If only Joey Beauchamp hadn’t gotten homesick at the bottom of his own garden.
How we laughed when we Seasiders heard that the Oxford winger had gotten homesick on his move to London. Aren’t they both down south? It can’t be that far can it? Did West Ham really have to let him go back to his hometown (by way of Swindon – still too far away, despite also being down south).
Fast forward to Easter Saturday 1996 and we were laughing on the other side of our faces.
It had all seemed like a formality. We were home and hosed for promotion, 10 points ahead of third-placed Crewe, and led the league after a brace of victories over the hated Burnley. We were cock-a-hoop. And cocky. But, we thought, with good reason.
Oxford we associated with academics and, in the footballing sense, mismanagement by Robert Maxwell. Thank God for our own version of Maxwell, another socialist millionaire by the name of Owen Oyston who, after years of make-do-and-mend, was finally financing a legitimate promotion challenge under bright young buck Sam Allardyce and his permatanned assistant Phil Brown.
We’d even offered an unprecedented £750,000 for the Forest defender Carl Tiler – although £75 for a tiler to start sorting out our decrepit stadium might have been a better bet. Still, that was all going to be swept away and a ‘superstadium’ would rise in its place, Oyston had promised us. And those rape charges hanging over his head seemed a bit far-fetched, didn’t they?
There were more than a thousand from Blackpool on the grubby terraces of Oxford’s run-down Manor Ground, a stadium that managed to make us feel a little better about our own facilities. We didn’t play well at all and got little change out of an Oxford defence marshalled by Matt Elliott, later a pivot of Martin O’Neill’s Leicester team.
But midway through the second half, we made our breakthrough. Andy Morrison, our talismanic record signing and captain, got his broad forehead on a corner. But it wasn’t to be. For the second time that season, our regular corner routine – which saw enigmatic striker Tony Ellis, a refugee from deadly rivals Preston, obstruct the keeper while Morrison charged after the ball – failed to fool a referee. The other time, we were denied a draw at Bradford – more of whom later.
It didn’t seem to matter. A goalless draw would suit us fine against a team emerging as a promotion threat. That’s when Beauchamp intervened. In injury time, the ball dropped to him perfectly outside the area. I was right behind his shot and saw it swerve wickedly towards the top corner, as our keeper – was it Eric Nixon or Steve Banks? – dived in despair.
On the coach home, I started doing something I’ve never done before or since. Totting up how many points we needed to win and our rivals to drop. It wasn’t to be enough.
We won just one of our last five games, and home defeats to Rotherham and Walsall screwed us. Worse, it was Beauchamp and Oxford who took the last automatic spot after a stunning end to the campaign.
A last day win at York gave us hope, however, and the plan seemed to be back on track when we won 2-0 at Bradford. Home and hosed again, so we thought. Wembley here we come and … and …
What happened next would’ve been too painful to talk about until Blackpool’s recent successes. A lovely goal at Wembley 11 years later by another enigmatic striker, Keigan Parker, a fleet-footed Scot who fell out of favour after finding himself in court for throwing chips around in a sleazy sauna finally helped exorcise the demons of that warm May night at Bloomfield Road. Many of the new fans who’ve latched on to the Seasiders since our brief, glorious moment in the Premiership sun probably have little idea about a moment that is to the long-term Blackpool fan much like the Battle of Culloden was to the Scots – a shattering moment of national shame.
We played like fairies, giving rise to unfounded rumours that still persist of certain players betting against their own team.
Morrison, so imperious all season, looked anonymous – not easy for a guy who was 5ft 11in tall and almost as wide. Ellis and another big-money signing, Andy Preece, barely had a sight of goal. Bradford scored their third and Blackpool were doomed to another decade in the doldrums, not helped by having their chairman jailed a week later. A week after that, Allardyce was sacked from a prison cell. Only in Blackpool.
And none of it would have happened if it hadn’t been for Joey bloody Beauchamp’s aversion to jellied eels.