By Jay Jaffa
It will be West Ham's biggest one-off game since the 2006 FA Cup final and could generate approximately £40 million of much-needed prize money, but for manager Sam Allardyce, Saturday's play-off final represents the most pivotal 90 minutes in which he has ever been involved.
As his players take the field against Ian Holloway's Blackpool, the 57-year-old will know it dwarfs Bolton's play-off final in 2001, belittles the 2004 League Cup final and overshadows his interview with the Football Association for England. Given the opposition, it is also a fixture that he will relish.
His first steps as a manager yielded a League of Ireland title at Limerick and a record-breaking season as Notts County boss – they became the first post-war club to secure a promotion in March.
Sandwiched between those jobs was a spell at Blackpool where Allardyce was sacked by Owen Oyston – the current Tangerines owner – for finishing third in the Second Division (now League One) and losing the play-offs.
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Reportedly Allardyce had expected a contract renewal, but instead faced the sack, actioned from Oyston's jail cell. Therein lies the extra motivation for this weekend.
As you would expect of a gruff character from the Midlands, Allardyce recovered and spent seven-and-a-half years at Bolton. A Championship play-off win meant that by 2001 his managerial highs and lows had taken in all four divisions in England.
A 2-1 defeat to Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough in the League Cup final was as close as the club would come to winning silverware, whilst the lasting legacy of Allardyce's time at Bolton was a sixth-placed finish, leading to a first-ever European adventure for the club.
Being interviewed in 2006 for the England job was perhaps the most heralded point of his career. However the gesture seemed nothing more than that at the time and the FA's decision to appoint McClaren ratified suspicions that he merely made up the numbers.
Unsurprisingly, talk of a higher plane pushed a driven manager further and he left Bolton for Newcastle in 2007 where he endured a disastrous six-month spell on Tyneside. He rallied at Blackburn for a couple of years until Venky's opted to oust him for Steve Kean – his assistant.
His time in the Premier League subjected his style to the televisual audience and Allardyce was labelled a long-ball merchant. A purveyor of the dark arts of hoof-ball – a tag he has struggled to shake off. On arrival at West Ham last summer, he vowed to keep to the traditions of the east London club and play attractive football.
Six months later, he had called critics of his team's style “deluded” and branded suggestions that he was playing James Tomkins out of position as “b******s”.
But throughout this, West Ham had shown resilience through adversity – three sendings-off in three consecutive games – and had kept pace with Southampton.
Would supporters accept substance over style? You bet. Allardyce may not have secured what was undoubtedly his pre-season directive – promotion – but he is one step away and has provided fans a day at Wembley.
The greatest positive to come from West Ham's season compared to years gone by has been success. Winning games. It may seem obvious but for a side who continually struggled in the Premier League under owners brutally castrated by the economic recession, falling into the Championship has meant a recalibration of what constitutes 'happiness' in the stands.
There are doubts that any length of time beyond this campaign is sustainable. David Gold and David Sullivan have been forced to rummage through their wallets to keep West Ham afloat following a relegation that was most certainly not in their business plan.
Allardyce was appointed Avram Grant's successor principally to get the club back into the financial haven of the Premier League. Simply, Saturday is a game of football merely masking the golden handshake awaiting the victor.
The squad he inherited was too good to go down and, after a few choice additions and the increased maturity of academy products like Tomkins and Mark Noble, is now far too good not to go up.
Should the worst happen and the Hammers lose to Blackpool, a whole host of concerns will arise.
What of the manager? This was supposed to be his route to back to the big-time. Would Gold and Sullivan stick by Allardyce should he fail? It is hard to say.
Mounting debt and the probable exodus of a number of star names – Tomkins, Noble and Rob Green for starters – could peg West Ham back further and truly ensconce the club in the second tier.
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Bidders must have approval granted by their governing body prior to any move and as yet, the Football League have not given their permission to either West Ham or Leyton Orient.
Of course on the other side of the coin, should West Ham beat a side they have already defeated twice this year by an aggregate score of 8-1 and achieve promotion, the shackles should be loosened further.
Gold and Sullivan's faith in Allardyce, not a wholly popular appointment, will be justified and investment in the team will be forthcoming – dare they risk another relegation?
It's hard to stress this point enough: the club's 11-month slog in the Championship will be deemed either a success or failure exclusively on the result of the Blackpool game.
Allardyce even went so far as to say it is bigger than the Champions League final. To the distant observer it may appear hyperbolic, but the Hammers manager is smarter than he lets on.
He will have been made fully aware of the value of promotion, but will be even more aware that his reputation, and indeed career, would hang in the balance with defeat.
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