As novel coronavirus reaffirms its grip on all aspects of life it is by no means certain that the 2020/21 football season will not be suspended, or even be able to run its course either without interruption, or after any subsequent curtailment. Until otherwise stated it must be assumed that normal service, albeit along the lines of the new norm, will continue unabated, with the January transfer window rapidly appearing on the horizon.
Halfway up(and down) the League One table Blackpool present an impression to the untrained eye of a team going nowhere in a hurry, with little chance of troubling the top six nor in danger of being dragged into a relegation scrap. Taken though fully into context the Seasiders were in jeopardy of falling into the latter but are now one of the form teams of the division. They are perhaps 8-10 places higher than the nadir plumbed during the nascent weeks of the season.
It is expected that Neil Critchley’s side will maintain their upward trajectory, but a continuation of the rapid ascent beyond the point they have now reached will become more difficult, with the teams above having greater consistency and being more difficult to overhaul in the general standings. An extremely poor start to the season had though left Blackpool playing catch up, and despite hitting a rich vein of form they can ill-afford to take their foot of the accelerator. The January window will therefore focus minds on the most appropriate strategy to ensure the team has the greatest possible chance of reaching the top six, perhaps even the automatic promotion spots.
Where to strengthen any squad is usually subjective, although consensus is using found where the need is most obvious. Blackpool can point to a lack of experience to cover the ever-present Chris Maxwell, a goalkeeper in recent weeks who has found himself with little to do but when called upon, has delivered the goods. To ensure continuity in the central of defence it would be expedient to secure Arsenal loanee Daniel Ballard until the end of the current campaign, enabling Critchley to rotate the Northern Ireland international with the outstanding Marvin Ekpiteta, and Icelander Daniel Gretarsson.
Aside from Maxwell arguably the two irreplaceable members of Blackpool’s squad are midfielder Kenny Dougall and final third focal point, Gary Madine. Dougall and Ekpiteta have been Critchley’s two best signings, but the Australian has no obvious competition for his place within the squad. Injuries, fatigue, and even suspension will in one form or other catch up with Dougall, whose all-action style cannot surely be replicated game after game. Ethan Robson and Jordan Williams will flit in and out of the side as demand dictates, but neither have had a comparable impact on the side as to the one that Dougall has enjoyed. It is a bonus that Matt Virtue has recovered from a lengthy spell on the sidelines, but is not of a similar vintage to the former Barnsley player.
Gary Madine has never been a prolific goalscorer, a trait he has continued to live up to during his time in tangerine, but brings something different to a squad which does not offer a viable alternative to the 31-year-old. In my view it is vital that Madine, whose contract ends in June 2021, is given a longer deal into 2022, or beyond. It is also incumbent upon those upstairs whose purview it is to secure new signings that a third striker, assuming Madine and Jerry Yates are Blackpool’s only out and out exponents, is brought in during January. If owner Simon Sadler feels inclined to throw the cheque book at the issue, Crawley Town’s Max Watters, currently the top scorer in all four divisions, is an interesting option who matches the profile of signings preferred and indeed targeted by Critchley. With a reported £500,000 bid from Championship side Swansea City already turned down for the former Doncaster Rovers striker, it is obvious that Watters’ services will not arrive on the cheap.
What then of the nine players Blackpool have sent out on loan? Have any of them proved during their temporary deals that they have what it takes to be reintegrated into Blackpool’s squad, to considerable effect, and reduce the need to shop elsewhere in January? This would seem to be unlikely.
Last season’s player of the season, Liam Feeney, somewhat incongruously found himself out in the cold once Critchley had laid down the approach and style by which his tenure at Bloomfield Road would be characterized. The oldest outfield player at the club who prior to his stellar season had looked to be on his way out of the door, deserved extra credit for diligently putting in some punishing shifts at wing back, in effect reinventing the 33-year-old. His assists enabled striker Armand Gnanduillet to look far better than the reality, produced by a wand of a right foot that could open a tin can. Somewhat surprisingly loaned out to League Two club Tranmere Rovers, albeit one of the larger ones in the fourth tier, Feeney has significantly figured and produced several assists. Despite being a worthy ‘go to’ should speedster C J Hamilton be injured or need to be rested, Feeney cannot match the former Mansfield man for pace but is consistently a better crosser of the ball. He deserves better, but I suspect he will not receive it in tangerine.
Elsewhere, Blackpool will need to cut their losses with a triumvirate of strikers who are hardly ripping up any trees at their temporary places of work. Signed for significant transfer fees both Ryan Hardie and Joe Nuttall have done little to suggest that they are League One standard. During the latter part of last season Scotsman Hardie enjoyed a successful secondment at then League Two side Plymouth Argyle but has found the going to be much harder this time around, in a higher division. With six months to run on his contract, albeit with an option to extend, the current evidence suggests that Hardie will struggle to remain on Blackpool’s books, even if he does want to which itself is moot, or secure an alternative gig at a similar standard. A return to Scotland could be the player’s best option.
Joe Nuttall commanded an even higher fee than Hardie, reportedly in the high six-figure range, but isn’t threatening anytime soon to justify even a fraction of it. After fifteen minutes of fame in which the former Blackburn Rovers player netted a dramatic last-minute winner against Ipswich Town shortly before the 2019/20 was curtailed, Nuttall was sent out to Keith Curle’s Northampton Town to notch up some valuable game time at a similar standard of his parent club. Injury has robbed the player of any meaningful minutes on the pitch and whilst this cannot be blamed on Nuttall, it has come at a time when he needed it the least. With 18 months left on the three-year deal signed by Nuttall there is obviously still time for redemption, but the smart money would be on both parties …by mutual consent at the end of the season.
Tanzania international Adi Yussuf is perhaps the unluckiest of Blackpool’s players sent out on loan. Signed by then manager Terry McPhillips during the dying embers of the Oyston regime, Yussuf was recruited on the strength of some decent performances in the F.A. Cup for Solihull Moors against Blackpool. The player’s acquisition was also pragmatic, with McPhillips seeking to keep Blackpool viable, if not necessarily competitive, with a budget that was reported to run out in October 2019 had Simon Sadler not come to the club’s rescue. Soon after the arrival of Sadler and McPhillips’ successor Simon Grayson it became obvious that the club were now shopping in a better standard of marketplace, which palpably wasn’t the one from where Yussuf arrived. This was of course no fault of the player, but in his obvious enthusiasm to sign for a much larger club Yussuf was badly advised and should have been warned of the potential dangers attendant with arriving at a club in a state of disarray, but in the throes of potentially being taken in a dramatically different direction both on and off the pitch. Having gone full circle Yussuf is currently on loan at a National League club, Wrexham, albeit one that is far too large and now well-connected for the fifth tier. It is therefore anticipated that Blackpool will release the player when his deal expires in six months’ time.
For Adi Yussuf, the same can be written for midfielder Jamie Devitt. Signed by McPhillips along with the likes of Yussuf and Ryan Edwards, the Irishman was not at first glance a disastrous signing and someone who would have got regular minutes had Gary Bowyer’s assistant remained in situ. Devitt has though played the overwhelming majority of his career in League Two, where his best work is either behind him or still waiting to be unearthed. Injury curtailed a loan spell at Bradford City, but 30-year-old is now turning out on a regular basis for fourth tier pacesetters Newport County, albeit with his wages subsidized by Blackpool. Devitt will never play for Blackpool, but can hopefully carve out elsewhere a successful conclusion to a career that perhaps should have yielded greater success.
Left sided player Callum MacDonald is an interesting example of someone who Blackpool’s fans broadly took to and could see the potential within, but who is now a long way down Neil Critchley’s pecking order. A more combative and attack-minded wing back than last season’s first choice James Husband, MacDonald might have expected to challenge the occasionally erratic former Norwich player for the left back berth. Instead, Husband has vied with Luke Garbutt and Demetri Mitchell for the sinistro responsibilities, with Sullay Kaikai, Bez Lubala, and even Keshi Anderson able to play in a more advanced role. On this basis it is hard to see a way back for MacDonald who as a player has gone from one manager’s meat, to another’s comparative poison. Joining Feeney and former Blackpool midfielder Jay Spearing at Prenton Park, the ex-Derby County man has gained greater exposure on the pitch than he would have received had he stayed at Bloomfield Road, but it would seem he is another player who will be released by Blackpool in June 2021.
Yet another left sided player on Blackpool’s books, but who has often found himself in the match day squad as the token ‘home grown’ talent apparently stipulated that clubs must include, Nathan Shaw has dropped down three levels to nearby AFC Fylde to get regular game time. I accept that Shaw was unlikely to command a first team place even in the EFL Trophy, but to send him so far down the football pyramid will not give the player the meaningful experience needed to ‘make it’ in the football league. One does wonder if allowing the player to ply his trade in part-time football is a precursor to being released from his contract, another that culminates in June 2021. Fellow midfielder Cameron Antwi, acquired from Fulham, is a player more from the ‘one for the future’ bracket than Shaw, but who has also been sent to a similar standard of football, to Southport.
Ben Garrity was signed straight out of non-league football by Simon Grayson during an increasingly frantic and outwardly uncoordinated January 2020 transfer window, but looked to have some potential as a central midfielder. The curse though of being brought into a club that soon changes its manager/head coach struck, but it is worth pondering that Garrity was unlikely to secure a regular berth in the side and presumably would anyway have been sent out on loan to a side higher in the pyramid than his previous club, Warrington Town, but lower than League One, a scenario which has ultimately come to pass. The 23-year-old is enjoying his football in Harry Kewell’s rapidly improving Oldham Athletic side, and would be worthy of being offered another year once his contract expires in six months’ time.
Aside from bringing Liam Feeney back in circumstances which would presumably amount to both C J Hamilton and his deputy Dan Kemp being rendered inoperable there are no compelling reasons to recall any of Blackpool’s nine players from their respective loan stints, nor are there many, with honourable mentioned for Ben Garrity, Cameron Antwi and perhaps Callum MacDonald, to reintegrate them into the fold on their return from working away. There is therefore some work to be done for Blackpool to recruit what they need during the January window, as well as in pre-season six months hence.
What football and the world in general will resemble during the warmer months is as unknown as the novel coronavirus was a year ago, but to avoid reputational damage and the haemorrhaging of Simon Sadler’s money, more thoughtful and astute transfer business must be entered into than the scatter-gun, revolving door mayhem that Grayson’s final fling at Bloomfield Road will be remembered.
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