The bold claim from Blackpool F.C. manager Simon Grayson that his club could be the busiest in England during the current transfer window raised eyebrows, not in the least with supporters brought up on the slim mid-season pickings under the now deposed Oyston family, but also elicited no little scepticism as to whether the 50-year old Yorkshireman is the right man to advance the club into the new post-Oyston era.
New owner Simon Sadler, the antithesis of the previous ruinous and divisive regime, is a man Blackpool can count themselves fortunate to have. A self-made man and tangerine to his core, the Hong Kong-based Hedge Fund manager will not allow his lifelong allegiance to the ‘pool to cloud his judgment when difficult decisions are to be made, nor will money he has worked hard to earn be allowed to drain away on wages and transfer fees carelessly invested on the wrong kind of player.
Recent displays by the team have though been extremely poor, at a time when the current squad, the Bloomfield Road playing surface, the manager himself and of course those at top are meant to be a significant upgrade on last season. The pre-season interregnum between receivership and Sadler taking the reins was a difficult period for previous manager Terry McPhillips, himself only reluctantly stepping into the shoes of Gary Bowyer after the now Bradford City boss departed after the first game of the 2018/19 season. Hindered by a shoestring budget, effectively what was left in the pot from the dying embers of the Oyston’s control of the club, McPhillips had to bulk out a squad hit by departures of key loan players and those on short-term deals that had since expired. The recruitment of the likes of Jamie Devitt, Ben Tollitt, and Adi Yussuf smacked of pragmatism, of chancing the club’s arm on cheap imports who might come good; if not, the outlay wasn’t significant to be counted as anything other than risks worth taking. The reality though was something different: these players, and no disrespect to them, would have to play week in, week out, regardless of their respective abilities to do so.
The arrival of Sadler was therefore timed to perfection. To all intents and purposes Blackpool Football Club was carrying on in business but rumours were rife that if a new owner could not be found to buy Oyston’s majority shareholding and subsequently paydown the vast majority of the £31.2 million owed to Latvian Valeri Belokon, the club would run out of money in October 2019 and likely head into liquidation. Although McPhillips was said to have been offered fresh terms by Sadler the Liverpudlian’s resignation swiftly followed, perhaps feeling the job had got too big for him as expectations exponentially grew following the new owner’s arrival.
Whatever the truth behind McPhillips’ departure – there is no suggestion that it was anything but amicable – Sadler obviously had a League One Red Adair-type manager in mind to not only steady the ship but who had a track record of getting clubs, like Blackpool, to their realistic level – the Championship. The appointment of Simon Grayson after McPhillips’ abrupt departure felt choreographed and contrived, but Grayson’s experience and results in the third tier of English football obviously spoke for themselves. He is also a man familiar with the terrain, having successfully overseen the ‘perfect 10’ winning streak that catapulted Blackpool into the Championship a decade previously, culminating with a Wembley play-off victory over Yeovil Town.
Grayson only had half of the summer to shape a squad depleted in numbers and quality, and to appraise the rash of signings brought in by McPhillips. The Holy Grail for any team is a potent number nine, either as a totemic spearhead or a fox in the box poacher-type of finisher. Unsurprisingly Grayson wasn’t convinced that Yussuf could successfully transition from the National League to the upper echelons of League One, and therefore needed further manpower to compete with and complement Armand Gnanduillet and Nathan Delfouneso, two players who continue to divide opinion. The not inexpensive purchases of Joe Nuttall from Blackburn Rovers and Ryan Hardie from Glasgow Rangers, despite their relative inexperience, were expected to share the goalscoring burden. Former Crystal Palace winger Sullay Kaikai soon followed, as did loanees James Husband and goalkeeper Jak Alnwick, and winger Sean Scannell in a swap deal that sent midfielder Harry Pritchard to Bradford City.
Despite a positive start to the league campaign that briefly saw Blackpool top of the pile, wins over a poor Bristol Rovers side and a dire Southend United represented a gentle introduction to League One for both Grayson and Sadler that inevitably wouldn’t last. An extremely fortuitous victory at Bloomfield Road over Oxford United, on their day by far the best team in the division, highlighted Blackpool’s defensive qualities but brought into sharp focus the team’s obvious problems in midfield and the final third. Fluctuating results followed, but negative away performances at Bolton, Accrington, and Rochdale only produced one goal, a 93rd minute equaliser at the Wham! Stadium by midfielder Matty Virtue, each in front of 2,000+ away followings and gave the “Grayson Out” sentiments further traction.
A rash of home wins in the autumn, albeit many of them against lower division and non-league teams in the Leasing.com trophy and F.A. Cup papered somewhat over the cracks, culminating in a purple patch that peaked with the convincing defeat of Fleetwood Town in early December. Since that high-water mark Blackpool have now gone seven games without victory, with only the F.A. Cup 3rd round tie at Championship side Reading being a game, which finished 2-2, that the team deserved to win, notwithstanding Armand Gnanduillet’s ridiculous attempt to baffle the Royals’ keeper Sam Walker with a Panenka-style spot kick. He failed.
Seven games without a win, including being ultimately vanquished by a youthful Reading on Tuesday night at Bloomfield Road has inevitably fuelled the fire for those calling for Grayson’s head. At a time when Blackpool fans are actively being encouraged to come out of hiding now the Oystons have left the building, the product on offer is a far cry from a standard that will keep the interest of floating fans, and those who’ve become accustomed to doing other things at the weekend. It is not unrealistic to suggest that Blackpool could gain and lose a new generation of fans in a very short space of time.
I personally saw the beginning of greater animosity towards Grayson a few weeks ago at the Tranmere Rovers fixture at Prenton Park, where Blackpool laboured to a fortuitous draw against a limited but spirited team managed by former Seasider Micky Mellon. Again, a sizeable 2,000+ following(and not the 1,600-official figure) were let down by poor tactics, and an inability to adapt to what was an appalling playing surface. Only an outstanding save by goalkeeper Mark Howard denied Tranmere a deserved victory.
Has then the transfer window arrived at the right time? For the club to arrest a concerning slide down the table, the answer is unequivocally yes. What though must Simon Sadler be thinking? He will readily acknowledge that Grayson had only a short time to meld a group of players predominantly not his with a small clutch of additions and expect them to adapt to a different style of play. Grayson obviously doesn’t have the squad he wants who will play his way; are then the fans to accept that he has had to play an admittedly unpleasing on the eye style to ensure first and foremost that if the team cannot win, then at least they won’t lose? To me that was evident earlier in the season but as players become aware that Grayson is only picking many of them because he has not alternative, those draws are now turning into defeats.
Aware of all this and undoubtedly more besides, Sadler, as the early stages of the transfer window have already shown, will on balance seek to give Grayson the benefit of the doubt. Can the manager only be accurately judged when he has a full squad almost of his own choosing? I am sure though that Sadler has been concerned by the negative style of play, and its inevitable effect on crowds that have started to dwindle.
What then of the early weeks of the transfer window, of those brought in, disposed of, and so far retained? Ventures into the transfer market are though often a case of needs must, in particular when a goalkeeper is stricken by a serious injury. Blackpool’s best keeper, Mark Howard, suffered a potentially career-ending injury in March 2019 at Burton Albion, and was subsequently replaced ‘in house’ by Congolese stopper Christoffer Mafoumbi, who might just have retained the number one jersey had McPhillips stayed at the club. Grayson obviously didn’t rate Mafoumbi enough to entrust him between the sticks, and sought out the Glasgow Rangers keeper Jak Alnwick, brother of the former Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur custodian Ben Alnwick, as his first choice. The general impression of Alnwick(Jak) has been positive; it wouldn’t therefore have surprised fans had he retained his position in the team for the whole season. A Boxing Day injury in the home reverse against Accrington has in effect ended Alnwick’s season, opening the door for the tried and tested Howard, who aside from a sterling display at Tranmere has looked at times to be rusty, but in my view still worth persevering with.
It seems though that Grayson has other ideas. Sending Mafoumbi out for games at Morecambe is not the greatest assignment for the Congolese but at least gets him away from where his matchday duties, at best, would be on the bench. This leaves youngster Jack Sims as Howard’s lone understudy, which isn’t an ideal situation for a manager who favours not only experience between the sticks, but also a certain kind of keeper. It is though interesting that the imminent arrival of Chris Maxwell from local rivals Preston North End, is of a keeper more at home with a Manuel Neuer-esque sweeper role, thus allowing the team to play higher up the pitch. One of my main criticisms of the team under Grayson has been the reluctance to push up, especially against teams of limited attacking intent and pace. On seeing what the majority of League One teams have to offer, perhaps Grayson has finally realised this himself. Time will tell.
The arrival of Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Jordan Thorniley highlights a preference for taking players who’ve played at, or at least have been exposed to, a higher level. With three quality centre-backs already at Grayson’s disposal it is unclear if he intends to revert to a three at the back(five when defending) system which would account for having four solid centre-backs on the payroll. Thorniley’s arrival is though with a nod to the future, which will presumably involve the departure of Curtis Tilt either during the current window or in the summer, and Sheffield United loanee Ben Heneghan keeping his options open once his contract with the Blades has expired in June. Fourth of the four, Ryan Edwards, currently injured, will presumably remain within Grayson’s plans after an impressive start to life at the seaside.
The reacquiring of Marc Bola, albeit on loan, barely six months after leaving for Middlesbrough for what would have been a sizeable but undisclosed fee, caught most fans by surprise but again indicates Grayson opting to revert to three centre backs and two wing backs. Although named as the 2018/19 player of the season Bola’s attributes, similar to predecessor Kelvin Mellor, lie in the opposition half of the pitch. To be a successful exponent of what is a very disciplined, energy-sapping role, the 22-year old Londoner will have to tighten up on his defensive craft and tracking back, something it is hoped that Middlesbrough manager Jonathan Woodgate has also identified and worked on.
Fellow Londoner Grant Ward has been brought in to shore up Blackpool’s ailing midfield and add some much needed panache and creativity. The former Ipswich Town winger was without a club since recovering from serious injury; one can only presume, and hope, that head of recruitment, Tommy Johnson, has done his homework and that Ward is now injury free. It is though hard to see how Ward will be played on the left side of midfield if Blackpool play 3-5-2 – a role that will for the rest of the season at least be occupied by Bola. If the left-wing back role is seen as Ward’s long term position Grayson will have to be sure that both his fitness, and defensive discipline, are of the required standard. The introduction of Ward midway through the second half against Reading into an attacking central midfield berth seemed an extremely poor decision, and one that Ward looked uncomfortable with.
And then there is Gary Madine. A Championship and League One journeyman, the 29-year old has more baggage than an airport carousel and represents a surprising choice, and risk, on whom to lavish not inconsiderable wages presumably subsidised by Sadler. Isn’t though the point of the transfer window to replace what you might have lost, or complement what is already in place with something better? If so, Madine ticks the boxes of being better, far better, than Blackpool’s one number nine-type striker – Armand Gnanduillet. it is unlikely that both would start a game together, with neither being satisfied with a place on the bench. I can therefore only assume that Gnanduillet will leave during the window, with Derby County and Charlton Athletic two of his named suitors. I have no doubt whatsoever that Simon Sadler has sought assurances from Grayson and Tommy Johnson over the future conduct of Madine, both on and particularly away from the pitch. As someone who has done time and in a post-truth story allegedly paid people in Cardiff city centre to fight him, Madine can expect to have his contract cancelled forthwith should his behaviour plum similar depths.
The most recent arrival at Bloomfield Road is midfielder Connor Ronan, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Rochdale-born Republic of Ireland under-21 player has previously taken himself out of his comfort zone by playing in the Slovakian top division, and could prove to be an upgrade on the now departed Jordan Thompson, the Northern Ireland midfielder having followed former national team manager Michael O’Neill to Stoke City. Signed from Glasgow Rangers by Gary Bowyer Thompson occasionally threatened to break out of mediocrity but never quite gave the impression that he had the wherewithal to grasp the nettle on a more permanent basis. Although Blackpool’s midfield is crying out for creativity and experience in its more advanced central areas, Thompson’s departure will not be keenly felt. Out of contract in the summer, Blackpool will also have snaffled some useful cash for a player who frequently fell over and/or dived, often leaving the side short when caught on the counter-attack. I always felt the ‘Jordan Thompson……he never gives the ball away’ song to be somewhat ironic, although I don’t think it was actually sung to be so.
Of those who’ve also left the building this last week there have been few surprises, although with almost two weeks left of the transfer window there is ample time for that to change. Defender Nick Anderton has moved to Carlisle United on a permanent deal. Whilst technically limited and probably not of League One standard I was nevertheless impressed with the 23-year old’s rear-guard action against Oxford United in a game where he, and the whole team, looked all at sea against a superior opponent. Never hiding from his limitations and mistakes, Anderton frequently put his body on the line to repel Karl Robinson’s side.
Fellow defender Michael Nottingham has joined Crewe Alexandra until the end of the season. Perhaps worthy of being given more of a chance by Grayson, Nottingham was may be hampered by being labelled a recent product of non-league football, a ‘trait’ seemingly not altogether popular with the manager. As someone to throw on upfront when chasing a game or when needing the long throw in route to the penalty area, Nottingham was the man. Sadly for him, these reasons alone were not enough to sustain his career at Blackpool.
Of the Terry McPhillips’ signings from early pre-season which now seems much longer ago, Ben Tollitt, Jamie Devitt, and Adi Yussuf it appears, unsurprisingly, that all three have no future at Bloomfield Road. Brought in under a needs must, ‘it might work out’ strategy that had no choice but to source players who could make the grade but with few guarantees or attendant financial risk, the career of Yussuf in particular appears to have been ruined by his stab at the big time. Scoring frequently for National League side Solihull Moors and starring against Blackpool in last season’s F. A. Cup, the Tanzanian international obviously saw the jump to League One as his big, and final chance, to make a mark on the professional game. From the start it appears that Grayson didn’t fancy him, and despite their inconsistencies and critics Yussuf was never going to dislodge Armand Gnanduillet, Nathan Delfouneso, or Sullay Kaikai from the side. Eventually loaned back to Solihull it was assumed the player would continue where he left off in Tim Flowers’ side but one goal in eleven games suggests they have moved on without him, with perhaps the player himself now thinking he’s bigger than his station. Loaned out again to National League rivals Borehamwood, Yussuf’s career is in real danger of petering out.
Lower league journeyman Jamie Devitt arrived at Blackpool with a goal in five record at previous club Carlisle United, a decent return for an attacking midfielder, albeit one operating in League Two. Now, has Grayson automatically disregarded Devitt on the grounds that he has come from a lower league, isn’t one of his own players, has rarely plied his trade above League Two or quite simply, what he saw in training didn’t impress him? It is tempting to suggest that Blackpool’s midfield woes cannot afford to completely disregard Devitt, but perhaps Grayson is in the end saving the player from himself and likely ignominy should he step out at what has become an increasingly unforgiving Bloomfield Road. An injury-ravaged loan spell at Bradford City is hardly likely to advance his claims with Grayson.
Having recently returning from a loan spell at National League Wrexham, midfielder Ben Tollitt is another player who could have done without Blackpool coming knocking last summer. Young enough to perhaps come good, the Liverpudlian is nevertheless at a make or break, now or never stage in his career that will not involve donning the famous tangerine.
I don’t anticipate many other players leaving Blackpool in the next two weeks, although any transfer window can throw up last minute surprises. Fringe players like Myles Boney and Yusifu Ceesay will never represent Blackpool again but will see out loan deals at South Shields and Altrincham respectively before moving on. Defensive mainstay Curtis Tilt will likely move on in the summer for a final payday and will do so with the genuine blessing of the fans. Ryan Hardie, a summer signing first looked at by McPhillips before being brought to the club by Simon Grayson has been sent out to Plymouth Argyle, to rediscover his scoring touch lost on the way from Scotland to the Fylde Coast. Best friends with the Stoke-bound Jordan Thompson, it would not surprise me should Hardie have played his last game for Blackpool.
Despite the influx and exodus in roughly equal measure there is still wriggle room for improvement, in particular in midfield and attack. Whilst Connor Ronan will hopefully add some much-needed craft in the engine room I still hope that an experienced creator, such as Sheffield United’s Mark Duffy, will be recruited. Blackpool arguable also need another striker, whether or not Armand Gnanduillet moves on.
Whatever the final weeks of the transfer window brings it has already been like no other in my 36 years of following Blackpool Football Club. Whether you are a Grayson supporter or would welcome him exiting stage left, his suggestion that the club will be the busiest in England during January looks to be spot on. Such a level of activity is undoubtedly justified and needed, but also reflects the change of emphasis being brought about under the ownership of a man who cares about the club and town and recognises what is needed to succeed. In Simon Sadler, we must trust.