The outpouring of grief from many fans of Blackpool Football Club on hearing that 2019/2020 season top scorer Armand Gnanduillet would be leaving the seaside is in many ways a symptom of an age increasingly obsessed with the here and now, with little interest beyond the superficial and in what lies beneath. Statistics can fail to do justice, but also hide some inconvenient truths. For an out and out striker whose currency is a favourable goals per game ratio, notwithstanding his recent but somewhat misleading purple patch, the figures over the course of Gnanduillet’s professional career do not lie.
Having been released two years earlier by the Lancashire side and subsequently picked up by South African outfit Baroka, ironically now managed by former Seasiders favourite Dylan Kerr, the Frenchman of Ivorian heritage could count himself somewhat fortunate to have been at Blackpool during his most prolific spell. There is some conjecture as to why Gnanduillet was released only a few weeks later from his contract but whether his recruitment overstepped the quota of foreign players allowed within South African domestic squads or that Baroka found the player to be less able than they had hoped, the 28-year old soon made his way back to Blackpool for a further two seasons.
It has been said that the majority of football fans have little knowledge of the game, and only see what is blatantly in front of them. Although more recent statistics bear out some improvement in Gnanduillet’s form in front of goal his lack of mobility ‘for a big man’ that often slowed down play to allow the opposition time to regroup often hindered Blackpool’s ‘on the break’ style which latterly relied on wing backs, in particularly the rejuvenated Liam Feeney, for the side’s attacking thrusts. When Gnanduillet connected with the ball it stayed hit, in a way that suggested a more wayward hit and hope approach was used than a considered and accomplished technique otherwise somewhat conspicuous by its absence. We are though talking about a player with a goals per game rate of 1 in every 4.5 – many of which were snaffled in League Two.
And therein lies the point I am trying to make: by turning down an offer to extend his contract at Blackpool, presumably so the club could secure a fee before a likely departure talked about even before the January transfer window, Gnanduillet has been convinced by himself, his agent, and rumours of interest from clubs from the lower reaches of the Championship and those in League One bigger than Blackpool that he is better than he is. Strikers with greater ability playing for clubs in League One who finished lower than Blackpool but have a greater chance of establishing themselves at Championship level include Tranmere’s Morgan Ferrier, Joe Pigott from AFC Wimbledon, and Jonson Clarke-Harris of Bristol Rovers. The latter has especially proven himself to be a more mobile and clinical marksman than Gnanduillet after a similar peripatetic career around League One and Two.
Much though from where the player had drawn such an inflated opinion of himself came from the reaction of many of Blackpool’s supporters towards him. At times clumsy, maddeningly slow, selfish, and appearing disinterested, Gnanduillet did not fool all of those viewing matched through tangerine-tinted spectacles but an attitude that never minded the quality but focused solely on the goals clouded the judgment of many. I accept that since the heady days of Premier League football now all but a decade ago Blackpool’s supporters have had little to cheer during the pernicious reign of the Oyston family, but adjusting expectations and standards in accordance with such meagre fare ensures those not of the standard of John Murphy, Dave Bamber, and Tony Ellis are elevated into such vaunted company.
As Blackpool advance onwards and perhaps up under new head coach Neil Critchley and owner Simon Sadler’s benevolent guiding force the club will surely be moving in different recruiting circles, to complement the few players within its ranks capable of taking it to the Championship. A damaging January window which placed far too much emphasis on quantity over quality, albeit with some outstanding loan signings that have now sadly returned to their parent clubs, has imbalanced the squad leaving it with few reliable exponents other than Jay Spearing*, Ollie Turton, Sullay Kaikai, Feeney, and the unpredictable Gary Madine. Whether the services of loanees Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, Ben Heneghan, and Taylor Moore can be re-engaged is debatable but Critchley will seek to stamp his own thoughts on a squad in which the aforementioned trio were very much his predecessor Simon Grayson’s signings. I would not though rule out the former Liverpool Under-23’s boss signing Ferrier, of whom he would presumably have been aware during his final days on Merseyside.
Replacing Gnanduillet at the top end of the pitch is as easy or hard as Blackpool wish to make it. Gary Madine can obviously play in the same role and has considerable experience of doing so at a higher level, albeit with indifferent success. With the former Blackburn Rovers striker Joe Nuttall also within the ranks, there are obvious options to draw upon already within the club and while Critchley is under no obligation to work with players not of his choosing, Nuttall and Madine both have similar but different points to prove that one can cut it in the professional game after an expensive move but a season to forget, and that the other has still got it within his wherewithal to do a job in League One and above. Blackpool also count former Glasgow Rangers forward Ryan Hardie within their squad, who prospered only when dropped down a level on loan at a Plymouth Argyle side he helped gain automatic promotion. A striker in a different mould to Madine, Nuttall, and Gnanduillet I have my doubts as to whether Hardie has the attributes to thrive in League One and above, although Pilgrims manager Ryan Lowe might simply have used him to better effect than Simon Grayson ever could.
Should the likes of Ferrier, Clarke-Harris or a more risky signing such as Kyle Lafferty eventually arrive at Bloomfield Road, they would all be a significant upgrade on a player who flattered to deceive and who was very much in the debt of expert wingman Liam Feeney. Where Gnanduillet continues the next stage of his career it will represent the final opportunity for the player to secure a relatively big payday, but options to express himself on a grander stage might be fewer than he expects. Nevertheless, Gnanduillet sees it as high time to move on, which it is, and something too that many of Blackpool’s supporters must also do.
*UPDATE: After failing to agree terms on a new deal Jay Spearing has as of 26th June 2020 left Blackpool Football Club. Neil Critchley has much work ahead of him.