle broke down is no coincidence.

The 29-year-old captain will make every effort to recall the experience of eleven years ago, and pass on to his teammates how best to approach the challenge. “I think you learn just how to handle the occasion,” Nolan told journalists this week. “You try to make sure nerves don’t get the better of you, and to stick to your game plan. If we do, we’ll have a fantastic chance.”

Under Holloway, Blackpool has radiated real joie de vivre in its play. In the lead-up to the play-off semi-final win over Birmingham City, the coach was even powerless to stop the old cliché of “we’ll try to score one more than them” tumbling from his lips. Yet something has changed at Blackpool in the last two years.

Player-for-player, there is little comparison between Blackpool and its opponent in terms of top-level experience, but despite having stuck with the majority of players that got his side into the Premier League first time around in 2010, Holloway has begun to value the presence of a few old heads.

The signing of 30-something pair Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips – both from playoff rival Birmingham – has been crucial, with former Scotland midfielder Ferguson directing operations from the center of the park and the evergreen Phillips weighing in with important goals throughout the campaign. Much-admired youngsters such as Matt Phillips have benefitted greatly from their know-how. This will again be the case on Saturday. With the prize coming into focus, Wembley will be no place for the faint-hearted.

That experience does have one downside; the consequences of failure are plain. “If you win at Wembley, it is absolutely magnificent,” Allardyce said this week, “but if you lose it is as devastating as anything in football. It all rests on one day so it is not something I can enjoy.” Both West Ham and Blackpool are old hands at the situation. So they know it is an occasion to be negotiated as calmly as possible, rather than one to be enjoyed.