Football squads being dismantled is nothing new. Often at the height of success all conquering teams are broken up, from a viewpoint that to remain successful standing still and waiting for rivals to catch up is not an option. Such pruning is though the preserve of a select few, and whilst there is logic behind what is a drastic but voluntary intervention, there are no guarantees to it effectuating the desired outcome.
Squads are routinely carved up, added to, and padded out once the transfer window opens between season end and the next campaign, and to some extent but less often during the January window. For most sides this is an annual ritual reflecting what have usually been disappointing seasons, seen as the obvious panacea for an uptick in future fortunes but also highlighting the number of short-term contracts now offered to lower league players, usually for good reason.
Each club has its own individual circumstances by which it must adjudge the future retention and disposal of its playing assets. The financial chasm between clubs in the English Football League and the Premier League will never be bridged, and it is a wonder how 71 clubs managed to stay afloat prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, let alone in its midst and before we have even reached the aftermath. A salary cap ratified yesterday will despite insistence from the EFL be an inconvenience to and a controlling measure of clubs in the Championship, League 1 and 2 but with understandable chagrin from the Professional Footballers’ Association the feeling is that we are a long way off the pertinent parties reaching consensus.
In normal times, peacetime if you will, the annual merry-go-round of bang average, journeymen seeking their next one or if fortunate two year deal and extolling to the increasingly cynical media how ‘big’ their new club is and how from talking to the ‘gaffer’ or chairman they couldn’t countenance going anywhere else, has this year been couched with the realization that the effects of Covid-19 on all areas of life are not going away anytime soon, and that the painful but necessary stripping back and reshaping of squads will bear little resemblance to the usually way of doing things. Assuming the salary cap is upheld it will of course mean different things to different clubs, for example Sunderland and Accrington Stanley, but a side-effect of the ravages on the finances of EFL clubs could see a more level playing field than at any time during the professional era.
Blackpool Football Club are one of the fortunate few who have by and large been insulated from the worst of the pandemic thanks to the financial muscle of their owner and chairman, Simon Sadler. A self-made and local man who made good and then some as a Hong Kong-based Hedge Fund manager Sadler has been seen to bankroll not only the necessary improvements needed in the short-term to the Bloomfield Road stadium, but bucked the trend in the early days of summer by allowing head coach Neil Critchley to usher in a new dawn on the pitch by bringing in a raft of fresh faces to the squad.
Before it became clear that the salary cap could stymie Blackpool building a sizeable squad to enable a full scale assault on automatic promotion to the Championship, the club’s realistic long-term level, it appeared that Critchley’s new signings would complement the finer points of the team inherited from predecessor Simon Grayson and to some extent will do so, but after a rush of five signings, now six since the arrival of former Sunderland midfielder Ethan Robson, a gradual re-balancing of numbers has seen several interesting departures from the club, but none, so far at least, that will hand on heart be greatly missed.
Notwithstanding the departure of 2019/20 season top scorer Armand Gnanduillet, who some months ago made it clear he was going to consider his options elsewhere and would not be signing fresh terms, several player exits have initially raised eyebrows but in the cold light of analysis represent an age group contrary to Critchley’s prowess for coaching and improving younger charges, but also that many who have departed had in reality reached the ceiling of their abilities and wouldn’t be the malleable clay with which Blackpool’s head coach could do his best work.
An example of this is Nathan Delfouneso. Away from the pitch ‘Delboy’ was personable and willing to use his time and energy on local charitable causes. Whilst such character traits are laudable and a sign of a well-rounded individual, not of weakness, the opinions of many Blackpool fans became clouded by the seemingly forever-clapping Delfouneso who through cynical eyes was viewed as someone trying to ingratiate himself with those who are any footballer’s harshest critics. Time and again last season the player would get himself into advantageous positions to only make a poor decision by hanging on too long to the ball, or as often occurred not playing in those better placed. My final impression of Delfouneso was his dallying with the ball before being dispossessed of it, leading to Ipswich Town’s only goal at Bloomfield Road on February 29th, a date that now seems further ago than it actually is. Purely as a critique of the player’s ability Delfouneso fell well short of the standard needed to propel the club where it aims to be, and offloading his presumably sizeable salary onto fourth tier Bolton Wanderers is good business for Blackpool, regardless of the pandemic and salary cap.
Jay Spearing was another player rightly well thought of for his affable approach – to what must be tedious amounts of attention and demands on the time of footballers. As club captain Spearing would never shy away from fronting up after a poor performance and result, including when his standards dropped below his own expectations and those demanded by the crowd. The diminutive midfielder’s performances were though noticeably on the wane, with several instances of giving away the ball at crucial moments and the picking up of yellow cards whilst attempting to retrieve the situation. In mitigation Spearing had little assistance in Blackpool’s engine room but his slight stature is perhaps more suited to the Championship, where the pell mell nature of and rough housing common in Leagues 1 and 2 is less evident. The second tier is though now beyond the player’s abilities, and the immediate shock of his departure from Bloomfield Road has been re-calibrated from analysis of his deteriorating performances, and that his again presumably significant salary can be used more effectively elsewhere. Turning down a one year contract when two would have been preferred, even on reduced terms, sent Spearing off to search for pastures new but it was always anticipated his next move, for familial & geographical terms and whenever it occurred, would be to Tranmere Rovers. And so it came to pass.
The departure of centre back Ryan Edwards to Dundee United represents a different dynamic to the exit of Spearing, Gnanduillet, and Delfouneso. Signed during the dying embers of the Owen Oyston and Terry McPhillips era – the two parties are only linked by their respective but different departures from the club during a short period of time, and does not tar the latter with the brush used against the former – Edwards was brought in during a pragmatic but wholly necessary search by Terry McPhillips for players who were affordable at the time to the club, and could hopefully be coached to better things. Despite the threat of the club going under in October 2019 had Sadler not dragged Blackpool back from the brink, McPhillips still had to ensure the squad had enough bodies within it to fulfill fixtures, with anything else being a bonus.
On the arrival of Simon Grayson Edwards survived the cut where the likes of Jamie Devitt, Ben Tollitt, and Adi Yussuf failed to do so simply through their lack of quality needed as a prerequisite for a new era of a resurrected club. Showing early promise alongside Ben Heneghan, Curtis Tilt, and other less-conventional back three triumvirates the 26-year old will perhaps be remembered best for powering home a header against Oxford United, the finest side to have played at Bloomfield Road last season. It did though become apparent that Edwards was not of the vintage of the aforementioned Tilt, the departed Clark Robertson, serial loanee Heneghan, and loan star Taylor Moore. Nevertheless, Blackpool are hardly replete with options at centre back and Edwards was a solid player who was not out of his depth, but perhaps unfairly measured against the aforementioned quartet. I felt the rudiments were there for a reliable squad player but with the age of the player and the experience already under his belt, perhaps Critchley did not see a likelihood of further improvement being extracted from the Liverpudlian.
I therefore see the departure of Edwards as a commentary on his ability and future coachability, rather than a nod to a looming salary cap. Signed at a time when the club was on its knees, I very much doubt that the player was one of the biggest earners but if he was never likely to play under Critchley, it was pointless keeping someone whatever size of salary they commanded. It is perhaps surprising that the player has ended up at Dundee united, but the Scottish Premiership represents an overall standard no greater than League 1, even if the hulking comparative might of Celtic and Glasgow Rangers, individually and collectively, might suggest otherwise.
Head coach Critchley will surely have reinforcements at centre back in mind now that the club is down to three permanent options in that position – Michael Nottingham, Jordan Thorniley, and Marvin Ekpiteta. Each have the physical attributes associated with the responsibilities that the position demands but are untested under Critchley and in general at the club, and do not take into account the comparative quality of those tried and tested in the back three-five, depending on formation, that have departed over the last couple of seasons: Marc Bola, Kelvin Mellor, Tilt, Robertson, Moore, and now Ryan Edwards. Returning again for a now free agent Heneghan is feasible but Blackpool are unlikely to once more garner Taylor Moore, who will surely figure prominently at a rebooted Bristol City – his parent club.
It is unclear how far Blackpool can now go in terms of recruitment in the light of the likely implementation of a salary cap and if it will herald further departures, such as Liam Feeney. It would seem incredibly harsh to jettison last season’s player of the year, a far cry from his otherwise abject performances for the club, but Feeney was very much a horses for courses player of his time, or more precisely of Grayson’s time and how he was reinvented as a highly effective wing back as part of back three/five. Aged 33 the physical demands of holding up one side of the pitch for an entire campaign is untenable, and it is presumed Critchley will favour a 4-3-3 formation which might not find room for the player, nor draw out the attributes used in tandem with Armand Gnanduillet to such great effect.
With 1,400 EFL players out of contract and finances squeezed, there are a lot of bargains to be had but also many who will find themselves without a club, and income. Now that the salary cap has dragged Blackpool back into the pack will the club have lost its financial advantage of Sadler’s wealth and his willingness to use it, or is the overall ‘project’ of being part of the club’s regeneration still a significant draw to players looking for something more than just a guaranteed monthly wage?
Critchley has sourced the younger players that he believes can be improved by his proven coaching ability. It is now incumbent on both he and the club to add steel to the spine with those experienced from operating at the upper end of the football pyramid, who as old dogs are not afraid to be taught new tricks.