By Mark Ogden
If they are looking for a new, white-knuckle ride to tempt more visitors to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, they should call it the Manchester United Experience and issue a health warning that it is not for the faint-hearted.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team now sit five points clear at the top of the Premier League having extended their unbeaten league run to 28 games with an incredible victory at Bloomfield Road.
Outplayed for 70 minutes and trailing 2-0 to Ian Holloway’s spirited Blackpool team, United appeared destined to emerge from their trip to seaside with nothing more than a painful hangover.
But two goals in three minutes from Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez cancelled out Blackpool’s lead before Berbatov, a hat-trick hero at the weekend, won the game with his second on 88 minutes.
With 20 minutes to go, the title race was set to be blown wide open. At full-time, it appeared all over bar the shouting.
For all of United’s stubborn refusal to taste defeat in the league this season, Ferguson’s team has certainly wobbled against opponents they would ordinarily expect to overcome.
Bolton, Aston Villa and West Brom (twice) have all tested United’s chin, only for them to stagger back to their feet with a late response.
So Blackpool, having lost five of their last six league games prior to this fixture, could at least be buoyed by United’s readiness to make life difficult for themselves.
And United’s defeat at Burnley last season, a result which ultimately cost them a fourth successive title, emphasised their vulnerability when faced with a club with sepia-tinged memories of former glories against their illustrious Lancastrian rivals.
The 5-0 rout of Birmingham at the weekend suggested that United were too focused on opening up a commanding lead at the top of table to suffer a shock defeat on their first visit to Bloomfield Road since October 1974.
But Ian Holloway’s team did as their manager had promised and they rattled United from the start by pressing high up the pitch and tormenting the leaders with Charlie Adam, clearly untroubled by the transfer speculation surrounding him, tearing United apart with his raking passes.
United simply could not settle and Blackpool deservedly took the lead on 15 minutes when Cathcart, a £500,000 buy from Old Trafford last summer, scored his first goal for the club.
It was a goal United should never have conceded. Adam’s corner was allowed to find Cathcart at the far post and, having lost his marker Dimitar Berbatov, the Northern Irishman scored with a powerful header from three yards.
The decibel levels inside Blackpool’s tiny ground began to go off the scale, with the home fans mocking pre-season predictions of their impending doom with chants of “We’ll only get 10 points!”
Holloway’s players have proved themselves better than that, though, and they continued to push United back.
Edwin van der Sar had to react quickly to prevent a Nemanja Vidic own goal from Adam’s cross before Elliot Grandin wastefully skied Luke Varney’s cross over the bar.
Van der Sar then pushed David Vaughan’s 25-yard shot behind for a corner, but more shambolic defending by United led to Campbell scoring from the in-swinging corner delivered by Adam.
Darron Gibson’s attempted near post clearance inadvertently flew to Campbell, whose far post header made it 2-0, two minutes before half-time.
Ferguson, who had become increasingly agitated in his technical area during United’s dreadful first-half, could have made ten changes at the interval, but he chose to be conservative by withdrawing just Gibson, in favour of Ryan Giggs, before the second-half.
Giggs’s composure had been missed in a frantic first-half, but it appeared as though the horse had already bolted by the time the 37-year-old was introduced to the action.
And in truth, the Welshman made little difference as Blackpool continued as they had left off before the break.
Only referee Peter Walton will know why he failed to award the home side a penalty on 50 minutes following Rafael’s rash challenge on Varney inside the six yard box.
The Brazilian defender, back in the team following a one-match ban, clearly fouled the Blackpool forward, but United had a lucky escape with Walton ignoring the Varney’s claims for penalty.
How United were missing the experience and assurance of Rio Ferdinand alongside Vidic at centre-half. Chris Smalling is clearly a bright prospect, but he will not to experience many more nights like this.
Still, he wasn’t the only United player who failed to deliver. Wayne Rooney and Berbatov were equally off the pace and Rooney was substituted in favour of Javier Hernandez on 67 minutes as Ferguson desperately looked for a route back into the game.
The Mexican beat goalkeeper Richard Kingson, who had earlier saved well from Paul Scholes, with a low shot on 71 minutes, but the shot lacked pace and it was easily cleared by Cathcart.
Sixty seconds later, however, Berbatov gave United a foothold by volleying in Darren Fletcher’s cross from two yards.
It gave United belief and instilled fear into Blackpool for the first time and United capitalised further when Hernandez sprung the offside trap to receive Giggs’s pass before beating Kingson with a clinical finish.
A third United goal seemed inevitable, but their progress was halted when the game was stopped for several minutes in order for Rafael to be stretchered off after landing awkwardly.
Ferguson’s team regained their composure, though, and Berbatov secured a dramatic victory by racing onto Paul Scholes’s pass before prodding the ball underneath Kingson.
It was a title-winning fightback.