Four competitive games into his managerial career at Blackpool Football Club Neil Critchley will have long since defined the very different world of the third-tier professional game from a starkly contrasting hothouse atmosphere within Liverpool’s youth set up.
The dramatic change from working on Merseyside for the best domestic team in world football to a club seeking to divest itself on and off the pitch of the worst effects of the Oyston years was mitigated somewhat by the enforced cessation of matches only two games into Critchley’s nascent days at the seaside, giving the 41-year old a settling in period longer than could ever have been envisaged.
With almost two months to go but lost of the 2019/20 season Blackpool had fallen too far behind from the play off places which was the bare minimum they should have achieved, but a side that fell victim to the negative football and cronyism instituted by previous incumbent Simon Grayson drifted way off the place after a promising, but cautious start to the campaign. Four points from as many away games – Bolton Wanderers, Accrington Stanley, Tranmere Rovers, and Rochdale – garnered only two goals and turgid performances played with the handbrake on, instead of a minimum return of 10 points against sides Blackpool should have ruthlessly put to the sword in front of substantial travelling support. As goodwill towards the side but in particular Grayson himself ebbed away new owner Simon Sadler had to act before those who had waited five years to re-enter Bloomfield Road once more started to drift away.
Critchley has by and large now got a squad in place of his own choosing and must therefore be judged by results. The two games in March where he was technically the man in charge where in fact overseen by and large by Grayson’s former assistant David Dunn, before the former Blackburn Rovers favourite took the Barrow reins from Bolton-bound Ian Evatt. It is though from the Carabao Cup game at Stoke City onward where Critchley fully takes responsibility for results earned, or otherwise, by a side unrecognizable from that which last season ultimately flattered to deceive.
Two goalless bore draws at the Bet 365 stadium and against Dunn’s Barrow in the EFL trophy have not reflected the array of attacking talent Blackpool have amassed over recent months but it isn’t always about the personnel, but the system in which they are asked to play. From being last season’s standout performer the Blackpool career of Liam Feeney is all but over, with a 4-3-3 formation favoured by Critchley not one where the 33-year old is likely to flourish. Possible the physically fittest player in the squad last season by dint of the highly demanding wing back role demanded of him by Grayson Feeney was in effect reinvented, arguably having the best season of his life, made all the more so remarkable by the dire performances the player had put in the previous season that suggested his days in tangerine were numbered. It would though appear the player’s brief Indian Summer has morphed into a premature winter of discontent, but whether another club in the days of a salary cap and maximum squad size could come anywhere near matching Feeney’s salary is far from guaranteed.
A season is a long time in football, with the contrasting fortunes of defenders Jordan Thorniley and Michael Nottingham more than emphasizing the point. Brought into the club to some fanfare from Sheffield Wednesday by Simon Grayson Thorniley was expected to make the sort of positive impact on the pitch which his fellow centre backs Curtis Tilt, Clark Robertson, and Ben Heneghan had at various points in recent times. Limited exposure on the pitch has though proved to be for good reason, with the 23-year old looking all at sea in the professional game, albeit a level below from where he arrived. His performance on Tuesday evening against EFL newcomers Barrow did little to push a case for a permanent berth within Blackpool’s back four and gives Critchley the headache of needing two new centre backs – he already needed another – just days before his side’s League One opener at Plymouth Argyle.
By contrast the resurrection of Michael Nottingham’s Blackpool career is testament to the player’s outstanding performances during a loan spell at Crewe Alexandra which aided the Cheshire side’s promotion to League One. The treatment of the player by Simon Grayson does though in my view warrant further scrutiny, with a background in the non-league game and therefore a late bloomer in the professional realm seemingly something which Grayson saw fit to hold against Nottingham. Before pitching up at Gresty Road Nottingham’s appearances at Bloomfield Road on matchday were limited to the main stand, frozen out of more or less each and every eighteen-man squad. Brought back into the fold by Critchley who gave all the players he inherited a clean slate to justify their existence at the club, a versatile and athletic Nottingham has sufficiently impressed the head coach to such an extent that he can all but be assured of inclusion in the starting eleven, or at the very last within the match day squad. Viewed by some as more a pragmatic decision to keep him during times of restricted budgets and squad sizes than for the obvious impression he has made upon Critchley, Nottingham can though play in several positions across the back line, deliver the ball from deep from both in play and the touch line, and can even be sent forward if the need arises for the side to go ‘route one’. In contrast to Thorniley’s waning star, there is an obvious chance for the 31-year old to cement his place within Critchley’s plans.
Aside from Nottingham, Thorniley, and Feeney three other players inherited from Grayson, Jamie Devitt, Teddy Howe, and Gary Madine, will occupy Critchley’s thoughts. It is no secret that Devitt is not wanted at a club for whom he has yet to play a competitive match. Bought in by Terry McPhillips during the interregnum between owners the player, along with Ben Tollitt, Adi Yussuf, and Ryan Edwards, were pragmatic signings to in effect fulfill the club’s fixtures rather than for their stellar talents, although McPhillips, a skilled coach, would’ve hoped to have drawn out anything that was there to be found. These were though signings for an uncertain era that could have ended, Bury-like, in October 2019 when the money left to operate the club was calculated to run out, had Simon Sadler not ridden to the rescue. Once Grayson had been appointed it was immediately clear that the players, Edwards aside, were not of the standard that the new boss had in mind for Sadler’s cash. An unsuccessful, albeit injury-blighted stint at Bradford City failed to turn into anything more permanent for Devitt, who currently finds himself without a Blackpool squad number and as things stand, alternative employment elsewhere. Tollitt left the club some time ago and is now back in the area at sixth tier AFC Fylde, while Yussuf must make the most of being loaned out to National League side Wrexham.
Perhaps the most curious signing during a crazy, scatter gun January window was Teddy Howe. Brought in on the strength of two supposedly good performances in the F.A. Cup for Reading against the Seasiders, it took until Tuesday’s EFL Trophy match against Barrow for the 21-year old to make his bow for the club in an admittedly stand out performance amidst an otherwise sea of mediocrity. Howe has though not exactly impressed in pre-season and can perhaps attribute his place in Tuesday’s starting eleven to Critchley protecting Ollie Turton before Saturday’s trip to Devon. He is though a player who perhaps hasn’t been given sufficient chance to shine and be coached to greater things, so a place within Blackpool’s 22-man squad is on balance, for the time being, justified.
There are few greater enigmas plying their trade outside of the Premier League than Gary Madine. A player with all the attributes to lead the line and intimidate opposition defences Madine has never quite ‘done it’ on a consistent basis anywhere during a peripatetic career often stalked by controversy, and even a stint in jail. Like Liam Feeney it is questionable if Madine can function in and the best be drawn from him playing in a 4-3-3 formation, with the 3-5-2 system used and favoured by Grayson more attuned to both players’ qualities and limitations. Relying on quality deliveries from Sullay Kaikai and in particular Feeney Madine and now former spearhead Armand Gnanduillet could compensate for their respective and palpable lack of pace with able assistance from the flanks. I cannot see how Madine would fit into Critchley’s preferred system that instead focuses on a rapid transition from defence to attack using nippy exponents such as Bez Lubala, Keshi Anderson, C J Hamilton, Jerry Yates, Grant Ward, and Kaikai himself. Brought in in January to rescue Grayson and the season, Madine commands high wages bankrolled by Sadler and will be loathed to take a cut in salary elsewhere, but that itself will put off potential suitors during cash-strapped times precipitated by the novel coronavirus. Madine should be a player for whom most teams in the EFL would give their right arms, but I cannot help but feel the player is now in his last chance, albeit well paid, saloon.
There are no guarantees that his achievements at Liverpool which first attracted Blackpool to Neil Critchley will be replicated in the harum-scarum pell mell of lower league football. Indeed, former Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers midfielder David Thompson believed it to be a mistake for Critchley to pitch up in FY1, but failure in the professional sphere for a revered youth coach is undoubtedly not without precedent. I remain on the fence, as I was at the time of his appointment, but cannot realistically or justly come to any conclusions before Critchley has had the best part of half a season to implement his methodology on a squad predominantly of his construction.
By dint of how many players fitting a young, energetic, and the potential for resale profile that Critchley has brought to the club Blackpool are being talked about as potential promotion candidates, but also by some who believe the club are attempting to buy the title. Not so, considering how many players have left the club, at the last count 17, and the significant wages of the likes of Jay Spearing, Joe Nuttall, and Ryan Hardie that have been removed from the books. Rather than a buying their way to instant success Blackpool are at least attempting to do things the right way by investing in highly regarded younger players instead of a team of expensive ringers, a la Madine, perhaps.
Whether best intentions will bear fruit is another matter entirely, but Simon Sadler’s vision for Blackpool is being embodied by Critchley’s ruthless hiring and firing policy where passengers will not be entertained or indulged; constraints on all football clubs precipitated by Covid-19 has tightened these already exacting restrictions yet further, exemplifying the lean and mean operation Sadler requires for a club that must be placed squarely at the heart of an impoverished town where every penny counts. It is now Critchley’s responsibility to translate a sea change in the club’s ethos into results on the pitch.