Reboot 2.0 for Blackpool Football Club under the auspices of benevolent ownership was paused before it could gain traction, but ‘new’ head coach Neil Critchley is now beginning to stamp his identity on what is a squad brimming in creative intent but lacking in numbers.
After wresting the reins from the ruinous stranglehold the Oyston regime had on the club Simon Sadler sought a safe pair of hands with the experience of guiding teams through the choppy waters and pell mell of League One. It is said that managers should never ‘go back’ to where they previously enjoyed success or the contrary; either tarnishing a legacy or adding insult to past injury it is often best to leave things how they were left, but notwithstanding the obvious and justifiable reservations of reappointing a previous manager, it was initially understandable why Sadler opted for Simon Grayson.
Dining out on successes in League One with Preston North End, Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and yes, Blackpool in 2007 when a ‘perfect ten’ run of victories culminated in a Wembley play off triumph over Yeovil Town, Grayson had the ‘been there, done’ t-shirt depicting an erstwhile Red Adair-type image as a third tier trouble-shooter. Grayson knew the terrain, both the division and at Bloomfield Road, but his recent stock had drastically fallen, albeit at Sunderland and Bradford City, two large clubs in their own right but weighed down with expectations emanating from a sense of entitlement spawned by relatively recent Premier League membership.
Grayson was therefore given the benefit of the doubt by the majority of Blackpool’s supporters, although none were overwhelmingly pleased by his appointment nor devastated by it. Perhaps that ‘meh’ filtered down to the pitch from the terraces, but only really became obvious once ‘Jurassic Grayson’ had inculcated the squad with a safety-first policy that always seemed to play with the break on.
Inheriting a squad that had the previous season defied expectations under caretaker boss Terry McPhillips, Grayson set about securing several signings that he felt would add value to a side, whilst almost immediately casting adrift a raft of McPhillips’ recruits brought to the club beforehis abrupt resignation and when it was certain that a new broom would sweep clean a club inexorably dying under the previous regime. The signings of the likes of Jamie Devitt, Ben Tollitt, and Adi Yussuf, no disrespect to any of them, were the embodiment of McPhillips’ pragmatic thinking of how Blackpool could fulfill its fixtures with little or no money available from the Oyston family or gate receipts to add proven quality to the squad. It is though extremely unfortunate that the careers of the aforementioned trio were adversely affected by pitching up prior to a new manager entering the building, but fresh money and ideas meant that Grayson was under no obligation to use players not of his choosing.
It soon became clear that Grayson was not the man for the job, if it is to be assumed that the remit of his role had shifted somewhat from ‘just’ being a guiding hand on the tiller. It was blatantly obvious that League One was there for the taking, or at the very least a place in the top six, but as performances and results deteriorated towards the end of 2019 it became doubtful that Sadler would entertain justifiable unrest from supporters who had only recently returned to the fold after boycotting games under the Oyston regime.
Many supporters were blinded by a level of activity within the January transfer window unprecedented during the Oyston era. A turnover of players that included the departure of Curtis Tilt to Rotherham United and Callum Guy to Carlisle United saw the key positions within the team otherwise lacking in number and depth filled by loan players, albeit of quality rarely seen at the seaside. There was though a concern that a central defensive pairing of Bristol City’s Taylor Moore and Ben Heneghan from Sheffield United would at the end of the season return to their parent clubs, leaving Blackpool lighter than ever from a chain of events that began with Tilt’s unnecessary departure.
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Connor Ronan, from Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers respectively, infused Blackpool’s ailing midfield with Premier League credentials but their individual and collective impact upon the club was again all the more galling, knowing that they too would head back home on the completion of a season presumed at that point to end in early May.
Midfielder Grant Ward and volatile striker Gary Madine, two players of repute but in need of a fresh start and to disprove their doubters arrived on permanent deals and represented a considerable financial expense to Sadler. Grayson could have few complaints about being backed by the owner, but a lopsided squad of players actually owned by the club looked in worse shape after what was to untrained eyes a January spree of epic proportions.
Results and performances continued to deteriorate, with only a sketchy 2-1 victory over a doomed but unfortunate on the day Southend United preventing Grayson from being handed his cards. The following Tuesday another winnable home match did though come and go, resulting in a last-minute defeat to Gillingham. Despite public protestations to the contrary Grayson could in private have little to complain about. Fans who had not visited Bloomfield Road for five years were once more turning their backs on the team, a situation Sadler could not allow to take root.
The initially derided David Dunn, an appointment as coach seen more as a nod to the old boys’ network and the 40-year old’s position as striker Joe Nuttall’s agent, took over on a temporary basis and guided the club to a couple of memorable, if somewhat fortuitous last minute victories over Bolton Wanderers and Ipswich Town before Neil Critchley, seemingly at least the club’s third choice, was installed in early March. It is fair to say that Dunn won over many Blackpool fans during his short stint at the helm, when the oppressive atmosphere of Grayson’s antediluvian style of play and unapologetic countenance finally lifted. Although kept on by Critchley as an integral part of his backroom staff Dunn has since taken up the managerial position vacated by Blackpool legend Ian Evatt at newly promoted Barrow.
The last couple of weeks has seen a flurry of transfer activity utilizing what is a well-oiled revolving door. Once the loss of both Jay Spearing and last season’s top scorer Armand Gnanduillet had fully percolated into minds of the more objective Blackpool supporters it is fair to say that Spearing’s substantial salary and the presumably improved terms offered to Gnanduillet can be better spent elsewhere. Despite captaining the side and never shirking a challenge or interview Spearing’s powers were on the wane, highlighted by frequently losing possession as the season unfolded. Obviously hoping for a final pay day before heading into a coaching role, Spearing took umbrage at Blackpool’s offer and is now seeking gainful employment elsewhere. It is doubtful though that he will earn more than offered by Blackpool at the financially stretched Bolton Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers, two of the teams linked with his services by dint of respective previous experience and geographic proximity.
Statistics are notorious for misleading those that deal in cold, hard numbers and who sit on the outside looking in. It cannot be disputed that Gnanduillet was top scorer in his first productive season of perhaps seven in the lower reaches of the English game. Buoyed by misplaced veneration from many of Blackpool’s supporters and no doubt an agent who has convinced the player that he is far better than he has ever proven, Gnanduillet is obviously holding out for a Championship club coming in for him once their delayed season draws to a close. Blackpool were obligated to offer their top scorer a new deal but there are no guarantees this was done for any reason other than to command a fee for the 28-year old.
Other than to inject some youthful exuberance, potential, and padding into the squad the signings of Keshi Anderson, Oliver Sarkic, and Leyton Orient’s Marvin Ekpiteta offer few clues to Critchley’s thinking. Anderson would seem to prefer a more central role in the final third but would not appear to be a direct replacement for Gnanduillet, if one is to be acquired. I am though of the opinion that even footballing purists have to accept that ‘lumping it long’ to a target man is on occasions necessary, especially when chasing a game. Montenegrin Sarkic appears to be a squad addition rather than a guaranteed starter, although in a numerical sense makes up for the significant loss to central midfield of Ronan and in particular Dewsbury-Hall. A replacement who brings to the team what only Jay Spearing, and to a lesser extent Callum Guy before the player was sold to Carlisle United, in other words a destroyer with some forward vision, has yet to be secured, unless Critchley intends to use James Husband or Oliver Turton in this role, should the latter ultimately decide to re-sign for the club.
It is fair to say that to all of Blackpool’s fans living outside of east London Ekpiteta is an unknown, and is unlikely to be anything but a punt by the club on someone who under the expert tutelage of Critchley might come good. The 24-year old has all the credentials to be an imposing central defender, and although Blackpool are short in this position aside from Ryan Edwards, Michael Nottingham, and Jordan Thorniley, none of these are of the quality of the departed Curtis Tilt, Ben Heneghan, and Taylor Moore.
Few favours have been done to the club and Sadler by Grayson’s seven month return to Bloomfield Road. If anything it feels that that matters on the field have gone backwards over the last twelve months, albeit with the club’s ownership and long-term future having been secured a year before the as yet unknown consequences of Covid-19 sweeping through every club in the land. Neil Critchley is though faced with a rebuilding job as large as any in Blackpool’s recent history, as the reality of melding those in the squad able to adapt to differing demands with his own signings presents an immediate challenge to the early days of his tenure.
There is never a lack of players without a club at this time of year, but as Covid-19 has necessitated the trimming of already stretched budgets further personnel will find it harder than ever to secure their next gig. Underpinned by Sadler’s financial muscle Blackpool are in a stronger position than most, but a plethora of free agents should not be confused with the small pool of quality contained within it. Under Grayson Blackpool had the players but not the manager to set them up to play attacking and successful football infused with the necessary steel. Many of those players are no longer at Bloomfield Road and need to be replaced, but if the quality of Madine, Sullay Kaikai, and Liam Feeney are to be complemented by much needed new additions, Critchley will need to shop in a very different department to where he has been in the last few weeks.