Stealing a march on their divisional rivals is not something that Blackpool Football Club are historically known for, especially during the Oyston era when often during pre-season an insufficiently staffed squad would be hurriedly padded out before the August kick off. It is though despite Covid-19 ravaging lower league finances and depleting squads to the bare minimum that the Seasiders have been the most active club in League One, adding four carefully researched players to a squad weakened by the departure of key loans, and first team regulars Armand Gnanduillet and Jay Spearing. There is though the damage done to the squad during Simon Grayson’s seven-month reign as manager which must also be corrected, that amounted to a confused transfer policy and loyalty to poorly performing players which in effect set the club back a year.
How things change, and how they needed to. At a time when lower league teams must be wondering where their income will come from and indeed if they will survive to tell the tale, Blackpool are to a greater extent insulated by owner Simon Sadler’s wealth and willingness to use it. The Hong Kong-based Sandgrown’un is a local lad made good who also happens to be a fan of the club but as a highly successful businessman Sadler is not though using Blackpool as a plaything at which to throw untold amounts of money, instead hoping that his long-term strategy to grow the club and (re)connect it to one of the poorest areas of England will eventually see a financial, but also social return on his investment.
Aside from those who indulge in conspiracy theories few could have predicted the worldwide events of 2020, and how Covid-19 would go on to affect every area of our lives. It is moot to say that had the Oyston’s still been at the helm that Blackpool Football Club wouldn’t have survived a further decrease to its finances to the one initiated by the ‘Not a Penny More’ campaign, only because it was rumoured that the club would have anyway run out of working capital in October 2019 if the administrator’s ushered in to run the club and find a new buyer had been unable to do the latter. Sadler’s arrival was not only important to the future of the club, it was critical.
It was felt at the time when Sadler appointed former Blackpool player and manager Simon Grayson, who undeniably has an outstanding record in the third tier of English football, that the Yorkshireman would steady the ship in what was familiar terrain to him. The thought of promotion was bandied about and whilst not assumed, Blackpool undoubtedly had a decent chance of snaring a top six finish in what was a very poor division. It was though Grayson’s negative tactics and at times baffling team selection which created a disconnect between the manager and fans, none of whom were overwhelmed by his reappointment although few were devastated by it.
The football world had though moved on, without taking Grayson with it. Hindsight suggests putting the brakes on freewheeling football pleasing on the eye and which shouldn’t have been completely shunned in favour of more prosaic, pragmatic fayre stymied the team’s potential which was further destabilized by a January transfer window heavy in quantity but which lacked the quality to underpin the side for season’s to come. The loan signings of Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, Connor Ronan, and Taylor Moore added higher division quality to Blackpool’s roster but coupled with the loss of Curtis Tilt and Callum Guy failed to suggest that there was any form of long-term plan in Grayson’s mind. Only at Blackpool could they have their busiest ever transfer window but which left the squad with few, if any, permanent net gains and be subsequently weakened by it.
Of the four signings brought in so far by head coach Neil Critchley only one, Oliver Sarkic, has measurable experience in League One. Significant, albeit in amounts undisclosed, money has been paid for striker Jerry Yates and versatile front man C J Hamilton, both of whom were handed three-year deals. This length of contract is another departure from how Blackpool used to operate, but reflects the difficulty in securing players who command transfer fees and might in the future be hoped to be sold on for a profit, but also places a significant onus on Critchley to bring out the obvious potential he has seen in signings that include Leyton Orient defender Marvin Ekpiteta.
There is though an element of risk in signing lower league players on the back of one decent season in League Two. A loan spell at promoted Swindon and operating in tandem with prolific marksman Eoin Doyle obviously brought out Yates’ potential, but prior to the former Rotherham United player’s stint at the County Ground his record hardly convinced that he was striker who could make a significant step up. It is presumed Millers’ fans will surely be content to have received a reported six figure sum for a player that many would have previously been unfamiliar with.
C J Hamilton must also for the time being dine out on one season in the sun, within a Mansfield Town side who faltered in the 2018/19 season play offs when a month previous automatic promotion looked a certainty. A comparatively poor season followed for the player, in a side that was saved from possible relegation back to the National League only thanks to the season being suspended and Stevenage’s abject form.
It would therefore suggest Hamilton shone when the team did so, but drifted into obscurity as his side’s fortunes dramatically waned. It is perhaps overly simplistic to come to this conclusion, and perhaps former Stags manager David Flitcroft got more from the player than successor John Dempster ever could. There is though an element of surprise that Critchley has gone in for a player who scored and assisted far fewer than during the previous season, especially with another six-figure transfer fee. Time will tell if Hamilton flourishes in a squad of greater quality, or if has taken a significant step beyond his capabilities.
As previously suggested securing players who command by lower league standards a sizeable transfer fee is an expensive business for the buying club, who must reflect in the length of contract offered the esteem in which they hold the player and the chance of reselling their asset, for a profit, before they enter the final year of their contract or subsequently risk them leaving on a free. Three-year contracts for both Yates and Hamilton therefore represent sizeable financial outlays by the club, with no guarantees that such faith will be justified.
Fans who expect a raft of quality players with proven experience to be recruited from Championship clubs may end up disappointed, although there are still several areas of Blackpool’s squad that look lopsided and understaffed. As the regulation season in the second tier has only just drawn to a conclusion, it was perhaps unrealistic to expect players who were potentially still being used by their parent clubs to move on to pastures new before the denouement of hostilities. Blackpool will though need some old heads in defence to replace the sizeable holes left by loanees Ben Heneghan and Taylor Moore, with the loss of Curtis Tilt and even Clark Robertson still being keenly felt.
Comparisons are odious, or so the saying goes. From having his fingers burnt by the Grayson era Simon Sadler will have ensured that Neil Critchley’s targets are not brought to the club simply in good faith. It can therefore be presumed that significant due diligence has been entered into before Yates and Hamilton were recruited, and in that Blackpool fans must trust. Players with ordinary records bordering on the ‘you are never going to make it’ category’ often require someone to see something in them which nobody else has. Whilst that last statement perhaps is a tad harsh on Yates and in particular Hamilton, there can be no greater real time example of a striker coming from nothing to being a highly coveted asset than Aberdeen’s Sam Cosgrove. Down amongst the non-league dead men before hardly setting the world alight at Carlisle United the 23-year old Yorkshireman has blossomed under the guidance of manager Derek McInnes and is now being tracked by Italian and French clubs.
To reiterate – it is wrong to compare players and their circumstances when no two are ever the same, but for Critchley and Sadler to endorse the sizeable fees commanded for Yates and Hamilton, it can only be hoped despite the obvious wealth of the owner that the outlay of so much money during the uncertain times of Covid-19 will prove to be very well spent.