I previously called for Blackpool to start picking up points in games that mattered; in other words, against opposition already jostling for the top six positions or who are expected to do so.
The last two games, both away from Bloomfield Road have provided some illumination to the development of the Tangerines under Head Coach Neil Critchley, especially since he was given some much needed help by club owner Simon Sadler when performances and results plummeted, and the quality, or lack of it, of those sides occupying the upper reaches of League One. It would not though be unfair to say that many Blackpool supporters, especially those who look beyond scorelines, will be none the wiser as to how the ‘Critchley Project’ is progressing, but with English football’s third tier once more lacking substance and being there for the taking, it again seems that any team who can be there or thereabouts at the business end of the season and then go on a consistent run of form is in with a chance of promotion, aside from the teams already milling around the division’s bottom six.
Blackpool thoroughly deserved last Saturday’s victory at Peterborough United, at the time in pole position atop League One. From back to front Critchley’s men commanded the game and whilst there is always somewhere a mistake in a defence containing James Husband and two callow centre backs, Marvin Ekpiteta and Daniel Gretarsson, the emergence of midfielder Kenny Dougall, surprisingly released by Barnsley, has bolstered the centre of the park where Blackpool have been arguably lacking for several seasons.
Although comparisons with deadly duo Dwight Yorke and Any Cole are both premature and hopefully tongue in cheek, front men Gary Madine and Jerry Yates have begun to strike up an understanding which will need to bear serious fruit if ambitions of a top six position are to be realized. There is also the issue of there not being any other out and out strikers within Critchley’s squad, with Joe Nuttall and Ryan Hardie loaned out to fellow League One sides Northampton Town and Plymouth Argyle. Completely in keeping with Nuttall’s stop-start, mainly stop career at the seaside, the player is currently back at Bloomfield Road receiving treatment for an injury incurred on a rare outing for Keith Curle’s side.
I refer to both Yates and Madine as being out and out strikers but only the latter can be classed as so, resembling an old school, archetypal number nine there to take the hits and put in the donkey work rather than bag thirty goals a season. It would appear Yates is currently being proselytized into a central striker but came to prominence as a player who cut in the from the flanks, often to devastating effect for last season’s League Two champions, Swindon Town. My overriding feeling is that Critchley is not a fan of Madine but expediency in the face of the salary cap, limits to squad size for players aged over 21, and a lack of an obvious replacement have reprieved the well-travelled 30-year old.
I have been extremely critical of Critchley and the opacity of who within the footballing hierarchy at the club was responsible for bringing in a large number of players predominantly bracketed as promising, and/or up and coming. Mistakes have undoubtedly been made and we will never know how close the head coach came to being relieved of his duties before Colin Calderwood was parachuted in, so it will be grist to the mill for those who think I am devoid of giving Critchley any credit for a modest upturn in fortunes when I say that Peterborough are nothing special, implying that Blackpool should be beating them anyway.
In no way do I suggest that Blackpool have an automatic right to expect to beat all comers, anything but. Shorn of the prolific Marcus Maddison and in particular Brentford-bound Ivan Toney, the Posh are not the free-scoring force of last season and I would expect them to once more miss out on the promotion places. Winning at London Road was a tremendous boost for all concerned at Blackpool, but putting an opponent on a pedestal is never a good idea when in the first place there was insufficient reason to do so . Perhaps in an acknowledgement of Blackpool’s woeful away record which had gone 13 months without recording a victory before back to back wins at Burton Albion and then Peterborough, some fans were understandably putting out the bunting a little too early. And so it proved to be, when a follow up win at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium would have given serious substance to the assertion that Critchley’s charges were finally showing why so much faith has been placed in them.
Racing into a two-goal lead in South Yorkshire, including the dominant performance at Peterborough, Blackpool had just put in their three best halves of football of the 2020/21 season. Notwithstanding that 2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline to defend, what followed might have been predicted as the same mistakes resurfaced, including the conceding of early goals, that have punctuated Blackpool’s season to date. Although undoubtedly stymied by some shocking officiating by referee Ross Joyce, the way the Seasiders caved in during the second half against Darren Moore’s more savvy, experienced side showed that nullifying a predictable route to goal via speedster C J Hamilton would always place a heavy burden on a defence that resorted to launching long, hopeful punts downfield that were not guaranteed to find friendly feet, but instead came back at them with interest.
The penalty Doncaster received was borderline, but Kenny Dougall made Joyce’s decision a relatively easy one by unnecessarily lunging in on a player to whom he perhaps should have been paying closer attention. It cannot though be disputed that Rovers’ first goal was a meat and drink offside for VAR, which should be used across the board and not just in the Premier League. The top four divisions of the pyramid are either collectively classed as professional or they are not; there should not therefore be a distinction between tiers, no pandemic pun intended, when it comes to the standards of professionalism in officiating and crucially, referees being held to account by technology, especially in the face of so many calamities by Joyce, who saved his ‘best’ for last with Blackpool being denied as blatant an injury time penalty as you are ever likely to see.
Throwing away a two-goal lead was poor, and whilst halftime came at the wrong time for Critchley but exactly when needed for Darren Moore, the head coach and Calderwood surely would have primed their defence for what would come from a presumably shamed and re-energized opposition. It is true that Doncaster didn’t repeatedly carve Blackpool open but some lax defending which at times saw a far too distant gap between Gretarsson and Ekpiteta afforded Rovers’ nippy front players greater freedom than should have been allowed. During the second half Doncaster were also more effective in the transition from defence to attack, which on occasion bypassed a stretched and flagging Blackpool midfield. On the balance of play and refereeing clangers a draw would have been a fair outcome, but a lack of alternative attacking options to change the game and vary Blackpool’s hand was obvious. Shutting down Hamilton and to a lesser extent the enigmatic Sullay Kaikai resulted in the ball being propelled back to front far too quickly, in effect circumventing any structure from which to build effective attacks.
Several issues therefore remain to be overcome, if Blackpool are to challenge the likes of Hull City, Ipswich Town and yes, Joey Barton’s Fleetwood Town. There isn’t an obvious settled side for Critchley to consistently pick, even if all his players are available for selection. The one obvious change would be Luke Garbutt for James Husband, although the former Evertonian who played last season at Portman Road could be more effective in an attacking midfield role as an alternative to the hot and cold Kaikai, and the inexperienced Bez Lubala. Should though Garbutt but stationed further up field then Husband or Dimitri Mitchell would be required to undertake responsibilities at left back, with the later in particular being an impressive attacking defender who’s not too keen on defending. I would also replace Daniel Gretarsson with Arsenal loanee, Daniel Ballard.
Although I would have preferred Mark Howard to have been retained, Blackpool’s undisputed number one custodian is Chris Maxwell. What though happens should the Welshman become injured or be suspended is unclear, with neither deputy Jack Sims or third choice ‘keeper Alex Fojticek seemingly trusted for the big occasion. Equally, Ollie Turton is not universally approved of as first choice right back but seen as more dependable than the attack-minded Jordan Gabriel, and the all but forgotten Teddy Howe.
It is still difficult to conclude where Blackpool are likely to finish the season. Pre-season hummed with too many baseless predictions of where the club should be after 46 games, perhaps 49, but these were heavily influenced by the unprecedented churn of personnel that eventually saw 17 arrivals, and 21 leaving the building. A vast number of signings does not equate to guaranteed success, and in Blackpool’s case sought to balance out the loss of key players, both loans and permanent squad members, who figured in last season’s disappointing campaign under Critchley’s predecessor Simon Grayson. Of course, ludicrous predictions of walking League One and accusations of Sadler attempting to buy the title abounded, but an unparalleled turnover of playing staff was the result of the owner buying into Critchley’s philosophy lock, stock, and barrel, and subsequently acquiring the type of players needed by the head coach to mould into his very own Liverpool-lite. The jury is still out as to whether philosophies get teams promoted out of League One, and if Sadler should have instead plumped for Paul Cook or Michael Flynn.
The next two fixtures, at home to Portsmouth and seven miles up the coast at the other Highbury will go a long way to show where Blackpool are in the grand scheme of this season’s League One, and if they are capable of bettering a realistic top ten finish. Another striker of the experience of Cameron Jerome or Eoin Doyle would top my January transfer window shopping list, although I sense that Critchley and Calderwood will have to ‘make do’ with the squad that Neil built, by which his fledgling reputation in elite football is already being put on the line.