'Amid chaos at Blackpool, the brilliant youth team are caught in the crossfire'
The present is gloomy at Blackpool, but the future could be bright.
On Tuesday, the Tangerines face Arsenal in the first leg of their FA Youth Cup semi-final, attempting to become the first third-tier side for 30 years to reach the final.
They have won five away games to reach the last four, and beaten three clubs with category one academies – the highest status.
It is a fine achievement, made more remarkable because it comes against the backdrop of ongoing unrest at the club that means many long-standing fans will refuse to go to Bloomfield Road for Tuesday’s match.
Instead, they will be meeting the Football League as the latest move in their attempt to get Blackpool’s owners, the Oyston family, out of the club.
‘A real fairytale’
Blackpool were beaten in the first round of last season’s FA Youth Cup. Twelve months on they won at Bradford and Doncaster before overcoming West Ham and, in their only tie at home so far, Southampton. That match was played in front of 223 people.
Further victories at Ipswich and Blackburn have set up the tie with Arsenal, the second leg of which will be held at Emirates Stadium on 16 April.
Recruitment is tough for a category three academy club on the Fylde coast. Within 50 miles of Blackpool, there are five category one academy clubs, and three teams who reached the knockout stage of this season’s Champions League.
Of the 18 players on duty for the quarter-final victory at Blackburn, three are from Liverpool and another three from Preston. All but four come from less than 60 miles away.
Blackpool tend to target the bigger clubs’ cast-offs.
Through careful planning, they put together a squad that won both the EFL North-West Youth Alliance League and Lancashire FA Youth Cup last season.
Their star man – Republic of Ireland Under-17 international Rowan Roache – was recruited as a 14-year-old after he left the Manchester United academy.
“We don’t have full-time recruiting staff like the big clubs, so it is a case of spotting lads as well as we can, bringing them in and working with them,” says coach Paul Murphy.
“We are not paying players thousands like some clubs are doing but over the past few years we have been slightly unlucky with some of our results in the Youth Cup, so I did think we were capable of doing well. But even I never expected this. It is a real fairytale.
“Rowan was released by United but his family live in Lytham, which was a big factor behind why he came to Blackpool.”
‘In any war there will be casualties’
A significant number of Blackpool supporters are engaged in a long-running campaign against the club’s owners, who have sued fans on a web forum for libel, such is the toxic relationship between them and those who follow the club.
The ‘Not A Penny More’ initiative calls on supporters to engage in an ‘ethical’ protest.
For some, that means attending games but not spending money in the stadium. Others do not attend home games. The most hardline will not go to any games, home or away, until the Oystons no longer own the club.
There have been appeals for the club to offer free admittance for the Youth Cup tie to non-season ticket holders, but these have been rejected.
Tim Fielding, honorary vice-president of the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust said: “It is a black-and-white issue.
“The Youth Cup team have done a fantastic job. Ordinarily I, and many others, would love to be there to support them. But in any war there will be casualties, and they are caught in the crossfire.”
Coincidentally, the Football League has chosen 20 March as the date when it will meet representatives of the major Blackpool supporters’ groups to listen to their concerns about the club’s owners.
The meeting starts at 19:00 GMT – the same time the Youth Cup semi-final kicks off.
‘We can’t get involved in the politics’
Few back the Oyston family’s controversial regime.
But for some supporters, watching Blackpool live is something they will not give up.
Lifelong fan Ian Carden is one such fan. He was at Ewood Park to see the youth team win their quarter-final and intends to be at both legs of the semi-final.
He said: “Those lads may not be the best footballers in the world but they never give up.
“The team spirit is amazing. They have done so well for a club of this size. It is just a shame the achievement won’t be recognised in the size of the crowd.”
The average attendance for the four semi-final ties last season – involving Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Stoke – was 3,000.
It is anticipated there will not be any more than 500 to watch Blackpool play seven-time winners Arsenal, who won 5-1 at Colchester in the last eight.
Murphy said: “It would be nice if it was a big crowd but we can’t get involved in the politics of it all.
“The players’ families will be there and those supporters who do come will hopefully see our lads put on a performance they can be proud of.”
‘Scouts from other clubs must be taking notice’
Even on good days, there are problems for Blackpool to deal with.
Roache cannot play on Tuesday because he has been named in the Republic of Ireland Under-19 squad for European Championship matches in Portugal. Blackpool’s plea for him to be excused was turned down.
A bigger issue is created by Blackpool’s decision to scrap their reserve team in 2011.
It means that unless they are given professional contracts, the eight second-year scholars in Blackpool’s team will have to leave if they are to further their careers.
Yet, as Murphy points out, League One is not a place where teenagers can learn their trade very easily.
He said: “The pathway is difficult for our lads.
“Let’s face it, how many players of that age are ready to go into the first team? Wayne Rooney did it at Everton but he had the body of a man at 15.
“Scouts from other clubs must be taking notice of what we are doing.”