Whether or not the now former Blackpool F.C. manager Simon Grayson had remained in situ at Bloomfield Road his January transfer window business warrants critical scrutiny, from which it is arguable that the club have failed to secure the expected commensurate uplift from an unprecedented churn of 25 players.
Many have suggested that Grayson should have been shown the door by club owner Simon Sadler prior to the opening of the much maligned mid-season window, but I do wonder if the parity in quality and quantity of those arriving and departing the seaside reflects a pragmatic approach from Owen Oyston’s successor, perhaps reluctant to spend big when the manager’s position was under such intense scrutiny, and pressure.
It is undoubtedly true that whilst the vast majority of incoming players have arrived from the Championship, many will return in the summer to their parent clubs who are presumably funding salaries meaning minimal financial risk to Blackpool. There is little doubt that Gary Madine, as a free agent on his release from Cardiff City, will be on a sizeable basic wage presumably incentivised with appearance and goal bonuses, but the loss of Callum Guy and in particular Curtis Tilt and Jordan Thompson has been mitigated by the arrival of arguably Blackpool’s best performers in recent games, a triumvirate of loanees in Taylor Moore, Connor Ronan, and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall. When summer arrives Blackpool will suffer the double whammy of having already lost three players AND then their replacements. Is there a grand plan behind this apparent short-sightedness, or does it amount to a serious error of judgment?
Securing players from higher divisions does not necessarily reflect the ambition of the purchaser, nor is it an automatic guarantee of quality. Centre back Jordan Thorniley and midfielder Grant Ward, formerly of Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town respectively – the latter when the Suffolk side were in the Championship – look some way off the quality needed to replace the departed Thompson and Tilt. Goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, a favourite of Grayson when managing at Preston North End, from whom he recently left via a unsuccessful loan spell at Edinburgh side Hibernian, is not an upgrade on previous custodian Mark Howard. Teddy Howe, a full back brought to Blackpool on a permanent deal seemingly on the strength of two reasonable performances for Reading against the Seasiders in the F.A. Cup is otherwise young and untested, especially in the rough and tumble, pell-mell of League One.
The returning Marc Bola, albeit on loan from Middlesbrough who signed the Londoner on a permanent basis in the summer of 2019, has categorically failed to replicate his previous form for the Seasiders, which saw the former Arsenal trainee secure the player of the season award and justifiably earn a move to supposedly bigger and better things. Never blessed with outstanding defensive qualities Bola usually offset the shortcomings in his armoury by decisive left-sided attacking thrusts but even these seem to have deserted a player who looks short on confidence, and frankly, ability. Rightly dropped for the club’s last outing at Bristol Rovers for the more versatile Calum MacDonald, I would seriously question if there is any point Bola remaining at Bloomfield Road for the last third of the season.
Aside from the signing of Warrington Town midfielder Ben Garrity, essentially a free hit with little risk attached, any changes to Blackpool’s forthcoming matchday squads will come from players returning from injury or having previously been frozen out by Grayson. Ryan Edwards has been sorely missed from his central defensive berth and was the exception to Grayson’s tacit rule of moving out of the club those previously brought in by his predecessor Terry McPhillips. Whilst at times erratic and never far from a rash intervention, former Norwich loanee but now officially a Blackpool player, James Husband’s return from injury gives the team greater defensive options but must be kept away from a wing back role surely now the preserve of MacDonald. Elsewhere, Sean Scannell, brought in as part of a swap deal that saw midfielder Harry Pritchard move to Bradford City, and the mercurial Sullay Kaikai can expect to see action before May, assuming the latter overcomes his protracted injury problems.
The final third of the pitch is perhaps where most of the deliberation took place regarding Grayson’s handling of the players at his disposal. The statistics do not lie regarding top scorer Armand Gnanduillet and his 18 goals in all competitions; whilst the Frenchman has improved his game I would not regard the 28-year old as being a great loss to the side should as expected he moves on in the summer, such is his ‘ability’ to slow down play when dropping deep, at times exhibiting poor feet and a penchant to miss headed opportunities which should be meat and drink. Gary Madine has come in to play alongside Gnanduillet, be his replacement for next season, or as an impact substitute – nobody is really sure. With a semi-proven ability in League One and arguably the Championship, albeit with at best a 1 in 5 goal record throughout his career, Madine is in his last chance saloon unless an improved strike rate and off field temperament are both given due care and consideration by the player.
Simon Grayson will forever be remembered for not only the at times turgid and negative fayre offered up by his Blackpool side but also his misguided loyalty to striker Joe Nuttall. Signed from Blackburn Rovers for big money – perhaps using what the club received for Bola – and no little fanfare Nuttall was seen as a sharpshooter for the immediate and long term. What has transpired couldn’t be anything more the opposite, with the player at times looking as if he has been randomly dragged off the street and told to impersonate a footballer. And yet, under Grayson, perhaps influenced by his pal, Nuttall’s AGENT, Blackpool coach, and for now at least CARETAKER MANAGER David Dunn, the player has stayed in or around the squad whilst fellow misfiring frontman Ryan Hardie, eventually signed by Grayson but only after Terry McPhillips had shown initial interest, was sent out on loan, and to some effect, to Plymouth Argyle.
Now, it would be wrong to suggest that Hardie has pulled up any trees at Blackpool – he hasn’t. If anything, the player looked lost in English football after his arrival from Glasgow Rangers with seemingly as little to offer the side as Nuttall. Was it Dunn, Grayson’s friend and eventual member of his coaching staff that ensured Nuttall stayed at the seaside, or just the manager’s desire to not lose face that his most expensive signing had failed, something which would have to be conceded had the player gone out on loan? Is Hardie prospering in League Two because that is his level, or under better coaching from Ryan Lowe? It would not surprise me if both Hardie and Nuttall leave the club at the end of the season.
Notwithstanding the many females in Blackpool’s crowd who go weak at the mere sight of the player, the seemingly eternal obsession with Nathan Delfouneso is a mystery that I suspect will never be solved. When applauding an often-disgruntled crowd the player is undoubtedly world class, untouchable. The reality though of his often wasteful and selfish performances cannot be viewed in isolation as an example of a bad day in the office but the actual epitome of a player who is coasting, and one I would suggest is a fraud to himself and the paying public. At 29-years old the player has failed to take forward any fleeting glimpses of quality displayed during a stuttering career punctuated by loan moves, a poor strike rate, and just doing enough. Whilst typically lower division his decision-making is frankly poor, especially when better options lie left or right but instead the player invariably opts for a selfish, unproductive route. Missing a last minute one on one with Bristol Rovers’ goalkeeper Jamal Blackman summed up Delfouneso, his career, and Blackpool’s depressing ‘go to’ reliance on a player whose major contributions during this season have been against lower and non-league opposition in the F.A. Cup.
Without wishing to rewrite what is albeit recent history I wasn’t taken in by the numerically incredible influx and exodus of players at Blackpool during January 2020. Too many questions remain unanswered, in context of the current squad and its likely makeup in August, and whether the whirligig of arrivals and departures was in actuality an endorsement of Grayson by Simon Sadler or a exercise in damage limitation from an owner mindful that the manager’s stock was terminally holed beneath the waterline. Recruitment in midfield and more advanced areas has been poor, for example with no obvious replacement for an injured and out of form Jay Spearing which left David Dunn on Saturday with an inexperienced midfield three of Matthew Virtue, Dewsbury-Hall, and Ronan, two of whom are only at the club on a temporary basis.
It is with this example and others besides that have left me feeling cold, not enthused, by Blackpool’s transfer business in January; those fans taken in by the sheer amount of turnover compared to the barren Oyston years need to ask themselves where within the squad are the net gains, from what seems to be a scattergun approach from whoever at the club has the final say, be it Simon Grayson, and/or the respective heads of recruiting and scouting – Tommy Johnson and Jonathan Gibson. It is though worth repeating: was this amid a backdrop of Sadler sanctioning a January recruitment policy that had in mind Grayson’s likely, and imminent, departure?
The summer of 2020 could tell us much, or nothing whatsoever, about the events leading up to Grayson’s departure but another new manager will have his own ideas, and players in mind to fit into a preferred way of playing. As with most of McPhillips’ signings, many of Grayson’s recent intake could find themselves out of the door before their Blackpool careers have begun in earnest.