The prophecy from Blackpool Football Club manager Simon Grayson that he expected the Bloomfield Road outfit to be the busiest club in England during the thankfully now closed January transfer window appears to have been fulfilled.
With 24 players either departing or arriving the 50-year old Yorkshireman has been true to his word. On the face of it Blackpool’s fans will barely believe the churn of personnel, not just by the numbers involved but the incomparably different modus operandi under new owner Simon Sadler, a local and ardent fan who went away to Hong Kong to make his millions, perhaps billions, in Hedge Fund investments.
Brought up on the thin gruel of the malignant reign of previous owners the Oyston family, fans, players, and management staff alike became accustomed to various members of the Oyston clan with whom the buck stopped at the club disappearing on holiday during the transfer window or reappearing at its last knockings, when the potential to effectuate positive change to the squad was all but lost.
By installing Simon Grayson as the man to stabilise matters on the field and return the club to the Championship, its realistic hunting ground, Sadler has a tried and tested operator at League One level with the credentials of promotion with Preston, Leeds United, Huddersfield and Blackpool themselves, secured in 2007 through a Wembley play-off victory over Yeovil Town. Grayson’s most recent managerial postings have though been less successful, appearing all at sea in an at-the-time almost impossible role at Sunderland, and at Bradford City where a record of only three victories between February and May saw his tenure at Valley Parade swiftly terminated.
There are striking similarities between Bradford’s collapse in form under Grayson and the current slump in which he has presided over at Blackpool, who are perhaps going through their worst sequence of results since the calamitous management of the likes of Colin Hendry and Nigel Worthington. Many conclude that Grayson has neither the wherewithal nor desire in his locker to bring about an upturn in results in a game that has tactically moved on from a manager who hasn’t. A pragmatic approach seemingly predicated on first and foremost keeping a clean sheet with anything else being a bonus does not wash with fans, the majority of who had boycotted Bloomfield Road for five years. Returning to turgid, negative, and unimaginative fayre is not the way to bring back those into the ground who have found other things to do since 2014, nor will such frankly boring football excite the next generation of fans being brought to games for the first time by their parents and grandparents.
Initial calls for Grayson’s removal came in October, once the dye had seemingly been cast of the way he intended to go about getting results on the pitch. Dire draws at Rochdale, Accrington Stanley, and an aisling Bolton Wanderers, where a total of one goal – scored in added time – was garnered from four and a half hours of football saw three winnable games pass the club by. Blackpool last won on the road in mid-September, at Doncaster Rovers, with another last-minute intervention. There has since been little in the way of evidence this unwanted statistic will be broken any time soon.
A succession of home victories, many against lower league opposition papered over the cracks and bought Grayson more time to justify his continued claims to the managerial role. A run that culminated in the best performance of the season, a 3-1 victory over Fleetwood Town, has since turned into Blackpool’s worst sequence of results, and performances, in living memory.
Grayson’s appointment split opinion, with many including myself calling for Nigel Adkins or Newport County’s Michael Flynn, the latter a former Blackpool player, to take the side to the next level from predecessor Terry McPhillips’ manful efforts under incredibly challenging circumstances. A pedigree at League One level and former association with Blackpool was obviously at the forefront of Simon Sadler’s mind, and was apparently seen as an appointment with little risk attached. It hasn’t though worked out that way, with the obvious blots on his record at Sunderland and in particular Bradford serving as warnings of Grayson’s previous, but now fairly distant, record and reputation counting for more than it should.
Inheriting a squad decimated by departures of those to their parent clubs or whose deals weren’t renewed, Grayson was left with a difficult task to make Blackpool immediately competitive, all the while attempting to meet the expectations of a new owner and a re-energised fanbase. The recruiting of Sullay Kaikai, Joe Nuttall, Ryan Hardie, and Sean Scannell have though failed to work out, with perhaps the signings of goalkeeper Jak Alnwick, now injured, James Husband and the renewing of Ben Heneghan’s loan deal from Sheffield United being relatively successful.
It became clear from the outset that Grayson took an aversion to many, if not most, of the players inherited from the McPhillips/Oyston era. Caught between the two stools of Administration and the club being acquired by Sadler Terry McPhillips set about recruiting players who could at best be described as journeymen, or rough diamonds who could be fashioned into better players under the correct tutelage. There were no guarantees that Jamie Devitt, Ben Tollitt, Adi Yussuf, and Ryan Edwards would make the grade but with rumours that money would run out at the club in October 2019 unless a swift regime change could be effectuated, McPhillips was left with the unenviable task of cobbling together a squad the best way he could. Despite a rumoured offer of a contract extension to an initially reluctant manager McPhillips’ departure was soon announced after Sadler took control at the club, with perhaps the demands and expectations of a new era being more than the genial Liverpudlian was willing to take on. With hindsight I think a good many of Blackpool’s fans would gladly swap him back for Grayson-asaurus.
It has been frequently stated, including by Grayson himself, that the manager required at least another transfer window to bring in his own personnel and fully implement his own ideas. The concern though is writ large that Grayson’s style of play, an at times rigidity and at others where nobody can fathom the system on the pitch in front of them, will not change when he has the team and squad almost entirely of his own choosing. Are we to believe that Grayson has played a certain way during the first half of the season in response to not being able to field a whole team of players in whom he believes? Have his constant assertions that the club needs far greater quality on the pitch undermined and alienated the players he has had no choice but to pick?
A man of Simon Sadler’s wealth and expertise will not be averse to making tough, expeditious decisions but also not react to grumbling from the terraces when the first seeds of doubt began to emerge. How long though can he stand back and allow such a disastrous sequence of results to continue, especially when it is considered that Terry McPhillips achieved greater success with inferior players, a bog of a pitch within a crumbling, neglected stadium all under one of the worst owners in the history of Association Football?
Sadler has bankrolled some notable signings during the window, especially in terms of wages, but it would seem that a certain financial balance has been struck between incomings and outgoings. There is though some concern that established, if at times, mediocre players have been replaced by those on loan from parent clubs unlikely to countenance such deals becoming permanent. Grayson has though been given every chance by Sadler and cannot now argue that this team and squad isn’t of his liking or choosing. The time therefore to jettison Grayson would seem to have been in December, just as results were starting to go off a cliff, than early February when he has been allowed to bring in a dozen players, with another twelve leaving the building in one way or another.
What then of the signings, and departures during the January 2020 transfer window?
Chris Maxwell – the former Preston North End stopper, most recently on loan at Hibernian from Deepdale, has been recruited on a permanent deal albeit until the end of the season. Known in some quarters as ‘Flapwell’ it appears the Welshman has been recruited to audition for the eventual replacement for Blackpool’s best ‘keeper by a mile, Mark Howard. Having previously played under Grayson, Maxwell can expect to receive his manager’s unswerving favour but little in the way of welcome from the fans.
Christoffer Mafoumbi: Never fancied by Grayson, the Congolese stopper has made few mistakes during his near three years at the club but rarely figured in league games, unless precipitated by injuries. Now on loan at Morecambe, where he has already deposed established number one Mark Halstead.
James Husband: Initially signed on loan from Norwich City, the former Fleetwood Town fullback has seen his deal converted into an 18-month contract. Often utilised in a wing-back position seemingly anathema to his more defensively minded mien, Husband is more comfortable in a back four that an advanced role, although he has also played on the left side of a back three. Wholehearted, but never far from a rush of blood to the head.
Teddy Howe: Signed on a permanent deal apparently on the strength of two recent eye-catching performances for Reading against Blackpool in the F.A. Cup. Howe has little experience, and presumably wouldn’t now be at the seaside if Reading manager Mark Bowen hadn’t decided to ‘play the kids’ in both ties. Too soon to evaluate, but not representative of the experience Blackpool needs in this position and throughout the squad.
Ben Heneghan: A renewal of a loan deal which itself was a continuation of the 26-year old’s 2018/19 stint at the club. Unlikely to figure again for parent club Sheffield United Heneghan will surely move to a Championship club in the summer, but his form at times has been patchy with several instances of being turned too easily, including for Tranmere’s goal at Prenton Park in December. Will miss his solid partnership with the now departed Curtis Tilt, which brings me onto…
Curtis Tilt: Blackpool’s best defender has moved to Rotherham United for a paltry, if albeit undisclosed figure compared to what the club could have received for him last summer. I would rather have retained the services of Tilt until the summer when he would’ve been out of contract, left on a free transfer, and commanded a greater signing on fee and salary package. Prone this season to several decisive mistakes the mind of the 28-year old has at times appeared to be elsewhere; accusations of him being a Billy Big So-and-So are unsubstantiated but it isn’t surprising if this late starter rued the missed opportunities to go to bigger clubs like Ipswich and Portsmouth. It is though with this in mind that confuses those who rightly don’t consider Rotherham to be a step up in size or potential.
Michael Nottingham: A peripheral figure under Grayson. Another late bloomer snared from non-league, Nottingham can more than hold his own in League Two where he has currently gone on loan, to Crewe Alexandra.
Nick Anderton: Potentially out of his depth in League One, the 23-year old never allowed the obvious shortcomings in his game to deter his efforts. He memorably put his body on the line time and again against Oxford United, often in valiant attempts to atone for giving away possession or positional errors. A permanent transfer to League Two Carlisle United will hopefully be the shot in the arm his career needs.
Jordan Thorniley: A central defender signed on a permanent deal from Sheffield Wednesday, the 23-year old would appear to have been recruited as half, or a third, of Grayson’s future centre-back pairing. Has looked shaky in his early appearances, and again doesn’t represent the experience Blackpool require and that has been lost from this area of the team.
Taylor Moore: A loan deal only announced once the departure of Curtis Tilt was confirmed, the Londoner would appear to be his natural, if somewhat short-term replacement. A move met with incredulity by Bristol City fans, it is yet to be seen if the 22-year old is a step up in class from Tilt. With a future role at Ashton Gate all but assured the recruitment of Moore does not answer any of Blackpool’s long-term defensive questions.
Marc Bola: Returning from Middlesbrough, to where last season’s player of the season at Bloomfield Road was sold, Bola has found life difficult at the Riverside, where his defensive frailties have obviously not been ironed out by manager Jonathan Woodgate. Far better attacking than defending, especially in tracking back, the 22-year old Londoner has looked rusty and exposed on his return in the wing back role favoured by Grayson.
Rocky Bushiri: Loanee from Norwich City now returned to parent club. An inauspicious debut included an own goal against Macclesfield Town. The Belgian has since been loaned out to a club in his native country.
Jordan Thompson: Sold to Stoke City for a reported £500,000 the Northern Ireland international has been reunited with former manager Michael O’Neill. A player who would often drift out of games of which he’d failed to make a mark, Thompson is no great loss to Blackpool and represents a sound financial deal for the club. More at home on the pitch, quite literally cheek by jowl with the turf, this serial diver often ‘fell over’ when well-placed and often left the team short when facing defending counter attacks.
Connor Ronan: signed on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, the 22-year old already has a stint in the Slovakian top division under his belt. Acquired to provide some much-needed guile and quality to midfield.
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall: Another loanee, from Leicester City, and from whom more decisive forward thrust is hoped in a static and under-performing midfield, KDH made an immediate impact with a consolation goal on debut in the recent defeat at Wycombe Wanderers.
Grant Ward: Signed as a free agent just prior to the opening of the January transfer window, Ward was without a club following a serious injury sustained whilst at previous club Ipswich Town. Presumably signed as a left winger and to add greater balance to a team often overly reliant on the right sided Liam Feeney, Ward has initially been deployed in a baffling advanced role in central midfield. If Grayson insists on playing wing backs instead of a 4-4-2, Ward will find no place in the side unless used in a position unfamiliar to him. Initial indications are not positive, suggesting that Ward is not sufficiently interested, thinks himself better than he is, or that he hasn’t sufficiently recovered from long term injury. He may instead be confused by the way Grayson is using him within the team, or simply not be anywhere near good enough.
Ben Garrity: An unknown quantity plucked from non-league Warrington Town, four levels below League One. A risk-free acquisition of a free-scoring central midfielder, something with which Blackpool are hardly awash.
Callum Guy: Signed two years ago from Derby County Guy showed initial promise under Terry McPhillips before falling down the pecking order on Simon Grayson’s arrival at the club. When finally given his chance it was immediately evident that Guy and Jay Spearing, similar to Jimmy Ryan and Spearing, could not play in the same starting eleven, with both favouring a deeper lying midfield role. Saying that, Guy never fully took his opportunity and fluffed his lines on many occasions. A trier and as honest as they come, a transfer to Carlisle United will see him join fellow former players Nick Anderton and Chris Beech, the latter now the Cumbrian’s manager.
Ben Tollitt: Signed by Terry McPhillips during the interregnum between regimes, it was soon evident that the Liverpudlian, as with Jamie Devitt and Adi Yussuf, was several levels below what Simon Grayson was looking for. A subsequent loan move to Wrexham failed to give the 25-year old a much-needed reboot to a career now threatened with complete derailment, although his status as a free agent will hopefully make his acquisition an attractive one for a non-league club.
Rowan Roache: A former member of John Murphy’s incredibly successful youth team Roache mut now go backwards to head forwards in a career stymied by changes in management, expectation, and a failure of a deal with Derby County to become a more permanent arrangement.
Gary Madine: Not yet in the last chance saloon but the chequered career of someone who has never quite done justice to their obvious talent finds himself, similar to Grayson, back at Bloomfield Road for a second bite at the cherry. A previous record of 1 goal in 5 over a third of the 2014/15 season encapsulates a very ordinary strike rate for a player with whom many hopes have been rested, and to some extent dashed. No stranger to Community Service and serving time, Madine’s character poses an obvious risk for any club to take on board. Simon Sadler will have invested heavily in wages for a player released from an entirely fruitless spell at Cardiff City, where it was rumoured that Madine ventured into the city come nightfall to pay random people to fight him. Whether or not a substantiated rumour or a classic post-truth, the striker will do well to keep away from Blackpool’s numerous fleshpots and concentrate on doing what he is meant to do best. A clinical finish in yesterday’s defeat at Oxford United showed much of what he is about, as did an injury time miss with the goal at his mercy.
Emil Jaaskelainen: A youth team striker released with little fanfare by the club.
Ryan Hardie: Three goals from three substitute appearances with loan club Plymouth Argyle suggest the 22-year old Scot has either found his level in League Two or was mismanaged by Grayson. It is though quite telling that Hardie failed to find the net in his first full ninety minutes for the Pilgrims, suggesting he is at best an impact player more at home in his native land or the lower reaches of the English Football League. Although first courted by the club before Terry McPhillips’ departure it was only once Grayson took charge with the financial clout of Simon Sadler that Hardie pitched up at the seaside, from Glasgow Rangers. On the rare occasions he has figured in tangerine a demeanour more rabbit caught in headlights than predatory striker has suggested the jury is very much out as to whether another of Grayson’s acquisitions will fail to make the grade and be moved on in the summer.
Adi Yussuf: As with Jamie Devitt, Ben Tollitt, and Ryan Edwards the Tanzanian international was brought to Blackpool by Terry McPhillips as part of a recruitment programme rooted in pragmatism and limitation. A cheap punt where both the outlay and financial risk were minimal, Yussuf’s arrival from Solihull Moors on the strength of two reasonable performances against Blackpool in last season’s F.A. Cup perhaps represented his best and final chance at cracking it in the relatively big time. The writing was soon though on the wall for the 27-year old once Grayson entered the building; with an obvious aversion to players not of his choosing and those with non-league pedigree that amounted to limited hitherto impact, Yussuf was soon shuffled back to Tim Flowers’ Solihull in a move that failed to work out. On his return to Bloomfield Road the player was sent out on a further loan to a National Conference side, this time Boreham Wood. The worst thing that ever happened to Yussuf’s career was being signed by Blackpool. He was never likely to be good enough but in a hypothetical Terry McPhillips side there would have been a good chance the player might have figured, if only through financial expediency and an otherwise lack of options.
Unless Blackpool look as if they are being dragged into a relegation battle it is highly likely that owner Simon Sadler will persevere with Simon Grayson until the end of the season. If there was a time to relieve the Yorkshireman of his duties it has already passed; giving Grayson license to recruit a dozen of his own players is a tacit signal of Sadler sticking with with the now extremely unpopular Grayson, unless circumstances dictate otherwise. Has though the recruitment of so many players expected to hit the ground running from day one, and to dovetail with each other and the remaining members of the Blackpool squad, gone too far, too soon? Where is the much needed ‘been there and done it’ experience required in centre midfield, the final third, and elsewhere? Why were Blackpool willing to sell Curtis Tilt to a fellow League One club when Sunderland refused to sanction the sale, or loan, of Will Grigg and Aidan McGeady to a rival team?
The recruitment of so many players, many of whom are on short term deals brought in to replace those who’ve permanently left the club smacks of short termism and of being counterproductive. Can the club therefore claim with any justification of having achieved a net gain in personnel in the January window? Several players who’ve departed are no great loss to the club, but replacements who will never be permanent fixtures will not pick up the slack in the long term.
Despite a month of activity that few Blackpool fans ever thought possible or will be easily forgotten, serious questions remain over January’s recruitment policy, and the ability of the man tasked with melding the squad into a force with which to be reckoned. If Grayson cannot work out his best eleven to beat lowly Southend United this Saturday at Bloomfield Road, there will be nowhere for his oeuvre of timeworn excuses to hide.