Squaring up: either Ian Holloway or Sam Allardyce will get their hands on the Play-off Final trophy tomorrow but the real prize is a passport to the riches of the Premier League
The preparation is nearly finished, the fine-tuning almost done — it’s just a matter of managing things between now and 3pm tomorrow.
One dilemma for us in the build-up to the Championship Play-off Final was whether to take the lads away this week to limit the distractions or leave them in their homes to have as normal a build-up to the game as they can.
We decided that the players staying at home was the best course of action but I told the players to blank all telephone calls from friends and family asking for tickets after Tuesday.
I don’t think any of them have played a more important game than this one, in terms of what it can bring to them as individuals, as a team and as a club.
It’s their responsibility to deliver and the more they focus on the task and the less they are distracted, the better their performance will be, hopefully.
There was a thought we would go to Wembley earlier in the week, just to have a look around because you can’t train on the pitch. We gave the players that option but they decided they would rather leave it until the day.
The fans will play an important part tomorrow. Wembley is one of the biggest and best arenas in world football and the supporters there sing that little bit louder and longer, which helps create the sort of atmosphere which every player must dream of.
I was never fortunate to play there but these players have that opportunity to go for glory in this marvellous arena and in front of a full house.
If you are successful, you will keep that memory for the rest of your life but if it is the reverse, it will be the worst feeling in the world because it’s not losing a cup final or a one-off competition, it’s losing more than 10 months of hard graft. So, the message is be well-prepared now and get ready to deliver your best performance.
We finished this week training at Upton Park to give the players that arena atmosphere and we’ve been doing our final tactical work there.
After training today we were due to travel to our hotel in central London and about 40 minutes from Wembley, for the night.
As for nerves, everyone will be feeling them on the day. I’ll be terrible but part of the discipline is controlling your inner feelings and not letting them show externally.
As a manager you close down probably more than anyone else because you’re already thinking about what might happen, what you may need to do, what hopefully will go right and what you will have to do if it doesn’t.
You hope that the players start well and show in the first 10 minutes the same sort of form they have displayed in the last part of the season. If they do that, it will settle everyone down and help make you feel a little more comfortable.
It’s a one-off though, isn’t it? You just hope that nothing out of your control goes against you, that you do your job and get your just rewards by the way you’ve played.
You hope it doesn’t get taken away from you by something which is somebody else’s fault. You hope everyone makes the decisions in the right and proper manner.
We’ll start the match as favourites, just as we did in the semi-finals, but it is nowhere near a foregone conclusion as some people might be suggesting. We will have to earn this victory and, if we succeed, it will be hard-earned.
We’re up against a team and a manager who have done great things this season and we can’t — we won’t — under-estimate them.
Ian Holloway, like us, lost a lot of his players after they were relegated but the club have rebuilt steadily and shrewdly.
I know some people will look at the League table, see us finishing 11 points ahead of Blackpool and say the play-offs are unfair.
I’m not in that camp. The play-offs keep the entertainment and the tension going right to the end for a lot of clubs in this country.
While it often looks harsh when you look at the final table, the sheer entertainment value the play-offs have provided over the years has been memorable. When Bolton won it in 2001, we finished third, 13 points ahead of West Brom whom we played in the semi-finals but we were 2-0 down after 55 minutes and I was looking at another year of cut-backs.
Fortunately, we turned it around to draw 2-2, won the second leg 3-0 and then beat Preston by the same score in the final. That changed my whole life. My status as a manager soared because I had earned the right to be in charge of a team in the Premier League — something every manager in the world wants to do.
When you are in the Premier League you get worldwide recognition, branding and credibility.
Since then and up to joining West Ham, I had spent my career in the Premier League and I want to get back there.
That’s why you play football, that’s why you manage — to reach the highest possible standard you can and, in club terms, it doesn’t come any higher than the Premier League.
By Sunday, it will all be over and we will know whether to push on with Plan A or B.
Whichever one it turns out to be, we have to finalise things very quickly because everything is held in abeyance before we know the result of tomorrow’s match.
It has been difficult to put everything on hold because a lot of decisions have to be made on players at this time of the year, which is another difficult job for me.
However, our destiny is in our own hands tomorrow, when we’ll all suffer or all gain huge credibility.
Day the dream died
As we savour the chance to go back up, two of my former clubs, Bolton and Blackburn, are making the depressing downward journey.
Bolton’s relegation is more sad for me because of the feelings I have for both the club and the town.
When your dreams of becoming a footballer become a reality — as they did for me at Bolton — you will always retain an affection for that club.
Then to manage the club, to see them become a strong and good Premier League club — and for that to crumble into relegation — was a sad day for me.
It gives me no satisfaction to see Blackburn relegated but I believe it shows what a good job I did there.