If someone had offered me three wins out of four for Blackpool against Peterborough United, Doncaster Rovers, Portsmouth, and latterly Fleetwood Town, I would have happily snapped their hand off, although would have at the same time doubted the sanity of someone proposing such a scenario. And yet, it really should have been four from four, had the tangerines not squandered a two-goal lead at the Keepmoat Stadium.
The upturn in fortunes at Bloomfield Road has though been a long time coming; it should not be forgotten that six weeks ago head coach Neil Critchley was perhaps one further defeat, and most importantly another shocking performance, from being relieved of his duties. We will never know if being given Colin Calderwood to assist Critchley has given the 42-year-old fresh ideas on how to get the best out of a squad from whom so much is expected, or if the former Tottenham defender was brought in as a warning that the head coach’s potential replacement was now sitting by his side in the dugout.
Either or neither way, it can be successfully argued that it is not how Blackpool arrive at their intended destination, which in my opinion this season is a minimum of reaching the play offs with an ultimate aim of becoming a fixture within the Championship, but that they actually do. Recent weeks have suggested that there is little to fear in this division, something that must temper the understandable exuberance exhibited by the fans.
What has been obvious from the start of the season but was also very much in evidence during the curtailed 2019/20 campaign, is that the division is there for the taking. Despite only having won one away match in a year prior to arriving at Peterborough’s London Road, there was little question on the day that Blackpool would run out as deserved winners of a match which the narrow 2-1 scoreline does little justice. It should be recalled that the Posh were at this point at the summit of League One but continue to flatter to deceive under Darren Ferguson, and their perpetually frustrated owner Darragh MacAnthony. Failing to adequately replace the prolific Ivan Toney and creative Marcus Maddison has in recent weeks seen the chickens come home to roost, with Peterborough’s form subsequently collapsing since being put to the sword by Blackpool.
Doncaster are another side who perennially flirt with the top end of League One, with designs on revisiting the second tier (the Championship, not Covid’s Tier 2) for the first time since 2014. A two-goal lead is though the most dangerous scoreline in football, especially when the advantage was doubled shortly before half time. At this point Blackpool did not want the first half to end, while Darren Moore’s players could not get back into the changing rooms quick enough, if only to limit the damage to a two-goal deficit. And so it was, that Rovers came out and almost immediately pegged the ‘pool back, albeit with the help of some amateurish refereeing from Ross Joyce. Although the decisive goal in five was brought about by a penalty that Joyce it seemed couldn’t wait to award, Blackpool midfielder Kenny Dougall did dive in on his man who he perhaps should have been tracking, not trailing behind. Notwithstanding a second half punctuated by dire refereeing the frustration for fans was though obvious, as Blackpool seemingly beat themselves rather than being carved open by incisive offensive play by their opposition.
As Blackpool’s old failings had seemingly resurfaced it was at this point many would have wondered if the Peterborough victory was a flash in the pan. Routine, frankly expected and indeed demanded cup successes over lower league, non-league, and Leeds United’s under 21’s complemented narrow but highly unconvincing wins over MK Dons, Wigan Athletic, and Burton Albion. It was not in these games where demonstrable proof of improvement would be sought, but in forthcoming fixtures against two of the teams, Portsmouth, and Fleetwood Town, who are expected to occupy the upper reaches of the division at the business end of the season.
It would be incorrect of me to say Blackpool played Portsmouth off the park, they didn’t, but whether it was a lack of ambition from Kenny Jackett’s players or that Critchley’s tactics were spot on to stop Pompey – I would say a combination of the two but the surprise inclusion of Keshi Anderson at the expense of Gary Madine flooded the midfield and undoubtedly tipped the balance – who only had one clear cut chance, spurned by prolific scorer John Marquis as the end the game loomed. Indeed, it was the unexpectedly recalled Anderson who provided the match’s decisive moment by slamming in C J Hamilton’s pull back after a clever dummy from Jerry Yates bamboozled Portsmouth’s defence, affording Anderson the time and space to fire past Craig MacGillivray. Similar to an at-the-time-top-of-the-division Peterborough, Portsmouth arrived at the seaside with an unbeaten league record away from Fratton Park. Another point proven by Blackpool that League One isn’t anything to fear, but also that a real sense that Critchley’s men were finally starting to emerge from the shadows.
Blackpool fans are loathed to regard any game against near-neighbours Fleetwood Town as important, universally dismissing what many regard as a team of ringers assembled by a local businessman made good but who will now be acutely aware of the almost impossibility of trying to grow a club stymied by having the sea to its north and west, and located in an impoverished town of 26,000 inhabitants, many of whom have historic allegiances to Manchester United and Liverpool. In a sense of proximity, Fleetwood vs. Blackpool is a local derby, but only in the minds of the Codheads’ modest band of fans is there a rivalry, who would in the past have regarded trips to Morecambe and Lancaster City as the height of neighbourly battles. It is though a fact that being defeated by Fleetwood represents more than a collective bruised ego for Blackpool’s supporters, especially when one considers how far from the depths of football’s pyramid the opposition have come, albeit artificially so. Nevertheless, Joey Barton’s side have some fine players, many of whom are capable of plying their trade in the Championship. It is perhaps unrealistic for Fleetwood to survive long-term in the Football League, but Burton Albion, a club of comparative size, punched far beyond their weight for several seasons in the second tier. For Fleetwood’s owner Andy Pilley, a Blackpool supporter, perhaps just getting to the Championship for one season would be vindication aplenty for the millions of pounds he has pumped into the club, and the community, although this brings into question whether the whole project is a vehicle, albeit an expensive one, to satisfy an ego and one that will historically require ‘vanity’ to be appended to it.
With players of the calibre of Callum Camps, Paddy Madden, and Ched Evans Fleetwood undoubtedly boast some serious talent for not just a club their size, but also one operating in League One. Once more though Blackpool never looked in any trouble, despite a performance that lacked, especially in the second half, a serious cutting edge. It is the at times absence of chances created from open play that might stifle ambitions, with many goals in recent matches stemming from dead ball situations and the speed of C J Hamilton. Beggars though cannot be choosers, and whilst over the longer term a reliance on the aforementioned two routes to goal will not alone deliver Blackpool to the promised land, the emergence of Kenny Dougall in central midfield has coincided with a record of 8 victories in the last 9 outings. Centre back Marvin Ekpiteta has undoubtedly rewarded the significant faith put in him by Critchley and is to date my Blackpool player of the season.
A narrow victory at Fleetwood represents a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ moment for Blackpool, but arguably shouldn’t. If ever it needed to be it should be remembered that Fleetwood are no longer in the North West Counties League and despite their size, and over-reliance on Pilley’s continued investment, have a raft of outstanding players in their squad for this level of football. Yes, there are players like Madden and Evans who will command relatively big salaries but a club with ambition has to part with significant cash if its aspirations are to be met. Nobody can accuse Fleetwood’s players of just picking up their wages, even if they aren’t overly inspired by the club’s Highbury ground and low attendances. In fact, the club’s training facilities at Thornton’s Poolfoot Farm are on a par with many found in the Premier League. No, a victory at Fleetwood, albeit by a Gary Madine header that should have been saved by Jayson Leutwiler, represents, whether Blackpool’s supporters like it or not, progress for Critchley’s men. Under previous owners the Oyston’s Blackpool’s stock had fallen so precipitously that Pilley’s Fleetwood in effect passed them as both clubs headed in drastically different directions, on and off the pitch. An inconvenient truth, but one all the same.
It was the block of games including the last four and now forthcoming matches in particularly against leaders Hull City, perennial underachievers Sunderland and this season’s surprise packet Accrington Stanley that will offer a guide to Blackpool’s chances of an ultimately successful season, specifically whether they can continue to go toe to toe with sides expected to be in top six at the end of the season. While there are a few issues in the squad, for example an absence of another out and out striker might become a problem unless Keshi Anderson is pushed further forward, and how injuries to key personnel such as Dougall and Ekpiteta might be mitigated, Blackpool have the luxury of being able at some point to welcome back to the fold both Luke Garbutt and Matt Virtue. Without an obvious option within the squad to replace Chris Maxwell, much will also depend on the Welshman staying fit.
There is therefore a fine balance of preparing for many potential eventualities with not worrying about scenarios that aren’t all likely to occur. It will be interesting to see if Blackpool intend to bolster their ranks in the forthcoming transfer window, but with the possibility to offload the likes of Jordan Thorniley, Teddy Howe, and arguably Oliver Sarkic, there is room within both the caps on squad size and salary to reinforce the club’s chances of not only reaching the play offs, but vying for the top two places with Ipswich Town and Hull City.
What a difference a few weeks makes, and whilst football fans the world over are guilty of getting too far ahead of themselves, there are finally tangible signs of what looks to be lasting improvement with both Blackpool’s performances and results, with Critchley now having settled on a core of players on whom he will draw upon week in, week out. The future is always tangerine, but will it also be gleaming? Eight wins from nine suggests it is certainly brightening up.