THE MONDAY VERDICT: Wanderers 2 Blackpool 1
ANYONE who read Dougie Freedman’s passionate defence of the FA Cup’s relevance to Bolton Wanderers last week will have been left in no doubt about his feelings for the competition.
“I’m working at a club with Nat Lofthouse’s statue outside. How can I disrespect the FA Cup?” said the Scot, rarely someone to troll out such sentiment for the sake of it.
Those words struck a chord with the supporters who, let’s face it, have had very little to cling on to in what has been a wretched season at the Reebok so far.
How important, then, that they were also backed up with a performance of equal enthusiasm against another historically significant FA Cup name in Blackpool?
Thankfully, there was a lot to admire about this game, played in real cup spirit and with a freedom that just has not been there in the Championship.
Many will point to the obvious fact that Freedman finally took the shackles off at home, by deciding to play two out-and-out strikers in Jermaine Beckford and David Ngog for the first time in months.
But to those supporters who have watched Wanderers labour at the Reebok Stadium for such a long time there was something extra here – an extra urgency given to them by returning loan star Neil Danns, and by Medo Kamara playing his best game for the club for the better part of a year.
They should have been further ahead than Ngog’s early effort by the time Tom Barkhuizen equalised on the stroke of half time.
But once Beckford restored the lead five minutes after the restart, their resolve to hold on was impressive.
It is definite food for thought for Freedman as he goes into a January run of games that will almost certainly dictate the path this season is taking.
The Scot loves the FA Cup and little wonder – he has a specialist within his ranks.
Jermaine Beckford has scored on third round day for the last five seasons, hitting the target for Leeds United, Everton, Leicester City and Huddersfield Town before his 50th minute winner on his latest outing at this stage of the competition.
That takes him to an incredible 17 goals in 20 appearances in the competition, a ratio surely unmatched by anyone anywhere in the modern game.
The man for all cup occasions has still got some way to go before emulating the competition’s greatest-ever goalscorer, Notts County’s Harry Cursham, who bagged an unfathomable 49 goals in 47 games between 1877 and 1887.
Cursham’s only modern-day peer was Ian Rush, who managed an impressive 45 goals for Liverpool, Chester City and Newcastle United a century later.
But considering Beckford was a latecomer to the party – his first FA Cup game in professional football coming for Leeds United against Hereford in 2007, he has not done badly.
Wanderers need him back on form in the Championship as well if they are to have any serious ambition to climb the table in the New Year.
As ever with Wanderers, the rate of chances created was high – as was the rate they were missing them.
Chris Eagles scuffed an early shot from Danns’ cross before Alex Baptiste forced a save out of his former team-mate Matt Gilks with a dipping effort.
Andre Moritz was back in the side and back in the groove from the opening whistle, his South American flair showing up with every flick and shimmy. But he, too, missed a gilt-edged opportunity, following up on Baptiste’s shot before seeing his dink over the keeper cleared off the line by Craig Cathcart.
Just 10 minutes had passed when Ngog made the breakthrough, turning Gary MacKenzie 35 yards out and barely breaking stride before whacking a left-footed effort into the top corner.
It was one of those days that Ngog looked every inch a Premier League player, and it is just so frustrating that we have not seen more.
Cathcart made another goal-saving block, this time from Eagles, as Wanderers tried to double the lead, prompting the Blackpool fans to start aiming their chants at manager Paul Ince.
The tempo dropped around the half-hour mark and the visitors got themselves back into it on the stroke of half time when Barkhuizen curled in a brilliant shot from 20 yards.
Wanderers were furious that Chris Basham had jumped in front of Andy Lonergan, perhaps in his line of sight, in an offside position – and that prompted the linesman to raise his flag, temporarily disallowing the effort.
But ref Simon Hooper eventually allowed it to stand, prompting Freedman to send a bottle of water flying with a right-footer of his own in the technical area.
The sense of injustice could have been damaging, but five minutes into the second half Wanderers restored their lead.
Ngog got the better of MacKenzie once again, muscling him off the ball in the left channel before putting in a low cross for Beckford to score from close range.
The persistent Eagles’ bad luck in front of goal continued, a lick of paint coming between him and a third for his team.
And for the last 25 minutes the game became more uncomfortable than it needed to be.
Tom Ince finally started to see more of the ball and forced an excellent save out of Lonergan. From the resulting corner, Cathcart missed from close range.
Former academy graduate Basham had looked desperate to impress for the Tangerines and was doing his best to at least force a replay, and he somehow headed against the outside of the post after Lonergan had made another good stop from Fuller.
There was no luck involved a few moments later, however, when the Wanderers keeper denied the same man with a world-class stop after Basham had got his toe to Neal Bishop’s angled shot.
Chung-Yong Lee also hit the woodwork at the other end, prompting erroneous reports around the country that the lead had actually been extended. No such luck.
So it was with a certain degree of relief that the final whistle arrived and a place in the fourth round was secured.
But then, that’s what cup football is all about.
A welcome distraction to a difficult season continues for Wanderers. You can only hope some of this cup magic can rub off on the daily grind of the Championship.