Chris Hughton is preparing for the biggest single 90 minutes of his managerial career as Birmingham entertain Blackpool on Wednesday night in the second leg of their npower Championship play-off semi-final. Hughton watched his side emerge from Friday night's first leg at Bloomfield Road on the end of a 1-0 defeat, knowing a below-par performance sprinkled with chances meant the result could easily have been 3-0 as much as 1-1. Blues will now look to overturn that deficit and set up a Wembley showdown against West Ham on May 19, with the most lucrative match in world football guaranteeing the winners an immediate return to the Barclays Premier League. Hughton spent many years on the coaching staff at Tottenham and then Newcastle, where he was caretaker boss and then manager, guiding the club to the Championship title in 2010 before harshly losing his job in December of that year. But the rewards on offer over 90 minutes on Wednesday makes the play-off showdown unique.
"It is, yes (the biggest game), because it's the one right at this moment," Hughton said. "Certainly as a manager it is. I was involved in the coaching staff at Newcastle when the team went down on the last day of the season. "This is right up there. It's a massive, massive game for all concerned." Hughton goes into the game boasting an unchanged squad and has already settled on his XI for what promises to be a thrilling night of action played under the floodlights in front of a vociferous home crowd. St Andrew's has built a reputation over the years for creating a passionate atmosphere and Hughton hopes the club's fans will be in full voice for the sell-out fixture. He said: "We're at home, we'll have a full house and it can be a fairly daunting place to come and play for an opposition. We've got to make sure that's the case. "We've also got to make sure we give them something to cheer about. It works both ways. They're a very loyal and passionate crowd and they will get behind us and make it a very noisy St Andrew's. "We're up against a very good Blackpool team and they're a big threat. They have a lot of offensive options and have been very solid at the back and we'll need to test them more. Everybody knows what's at stake and the fact there is a 1-0 deficit, we know we have to go and win."
Blackpool manager Ian Holloway insists it will take a monumental effort from his players to preserve their slender advantage. Blues boast an impressive home record, losing only once on their own patch all season, to leave Holloway convinced of the scale of the task at hand. "It's going to take every ounce of everything we've got going down there with their crowd and their passion," he said. "I needed a lead, we've got a very slender lead. We won the first game and I think that's a marker to them. We didn't beat them this year. "I'm looking forward to it, I can't be worried. I'd be worried if we were not in this situation. I feel my team deserved it on Friday night."
The first leg was Blackpool's first win over Birmingham in five attempts and a marked improvement on their 3-0 league defeat in the midlands on New Year's Eve. By contrast, the club boast superb play-off pedigree, having won their last 10 matches in the format. A dramatic passage to the Premier League two seasons ago, courtesy of 2-1 and 4-3 wins over Nottingham Forest and a 3-2 final triumph over Cardiff, came on the back of successful 2001 and 2007 campaigns to earn promotion to the third tier and Championship respectively. Holloway is relishing the prospect of extending that sequence having impressively rebuilt a squad shorn of key players such as Charlie Adam, DJ Campbell and David Vaughan on the back of relegation last term. "I've been a manager a long, long time and now I feel like I'm really enjoying this group as well," he said. "I asked the other group to show me their understanding of what I wanted. "They've got a massive pitch, we've got to go and try to play our game. Can we impose our game on them at their ground in the biggest moment of our lives? "We did it before at Notts Forest, can this group emulate that? It will be one heck of an achievement if we do. All you can ask for is a performance. It's all set up for another great evening. I'm looking forward to it."