A potential area that Blackpool manager Ian Holloway would have looked to exploit before the game was the wide positions. With pacey wingers such as Matt Phillips and Thomas Ince in their ranks and forward thinking full-backs lining up against them, it was clear from the off that this was going to be a key battle in deciding the outcome. Inside three minutes, West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green was forced to make a superb one-handed save after Stephen Dobbie’s powerful strike following Matthew Taylor’s mistake. With the 15 minute mark approaching, Phillips was presented with a pair of chances in quick succession. First, a superb pass from midfield found the winger but he could only muster a weak shot. Moments later, a mistake from Guy Demel allowed the former Wycombe man to cut inside, but his effort went agonisingly wide of the post, as a 12th goal of the season proved elusive. Just two minutes after the half-time, an equaliser came for the Tangerines. A searching diagonal ball over the top of the West Ham defence by Phillips found Ince who hit a side-foot effort across Green to score his first in fourteen games, and his eighth of the campaign. A double switch in the full-back position, with George McCartney and Julien Faubert coming on, tightened things up for the Hammers as they sealed the win. Unbelievably, this was the first time that Blackpool were beaten in the play-offs since May 1996 and meant that they haven’t beaten West Ham in 41 years.
The importance of Carlton Cole’s contribution for West Ham cannot be understated and he proved to be a crucial element of their success in this encounter, labelled ‘the richest game in football’. Cole netted 14 goals during the regular season but his overall contribution is a pivotal part in the success of Sam Allardyce’s side. After the London club were firmly put on the back foot for the majority of the first half, the former Chelsea striker was barely given a sniff. Things got better for the 28-year-old in the 34th minute as he opened the scoring. Angel Martinez’s slide tackle ended up at the feet of Matt Taylor who chipped a ball over Ian Evatt, and Cole coolly slotted past Matt Gilks. In the 63rd minute, he forced an outstanding one-handed save from Gilks after he swivelled past Alex Baptiste from Julien Faubert’s pass. Incredibly, Cole extended his record to six goals in his last eight games, and this strike turned out to be the most crucial of the campaign. With just three minutes to play, the powerful front-man was involved in the build-up to the winner. After Kevin Nolan’s cross, he deftly touched past Baptiste before forcing the keeper to smother at his feet, before the ball fell to Ricardo Vaz Te. The skilful Portuguese winger was having a quiet game but he didn’t waste the opportunity to hit the headlines, as he smashed home into the roof of the net, to score a tenth goal in his last 11 appearances. That helped Allardyce’s side to make an immediate return to the top-flight, just the second side to do so, as they became the ninth third-placed team to gain promotion via the play-offs.
Before kick-off, Holloway’s tactical plans were dealt a blow as Gary Taylor-Fletcher was ruled out of the game with an ankle injury. The task of replacing the influential forward was given to a man who has vast amounts of experience – Kevin Phillips. With over 600 club appearances under his belt, the 38-year-old was seeking a first victory in the play-off final, after finishing on the losing side with Sunderland and West Brom. His impact was clear to see early on as he helped to create a pair of chances for Matt Phillips. The veteran striker displayed his strength and ability to hold up the ball and give his midfield colleagues to play impressive passes to their wingers. This continued into the second half as played a chipped pass to the roving run of Alex Baptiste, who was denied a rare goal by Matt Taylor’s crucial goal-line clearance. Chances to showcase his clinical finishing ability were thwarted by solid West Ham defending but the striker showcased an important part of his armoury and proved that he is still capable of playing at this level.
Throughout his career Taylor has been famed for his ‘magic wand’ of a left foot, and he showcased his ability to deliver dangerous crosses and powerful long-range efforts. Starting in a full-back position, he was given the task of dealing with the dangerous Ince – a task that he initially found difficult. The former Portsmouth man recovered from that testing moment, as he played a vital part in setting up a crucial opening goal for his side. After he shrugged off the challenge of Ince, Taylor made a forward run and clipped a teasing pass through to Cole who tucked past Gilks. That telling contribution meant that the 30-year-old’s tally of assists for the season was taken to ten – the best in the squad. The importance of striking first in this match cannot be understated as eight of the previous nine Championship play-off finals were won by the side who opened the scoring. Following the introduction of McCartney, he was pushed forward into a more recognisable left-wing position. Although his contributions were scarce, Taylor continued to cause danger in Blackpool’s defensive ranks, with his 59th minute cross for Jack Collison showing his undoubted ability.
MORE: Man United latest news
MORE: Arsenal latest news
MORE: Chelsea latest news
MORE: Liverpool latest news