Blackpool book Wembley return
Blackpool sealed a return to Wembley stadium for a second appearance in the Championship Playoff Final in three years as they held off a spirited late fightback from Birmingham to win 3-2 on aggregate.
Stephen Dobbie gave Blackpool the lead on the night at a soaked St Andrews, and Matt Phillips' goal just after half time looked to have secured Blackpool's final spot, but goals from Nikola Zigic and Curtis Davies made sure of a nervy last quarter of an hour, but the Seasiders held on to book a date with West Ham United at the home of English football on May 19th.
The home side welcomed Zigic back into the side after he missed out at Bloomfield Road, while Andros Townsend and Jonathon Spector both made the first eleven, with Nathan Redmond, Guirane N'Daw and Wade Elliot all missing out. Blackpool were unchanged, meaning Kevin Phillips had to settle for a place on the bench on his return to his old hunting ground.
It was the visitors who started the brighter, with Tom Ince drawing two smart saves from Colin Doyle, the second coming in the midst of a penalty shout, as Ince seemed to have been hauled back by David Murphy, only for referee Chris Foy to point for a corner.
The hosts settled, and Chris Burke, who lost out at Wembley with Cardiff to Blackpool 2 years ago, sent a curling effort wide, while Marlon King struck the top of the crossbar when he met Andros Townsend's cross.
The Seasiders began to dominate possession in the tricky conditions but failed to test Doyle until late in the half, when the Blues' keeper was forced off his line to gather a Taylor-Fletcher flick on, only for the slick surface to nearly carry him from his area. He managed to release in time, but from the ensuing throw in, a corner.
At the corner, Chris Hughton hauled off the clearly struggling Spector, the gamble on his fitness failing to pay off. N'Daw replaced him, but the superstition of substitutions at defensive set pieces came back to haunt Hughton, as from the corner, Birmingham failed to clear, Baptiste's acrobatic effort was blocked, only for Dobbie to smash in a low effort at Doyle's near post which the keeper could only fumble into his own net.
There was a deafening silence at St Andrews, as the home fans groaned, and the Blackpool masses failed to notice the ball was in the net. It was only the sight of Dobbie's celebrations, and the goal being replayed on the big screen, that the travelling 2,000 strong army of Tangerine supporters realised the playoff talisman had given their side the lead.
Any thoughts that Blackpool would sit back and protect their lead were put to bed at the start of the second half. A wonderful floated ball by the brilliant Ángel picked out the perfectly timed run of Matt Phillips, who took the ball on his chest before guiding a low left footed effort in off the inside of the post. No delayed reactions this time from the Blackpool faithful, as they believed their side had clinched the place in the final.
Hughton responded by bringing on Nathan Redmond, and immediately the home side were lifted. Burke's deft through ball picked out Zigic who beat the offside trap to slot past Gilks. The home fans sensed a remarkable comeback, and it would have gained momentum had Gilks not made a sensational save to deny King after a low cross from Redmond.
Minutes later, however, and St Andrews was bouncing once again. Davies leapt highest at a corner to power a header past Gilks, meaning only one more goal for the home side would take the tie to extra time.
An enthralling and almost excruciating fifteen minutes followed, as Blackpool repelled wave after wave of attacks from the men in blue, and eventually Chris Foy blew the final whistle, extending Blackpool's season for another ten days until the Championship's showpiece. Few could deny that Blackpool deserved to progress over the two legs, but all will agree that there is a long way to go before the bright lights of the Premier League grace the Fylde Coast once again.