A return to league action for Blackpool after a 18 day absence precipitated by bringing forward the home game with Ipswich Town, a move which did not exactly reap dividends, will not only shake any complacency from the squad’s collective system after routine cup victories against Eastbourne Borough and Leeds United’s under 21’s, but severely test the mettle of a side who before the recent run of victories was frankly floundering.
It is true the victories breed confidence and stay the hand of restless owners, in what is, after all, a results business. The first signs of owner Simon Sadler’s disquiet following a run of poor performances and results was the installing of seasoned campaigner Colin Calderwood to ‘assist’ Head Coach Neil Critchley. It is also true that results have improved since the former Tottenham defender arrived at Bloomfield Road, but positive, albeit unconvincing results against some of the division’s weaker elements, MK Dons, Burton Albion, and Wigan Athletic, have not only flattered to deceive but do not as yet indicate the Seasiders are building up a head of steam to ultimately mix it with League One’s leading lights.
It is against those who are expected to make up the division’s top six that Blackpool must go toe to toe, if they are to fulfill the fans’ perhaps skewed expectations and justify Sadler’s faith and not inconsiderable investment into the team, the club’s material needs and a management structure brought into line with the makeup of academy and commercial operations in the Championship and the Premier League.
I mentioned the skewed expectations of fans. This in my view is born from two reasons, both understandable. Firstly, under the Oyston regime, although to call it that is perhaps somewhat generous, the team and the club’s infrastructure were slowly starved of oxygen, relying in the end on a Dunkirk spirit in the face of appalling training conditions, a visible deteriorating Bloomfield Road, and an increasingly patched up squad. It was the underappreciated coaching skills of Gary Bowyer and his deputy, then successor, Terry McPhillips who kept the ‘pool competitive. Since Sadler took over there has never been any suggestion that he would deny the club what it needs, anything but, although the sizeable churn of players has at times belied a certain naivety in recruitment and a suggestion that too many influences had the owner’s ear. The acquisition of players, in quantity, is though in the minds of many football supporters the measure of how a club should be judged, with expectations for the current or forthcoming campaign formed accordingly. An understandable, but ultimately specious, conclusion for many to draw.
When a club in effect breaks up an entire squad, in Blackpool’s case 21 players leaving either on permanent transfers or loan deals, they have to be numerically replaced. For those supporters who are excited by the future potential of the club under Sadler’s guidance and frankly with his financial clout, they are right to be so. However, replacing a squad not to Critchley’s liking with one he does, resulting in a turnover of 38 personnel, is highly disruptive and does not automatically equal success. For those who have accused Blackpool of attempting to buy the division the reality is that the players brought in are not ringers, but an influx of so many in quick succession will inevitably lead the uninitiated to such conclusions. The first few months of action have though emphatically implied that Critchley’s Blackpool are by no means going to improve upon the best efforts of predecessor Simon Grayson.
The wherewithal of Sadler has also warped the expectations of those of tangerine persuasion, and many outside looking in. A figure in the millions has had to be spent, with a need to do so very much remaining, on the stadium’s infrastructure. Seemingly left to rot by the previous owner, Bloomfield Road has lost the shiny newness paid for by grants and the munificence of former majority shareholder Valeri Belokon. I did wonder if Sadler would ultimately plump to relocate the stadium, to cut his losses and start again, but a lack of available land in what is one of the most built up conurbations in England, coupled with the emotional attachment of football being played at Bloomfield Road, have presumably rule out such a scenario. With the outside of the ground showing the sort of wear and tear commensurate with a seaside location and a lack of previous due care and attention, there remains a great deal within Sadler’s in tray.
Then there is Squires Gate, Blackpool’s notorious training ground, once labelled a Centre of Excellance (note the ironic spelling mistake). Moving away from perhaps some of the most basic, depressing, and windswept training conditions in professional football would again seem to be a more appropriate solution, but a lack of obvious options elsewhere has for the time being at least led Sadler to lend an air of comparative respectability to where Critchley and his staff are tasked with working their magic. I always thought the site of the former Mecca nightclub, situated adjacent to the club on nearby Central Drive would make an ideal location for a training complex, and bring to heel one of the least photogenic, shall we call it, areas of Blackpool. In respect of future training facilities and a respectable home for the club’s academy, it remains unclear what Sadler’s intentions are, but the novel coronavirus pandemic will presumably have stalled any so far unseen proposals.
Neil Critchley was brought to the club to instil a Liverpool-esque elan to Blackpool’s play, with a mandate to procure a squad capable of acceding to his blandishments. As more and more new players pitched up at Bloomfield Road it became apparent that most came with a ‘promising’ and/or ‘up and coming’ label, suggesting Critchley’s coaching credentials would be put firmly to the test rather than simply buying in a raft of old(er) dogs that had gone beyond the teachable stage, or would at least be unperceptive to broadening their skillset. This is where many fans have been unwittingly misled by their own naivety; assuming that players bought in with a billionaire’s cash must be a cut above Blackpool were presumed to be shopping in a different emporium to times past. Predominantly sourcing players from League Two will obviously require considerable work on the training ground to fulfill the potential seen in them but will not reap the immediate demands expected of what is a disparate group.
It is moot as to whether Sadler expects or even demands promotion this season, but the 2019/20 campaign was the one where Blackpool missed the boat. If Grayson had been sacked after the New Year’s Day defeat at Rotherham United Blackpool still had the chance to reach the play offs as a minimum. The chaotic January transfer window which would have lived long in the memory of many had Covid-19 not had such a cataclysmic impact on all strands of life, and retaining Grayson throughout the first month of 2020 put paid to any new manager bounce which could have propelled Blackpool up a very poor League One.
Arriving with an adherence to his former boss’s penchant for gegenpress and a 4-3-3 formation, Critchley soon found out that trying to emulate Jurgen Klopp in the less rarefied surrounds of League One was not an approach that will assail all comers. A particularly chastening defeat at Steve Evans’ Gillingham exemplified how fancy football, and frankly an air of just needing to turn up and assuming it will produce the desired outcome, was the equivalent of Homer Simpson suggesting hiding under a pile of coats during an exam will ensure everything turns out for the best. Gillingham are not as talented nor as expensively assembled as Blackpool, but in League One that is not the point. An ability to execute at times wily, streetwise, and pragmatic football will get clubs far in League One, albeit coupled with some finesse once sides have earned the right to play, but it should be remembered that three ‘up and at’em’ sides, Wycombe Wanderers, Coventry City, and Rotherham United, prevailed last season where others, more easy on the eye fell by the way side.
Acknowledging that League One isn’t perhaps the natural terrain for his brand of football that he assumed it to be, Critchley has changed in recent games to a 4-4-2 formation. Often derided as old-fashioned and predictable I still favour this system, or even Simon Grayson’s favoured 3-5-2, if the appropriate personnel are at the manager’s disposal. Jerry Yates, undoubtedly one of Critchley’s favourites and through his courting of the former Rotherham United player a bellwether of how history will judge the head coach’s tenure at Blackpool, has not hit the heights predicted by those who knew little of his overall record and judged him by his exploits last season at then League Two Swindon Town. In my view Yates is not an out an out striker, an assertion borne out by an ordinary goal record for someone bought in as a front man. Now that 4-4-2 appears to be in favour Yates has been played in tandem with the only out and out striker in the squad, Gary Madine. A classic number nine, Madine is never going to tear a defence to shreds but used correctly can get 15-20 goals a season, and be a highly effective foil for a second striker.
Should that though be Yates? With a natural inclination to drift out wide from a more central position, it is obvious that Yates is more comfortable cutting in from the flank than being a target man, which is borne out by the at times sizeable gap between him and his striking partner. With Sullay Kaikai and C J Hamilton occupying the flanks in a 4-4-2 with the likes of Ben Woodburn, Oliver Sarkic, Bez Lubala, and Daniel Kemp vying for starting berths there are other creative options for Critchley, but a lack of pure striking options could ultimately stymie Blackpool’s ambitions. Critchley will though persevere with Yates, who shows admirable persistence and has finally chipped in with a few goals, but an expensively acquired front man, or at least someone brought in to satisfy that requirement, will have to do more than just ‘chip in’. Any forays into the January transfer market are unlikely to yield suitable candidates for Blackpool’s final third, with the impression very much being that from a financial perspective and a likely lack of available quality, what Critchley now has at his disposal will have to see the club through until May.
Despite some obvious weaknesses in the squad it won’t though do the club any harm to have greater stability on the pitch resulting from less turnover. Continuous churn of players suggests to outsiders of an unstable environment and whilst under the auspices of Sadler and compared to the previous regime this will not be the case, the club cannot risk reputational harm which scatter gun and revolving door transfer policies could engender.
The acid test for Critchley starts tomorrow, and will keep on rolling Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday until Boxing Day. By then, but in reality sometime before, it will be abundantly clear if Blackpool can be a force in this season’s League One, and if the head coach is clear within his mind as to the approach needed to achieve this. Blackpool have so far only played one good team this season, Ipswich Town, who mercilessly put them to the sword. With games against Peterborough United, Portsmouth, Fleetwood Town, Hull City, and Sunderland before the festive period, everyone associated with the club will by this time be acutely aware if Critchley is the right man to take Blackpool back to its natural habitat, the Championship, and if the players brought in by the head coach, or was it Tommy Johnson and/or Jonathan Gibson, respectively heads of Recruitment and Technical Scouting, and have what it takes to quickly grow in hothouse conditions.
It is all well and good suggesting that the club have a ready-made replacement in Colin Calderwood, an alternative some would prefer over Critchley, but such an eventuality would be an admission of failure that a project dependent upon not only a progressive, well-respected youth coach but also his ability to mould a cabal of inexperienced players into a promotion-winning side had unequivocally hit the buffers. The wider implications of this would be felt further up the chain of command by not just Johnson and Gibson but also CEO Ben Mansford. Blackpool can therefore ill-afford another period of upheaval, both internal and on the pitch, which would set the club back yet another season in its quest for Championship football. The current setup is therefore under significant pressure to make it work, which the next few weeks will tell much as to whether the long-term prospects of it doing so look favourable, and likely.