It is assumed and in the main understood in equal measure that football managers on arriving at their next posting will wish to bring in personnel to play in their image, to dovetail with the most suitable component parts of their predecessor’s squad.
In the pursuit of implementing an ethos as far removed as can be imagined from the previous regime, where though does severing links with the past become contempt for it?
Neil Critchley arrived as the new head coach of Blackpool Football Club to much fanfare, but only after their previous choices, including Oxford United’s Karl Robinson, ruled themselves out of decamping to the seaside. Prior to his first stint as the ‘main man’ at a professional club Critchley achieved considerable success within Liverpool’s youth set up, and was seen by Blackpool owner Simon Sadler as the ideal man to implement a sustainable approach to player recruitment predicated on identifying and acquiring young players who could be coached to greater things, before potentially being sold on for profit after hopefully aiding the club to reaching its natural and realistic habitat, the Championship.
The squad inherited by Critchley was lopsided and severely lacking in several departments, with an over-reliance on admittedly high-quality loan players whom would never be long-term fixtures at the club, nor therefore add value to it. Nevertheless, Blackpool could count upon several highly experienced players such as Jay Spearing, Liam Feeney, and Gary Madine, who would be ideal sounding boards for the squad’s younger elements.
Of course, nobody could have predicted just two games into Critchley’s Bloomfield Road tenure that the worst health crisis in a century would indefinitely suspend proceedings and afford the new manager a significantly longer honeymoon period than most can expect. The pandemic has subsequently hammered every facet of life, with the only football-related surprise being that no English Football League sides have gone under as a result of novel coronavirus.
Introduced to limit the damage that an almost immediate cessation of income has done to clubs and for in the meantime at least that they live within their means, a salary cap and size limit to squads, 22 players, have been introduced which in effects levels up the playing field in League One. Although already punching significantly above their respective weight Fleetwood Town and Accrington Stanley can now financially go toe to toe with Sunderland, Portsmouth, and Ipswich Town – a scenario previously seen as absurd as it is unthinkable.
By quirk of the introduction of Critchley to Blackpool but also the constraints imposed upon clubs to stay viable during the ongoing pandemic, most of the squad inherited by the 41-year old has left the building, including Armand Gnanduillet, Mark Howard, Spearing, and now Liam Feeney. Last season’s player of the season, Feeney operated in tandem with spearhead Gnanduillet to considerable effect and through his impressive tally of eighteen assists, enabled the mercurial Ivorian to present an image of being far more talented than the reality. Despite being the oldest player in the squad the 33-year old took on the demanding and energy-sapping wing back role given to him by Critchley’s predecessor Simon Grayson with gusto, his performances embodying a renaissance man who had looked only the previous season to be heading out the door.
It is though just that which Feeney has today done, joining Blackpool’s now former player Spearing and fellow loanee Callum MacDonald at Tranmere Rovers. Initially borrowed for the rest of the season, it is safe to assume that Feeney’s time in tangerine is effectively over.
How though can last season’s undisputed player of the year have been deemed surplus to requirements? It is no secret that Feeney is on a good wage, but it is one he more than earned during Grayson’s disastrous second stint at the helm. Quite simply, it is viewed that his salary can be better spent elsewhere on players with the kind of age and coachability that underpin the profile of Critchley’s recruits this summer. I do though view the gradual ebbing away of ‘been there, done it’ experience from the squad as a significant mistake; who when their confidence is low will the likes of Bez Lubala, C J Hamilton, Jerry Yates, Sullay Kaikai et al turn to on the pitch and training field for sage-like words of wisdom and advice?
Favouring a 4-3-3 system that plays out from the back Critchley could not realistically accommodate a Feeney more attuned to the dramatically different 3-5-2 used last season. Playing a formation that neither encourages old-fashioned wing play nor the use of a target man has given the manager additional ammunition to dispense with Feeney’s services, but also places the future of Madine, another big earner, in some doubt.
Flattering to deceive throughout his career, including in his dozen or so appearances for Blackpool, Madine is a divisive character who has at times had more baggage than a Manchester Airport carousel. It is though the type of experience that he and Feeney give the club that is draining away; whilst still to justify the significant salary granted to him by Sadler in an attempt to rescue Grayson’s managerial tenure Madine still represents on his day the type of match winner otherwise missing from what is a callow Blackpool squad. It is though not unrealistic to assume that Critchley wants to jettison the 30-year old but finding another suitor in the current climate willing to match his salary is another thing entirely.
Whether Madine stays or goes is an aside to a methodology the club is now working to, but also represents a worrying trend of placing youngsters in positions of responsibility arguably before they are ready to do so on a full time, match after match basis. The squad still lacks a commanding, experienced centre back and reflects the loss over recent seasons of Curtis Tilt, Ben Heneghan, Taylor Moore, Clark Robertson, and even Ryan Edwards. A lack of a Gary Brabin/Andy Morrison-esque midfield enforcer highlights that a waning Jay Spearing is still to be replaced. If Critchley cannot or will not accommodate Madine into his modus operandi Blackpool still require an experience proponent versed with all the necessary wiles and guile for the final third.
I understand that the advent of Covid-19 has ripped up the rule book and placed previously unimaginable burdens on football clubs of all sizes, but the convenience of the salary cap and restrictions on squad size to Critchley’s ‘rip it up and start again’ mindset does not sit easily with me, amid so much churn of personnel and the loss of respected players like Feeney who had already proven able to more than earn their keep.
There of course may be a spate of incoming transfers which staunch my concern and pessimism, but players at this late stage of the year still without a club will not necessarily be of the standard which improves upon what the club already has. It will instead be left to the relatively vintage Ollie Turton and Chris Maxwell to rally the troops and lead by example but with neither being overly verbose, the lack of atmosphere in all but empty stadia will give both the opportunity a unique chance to be overheard by their teammates. Only the unfolding season will tell if this will be enough for an otherwise young team to prosper in the unforgiving hurly burly and pell mell of third tier football.