At what should be the business end of the EFL League One season, Blackpool find themselves with almost half a campaign to play. As momentum builds from what was an extremely slow start that at one point drew into question Neil Critchley’s continuation as head coach, it remains to be seen if a perfect storm of a slightly later start to the season, poor initially form, Covid-19 interruptions, and weather-related postponements have left the Seasiders with too big a mountain to climb despite the end of season play offs now appearing to be a realistic target.
Whilst playing catch up in terms of both points on the board and games to play, some fans will be tempted to declare that without a win from each passing fixture the chances of promotion are less likely. As though recent form has suggested that Blackpool have little to fear from those above them in League One, expectations have once again hit the peak of the curve similar to which was evident at the start of the season, only for it to bottom out by late October before Colin Calderwood’s arrival to ‘assist’ Critchley. It is moot as to whether Calderwood was appointed to in effect put tacit pressure on the head coach and be the next manager in waiting should an upturn in fortunes not be forthcoming, but there is little doubt that Blackpool’s record after the arrival of the former Tottenham defender bears little relation to it before owner Simon Sadler sought to intervene in this way.
With nineteen games left to play where perhaps under normal circumstances there would be a dozen or fewer fixtures remaining in regulation, a prospect of eight outings during March and a similar if not higher number in April, Blackpool’s already stretched squad will be put under significant scrutiny in terms of depth, quality, and staying power. It is perhaps telling that two of the club’s biggest assets, Gary Madine and CJ Hamilton, have not been rushed back into service when they have apparently been near to returning from respective injuries for what appears now to be weeks. These high impact players that bring very different match winning qualities to the side will need to be managed carefully by Critchley, although debatable recruitment did not in any way predict the likely loss through form, injury, or suspension of Madine and Hamilton, who in no way have ready made replacements within the club to call upon that get close to being described as ‘like for like’.
Despite an overall poor January window Blackpool did bring in Everton striker Ellis Simms, a bustling exponent of forward play who has elements of Madine’s game in his locker, but lacks the nous and experience that the 30-year old former Cardiff City striker brings to the side. Free agent Kevin Stewart was also brought into the club, a holding midfielder who numbers Hull City and Liverpool among his former employers. Ostensibly brought in to cover a role that Australian Kenny Dougall had so expertly grown in to, I do feel that Blackpool are too negative with both players vying for the same patch of ground, in the same way Jimmy Ryan and Jay Spearing used to get in each other’s way. Dougall was though due a rest earned from a series of high-energy performances, with also a recovery from novel coronavirus to contend with. It was though commendable and prescient of Blackpool to cover Dougall position in the event of the player being unavailable, with the other members of the squad capable of deputizing in the same role, Ethan Robson and the since departed for Bolton MJ Williams, being a tier or two down in quality compared to the former Barnsley man and Stewart.
This evening’s home fixture against David Artell’s Crewe Alexandra falls within the ‘must win’ and ‘should win’ categories, the latter in no way meant as disrespect to the Railwaymen. As one of the sides promoted last season from League Two Crewe have this term exceeded expectations and currently sit a point above Blackpool in the table, albeit having played four games more. Continuing an ethos of play that’s pleasing on the eye deeply embedded in Crewe’s identity from Dario Gradi’s time at the helm, Artell is surely a coach who will go on to bigger jobs in the future but in the meantime, has all but guaranteed League One safety for the Gresty Road outfit, something that was far from predicted prior to the start of the season. If though Blackpool have any designs on reaching the play offs, they will need to beat both Crewe and Saturday’s opponents, AFC Wimbledon.
Such is the ground that Blackpool need to make up and despite having the games in hand to do so, points on the board are always preferable to a fixture pile up that guarantees little. Even four points from six may be insufficient, but with victories at Peterborough, Charlton Athletic, and Portsmouth under the Seasiders’ belt after a period of not winning away from home for over a year, there will inevitably be twists and turns before the season’s denouement.
Current form suggests that Blackpool are capable of finishing the 46-game season on at least 76 points, a total usually more than enough for 4th or 5th place and therefore a play-off berth. There is little to suggest that this cannot be achieved, but bigger teams in League One should have learned by now that nothing, be it status, history, and the size of stadium, crowd, and budget assures positive outcomes. Considering the money Simon Sadler has spent on a predominantly young team and the stadium it is difficult to ascertain what a successful 2020/21 season would equate for Blackpool, but a palpable sense that the play offs are now within reach will either embolden Critchley and his squad or weigh them down with expectation. and ultimately highlight any recruitment deficiencies. With the season now on such a knife-edge it might take until the early weeks of May to know what immediately lies ahead, or simply after Saturday’s fixture with AFC Wimbledon.