The unexpected but game-changing onset of Covid-19 has made 2020 a year like no other. As schools cautiously head back into the unknown this autumn it feels as if we have already been through a year several times its normal length, with still a third of it to elapse. Events ‘pre-pandemic’, in other words before early March, appear vague and intangible, and arguably inconsequential compared to all that has subsequently occurred. What may have taken place in the first two months of the year, however personally important those events were or will in time turn out to be for now at least pale into insignificance as novel coronavirus mercilessly sought out our weaknesses and failings.
To therefore hark back to the summer of 2019 is perhaps for some easier to recollect than the events prior to the pandemic taking root on UK soil, although it does seem to be far distant to the current day than the reality. For many followers of Blackpool Football Club primed for upheaval but weary of a need for a change by the time the Oystons were finally hoisted on a collective petard, the last 15 months feel to be more a continuation of a roller coaster existence than the inception of a new dawn critical to the club’s continued presence within the football pyramid.
Dialling back to June 2019 the club’s day to day operations were controlled by administrators brought in to oversee the fulfilling of the remaining 2018/19 season fixtures and seek out a new owner, as a consequence of Owen Oyston in effect having the control over the club he had had for over 30 years wrested away for failure to pay minority shareholder Valeri Belokon the majority of the £31 million a protracted court case concluded he was owed for being unfairly prejudiced. Simply put, Belokon failed to receive his share of Blackpool’s one season Premier League spoils and subsequent parachute payments but instead found that much of the money had been diverted away from the club to bankroll a Mammon-esque lifestyle for several members of the Oyston family.
Before Hong Kong-based hedge fund manager and lifelong Blackpool fan Simon Sadler rode to the club’s rescue its continued viability was by no means a foregone conclusion. It was said that there was only enough money to keep the club operational until October 2019 unless an alternative, and crucially a suitable custodian could be sought before this tacit cut off point. Had things turned out differently it is not unrealistic to suggest that Blackpool would now be ‘another Bury’.
Once it became clear that manager Terry McPhillips would not be staying at the club Sadler had to make a quick decision on who to bring on board to oversee the necessary stability needed on the pitch. The appointment of Simon Grayson, an expert at getting clubs promoted out of League One and a former Blackpool boss to boot seemed a logical, if slightly uninspiring hire, but a new broom ‘upstairs’ was no time for bringing in a more glamourous and high(er) profile gaffer with all the patter but without the necessary substance to back it up. I don’t know why but such a description brings Kevin Keegan to mind, perhaps even Ron Atkinson; two managers long out of reckoning for any managerial role but whose image of razzmatazz, fist pumping passion, and entertaining press conferences never quite delivered where and when it mattered the most.
Grayson’s stock had though been on the slide, after damaging stints at Bradford City and Sunderland portrayed the Yorkshireman as an uninspiring man of yesterday. It was an easy sell by Sadler to get his man, but one couldn’t help but feel during the dying embers of Grayson’s second coming that the owner had been naive to place the amount of trust and belief that he did in his first managerial appointment.
It is often said that a long and successful reign in business, football, or within a monarchy that it isn’t about who takes over next but how their successor shapes up. Sir Alex Ferguson and a succession of managerial blunders at Manchester United offer a prime example of this. Although a long awaited change of ownership can hardly be considered similar to the loss of club football’s most successful managerial exponent, it is doubtful that Grayson was considered by Blackpool’s more knowledgeable fans as a long term solution to getting the club back to establishing itself within the Championship, its realistic natural habitat. Brought in more to steady the ship Grayson couldn’t even do that, with the club in my view being emphatically better off had McPhillips not got spooked by Sadler’s justifiably greater demands on all who sailed aboard the Blackpool ship.
Before it became obvious that Blackpool were to be saved from almost inevitable oblivion McPhillips had to carry on the best he could and shape a squad which could at least fulfill the fixture list as long as the club could do so. His acquiring of Jamie Devitt, Ben Tollitt, Ryan Edwards, and Adi Yussuf were pragmatic signings that came cheap, and combined lower league experience with callowness that could benefit from McPhillips’ coaching acumen. For Devitt, Tollitt, and Yussuf the move to the seaside arguably proved to be the biggest mistakes of their careers but neither they nor McPhillips could be blamed for this. Quite simply the manager could not predict the future and had to fashion a squad out of a sow’s ear, whilst the aforementioned trio and Edwards were unlikely to turn down the chance to in theory ‘step up’.
It soon became clear that Grayson viewed Devitt, Tollitt, and Yussuf as a class, or two, below what was required to not only stabilize on field matters but push towards the top six of the division, something that was highly achievable in what was a very poor third tier. Edwards was though given the chance to prove himself and initially nailed down a berth at centre back before his star somewhat waned. His physically imposing presence could not though offset a lack of pace, especially if caught too high up the pitch. He was though by far from being one of the worst central defenders I have seen in tangerine and perhaps could count himself unfortunate to be released by the club two months ago.
There is now little at the club to suggest that Grayson was ever in the building until mid-February. Aside from mercurial winger Sullay Kaikai Grayson’s transfer business, specifically those brought into the club on permanent contracts, will go down as a total failure and has in effect set the club back a year. Mistakes are made by all managers and none intend their legacies to be blighted by poor judgment or cronyism, but Grayson will do well to get another gig on the strength of a negative style of play and scatter gun policy that appeared to lack any coherence or foresight.
The few successes brought into the club during the January transfer window were loan deals to replace squad members moved on during the same period, but the ultimate benefit to the club was specious with the loss of the likes of Callum Guy and Curtis Tilt and eventually also their temporary replacements, Taylor Moore and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall. Although I doubt very much it was, such a strategy appeared to all intents and purposes to be a cost cutting exercise, set against the high profile splurge on Gary Madine’s hefty salary.
Strange signings like Teddy Howe, Ben Garrity, and even that of Madine will characterize Grayson’s final weeks at the club. Brought to Blackpool on the strength of two apparently decent performances for Reading in the F.A. Cup against the Seasiders youngster Howe is likely to be released by Grayson’s successor and is a microcosm of the ‘sign at will, sign at will’ mindset bouncing around Bloomfield Road during the January window. Acquired from Warrington Town Garrity was presumably brought in to be developed for the future, with being loaned out to further his game time an aspect of this process. With the salary cap and restrictions on the number of squad members pegged at 22, there will be no room for passengers as all clubs must pare down and sharpen up squads if they are to survive the fallout from Covid-19. Similar to the fortunes of Devitt(albeit still at the club but without a squad number for the 20/21 season), Tollitt(now at 6th tier AFC Fylde) and Yussuf, loaned to National League side Wrexham, Garrity arrived at the seaside at the wrong time but this could not have been predicted, nor on this occasion can Grayson be blamed for it.
This week’s departure of ‘striker’ Joe Nuttall to newly promoted Northampton Town, again on a season long loan, in effect closes the chapter on Simon Grayson’s second stint at the Blackpool helm. A high-profile acquisition from Blackburn Rovers by dint of the rumoured £750,000 paid for the player, few if any strikers at Bloomfield Road in my 37 years of supporting the club have been as disappointing or appeared so disinterested. Football fans will forgive much, but not disinterest or a lack of effort. Nuttall scored his only two league goals against one of the two highest profile sides in the league, Ipswich Town, with Sunderland also maintaining an incongruous presence in the third tier. Blackpool fans will justifiably argue that the Cobblers and manager Keith Curle are welcome to the 23-year old, who came to the seaside with the alleged baggage of having an agent who was a personal friend of Grayson. Subsequent performances by the player gave supporters a very convenient stick to beat the player, but by persisting with using someone unworthy of a place in the side inevitably led to many smelling a rat.
Neil Critchley has had a baptism to senior club management that he couldn’t have foreseen. Cleaning up the aftermath of Grayson’s hiring and firing and working within the parameters that novel coronavirus has imposed upon the professional game has limited the wages any club can offer players whose starting point in negotiations would in difference circumstances have been much higher. The ceiling on squad size is also something that will challenge all managers but also see many players failing to get another gig for the foreseeable future. The situation has though allowed Critchley to identify the players he wants at Blackpool in line with a profile of nurturing talent and in some cases selling on those polished by his skills honed at Liverpool during its current golden age. Easing out under performing never-will-bes has therefore been easier, although some surprising casualties like Callum McDonald have also been included in the cull. Notwithstanding the pandemic’s influence over proceedings there is an air of focus, ruthlessness, and a demand for higher standards across the board at the club which has never existed in the modern era, and very much in keeping with how Simon Sadler became the highly successful businessman he is today.
The appointment of Grayson was neither greeted by Blackpool’s supporters with universal approval nor objection, but his time at the club will not be remembered fondly by those who witnessed the increasingly turgid performances of a team that the manager refused to let off its lead. It is though important not to write a hagiography of many of the regulars who were incorrectly revered, if only because of where the likes of Jay Spearing and Armand Gnanduillet have ended up after turning down new contracts. Players respond differently to the demands of and treatment by various managers but Spearing’s influence on the game had shown consistent signs of deterioration, with Gnanduillet’s goal record inflated by a succession of penalty conversions and the unerring service provided him by player of the season, Liam Feeney.
As Critchley’s first gig as the main man and with a raft of new, predominantly lower league signings he can call his own it is at the moment unclear as to how Blackpool will, and should, perform this season. The nature of the performances, with a desire to play the game how it should be complemented by the necessary steel and on occasion to mix style with route one substance will push Critchley’s ideals to the limit. If though one thing has come from his appointment and the restrictions imposed upon Blackpool and all other clubs by the pandemic is the need for a more holistic approach, less centred upon finance but more on coaching, humility, and a joined up approach to keep the 71 English Football League clubs afloat. Such a strategy has been needed for some time, but it is a shame that it took a silent killer in our midst to bring the game temporarily at least to its senses.