In the last of a series of articles reflecting on Neil Critchley’s first full season that is now nicely coming to the boil, I ask myself: have I been too harsh on what Blackpool’s head coach has sought to achieve, and how he has gone about it?
Most would answer that question with a resounding yes, especially after a recent run of results that has brought the Seasiders’ to the very cusp of League One’s play-off places.
My recent criticisms have centres upon Blackpool’s inability to beat so-called inferior opposition in their last four home matches, games that were rightly identified which could propel the team into the higher echelons of the third tier. Conventional footballing wisdom expects teams to be at their most competitive in home games, with anything picked up on sides’ travels a bonus.
On this basis comparative budgets, expectations, and respective league positions would demand that Blackpool secure three points against each of Crewe Alexandra, AFC Wimbledon, Fleetwood Town, and Burton Albion, or at least eight points from a possible twelve. Among the aforementioned outings at headquarters Blackpool also took on Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth, Mk Dons, and Oxford United, in a quartet of away fixtures where four to six points would ON PAPER have been an acceptable haul. A total from the eight matches of around twelve to fourteen points would not be horrendous, especially when considering Blackpool’s appalling start to the season and until October 2020, a record of one away victory in thirteen months.
Sixteen points secured from four victories on the road and the same amount of draws at Bloomfield Road is a very un-Blackpool way of doing things, and has prompted some strong criticism from myself and others as to how a quartet of ‘winnable’ home matches only yielded a point from each, amounting to a perceived missed opportunity to bear down on the play-off and promotion spots. Performances that could hardly be classed as pleasing on the eye have also added credence to condemning Critchley’s modus operandi, including team selection and substitutions.
I had though got sucked in to believing that Blackpool have an almost automatic right to win at home, and that this should be done with elan and panache. What should be remembered is that this is League One, not the upper reaches of the Premier League or latter stages of the Club World Cup. As a football aesthete I would love for Blackpool to play with two flying wingers, a totemic spearhead and second striker, a holding midfielder, and attacking equivalent in a 4-4-2 formation and style adopted in the 1990s by Billy Ayre who perfectly melded David Eyres, Tony Rodwell, Carl Richards, Dave Bamber, Phil Horner, Paul Groves, and Trevor Sinclair into how I like to see the game played. It should though be recalled that even Ayres’ exciting brand of football often failed away from home, and did not secure the automatic promotion spots it merited.
It is fair to say that Critchley took some time to find his feet at the club, admittedly not helped by the novel coronavirus pandemic that has affected all clubs, but also with such a high churn of personnel that needed time to embed itself, and take on to varying degrees the head coach’s methods and footballing preferences. Players are brought in to a club with the best of intentions, but there will always be differences between those arriving at the same time who have flourished, comparatively failed, and for whom the jury is still out. It is moot as to whether the addition of Colin Calderwood to Critchley’s back room staff was to have a potential future manager in place should results up to October 2020 not show any improvement, but if Calderwood was brought in with or without Critchley’s blessing, Blackpool’s record since has been top-two material.
An injury record that doesn’t even factor in the players who have temporarily dropped out of contention whilst recovering from Covid-19 has severely tested Blackpool’s squad strength, and highlights a lack of attention to the final third of the pitch during the January transfer window. In what is looking to be the biggest home match of the season so far, tonight’s encounter with Peterborough United sees Critchley’s options shorn of Keshi Anderson, James Husband, Marvin Ekpiteta, Daniel Ballard(away on Northern Ireland international duty), Gary Madine, C J Hamilton, Matt Virtue, and Kevin Stewart. It would not have altered Stewart’s injury or length of his as yet open ended lay off, but a tackle by Fleetwood Town player Daniel Batty, himself a former colleague of Stewart’s at Hull City, should have seen the midfielder given a second yellow card. It was a bad challenge.
The brand of football favoured by Peterborough is pleasing on the eye but gives the opposition a sporting chance; a willingness to attack coupled with leaving the defensive door ajar and the occasional error should see an open game with much at stake for both sides, but how Blackpool react to going behind, if this should take place, something they have of late not been accustomed to, will test an already stretched squad to its limit. Much though will also depend if such a scenario come to pass as to whether the Posh scent further blood, or decide to ‘shut up shop’ and let Critchley’s men play in front of them.
A return of Ethan Robson to midfield duties would seem a logical choice, playing alongside Kenny Dougall in front of the back four, with Eliot Embleton, Sullay Kaikai, and Grant Ward stationed behind lone striker Jerry Yates. With such a paucity of options from which to choose, Bez Lubala could return to the bench that will probably include at least two of Blackpool’s youth team. Presumably going with a back four of Luke Garbutt, Jordan Thorniley, the returning Daniel Gretarsson, and Ollie Turton, Critchley could alternatively opt for a back three of Thorniley, Gretarsson, and Turton, using Garbutt and Jordan Gabriel as wing backs. This would though demand greater defensive discipline of Nottingham Forest loanee Gabriel than perhaps he has shown so far.
A defeat tonight won’t render the season as over, nor will it guarantee a play-off berth in May. With 39 points remaining to play for Blackpool’s destiny is still very much in their own hands, although a crippling injury list may in the end have the final say.
All sides have suffered because of the global pandemic and receive injuries, so if Blackpool were to fall short this season it would be easy for the previous four home matches to be used as a stick to shape the critique of the first full season under the aegis of Neil Critchley. Had though Blackpool drawn instead of won their last four away games but been victorious in games against Crewe, AFC Wimbledon, Burton, and Fleetwood rather than yielding just a point in each, few supporters would have complained. The fact that the same amount of points would have been gained is somewhat lost in an argument where the psychology of winning one’s home matches cannot it seems be rerouted to observe the bigger picture.
It is though the bigger picture which Blackpool fans, including myself, should be mindful of. Only a few people will know how close the club was to going out of existence under the previous regime, and whilst mistakes will have been made since Simon Sadler took control they represent dots on a learning curve which will eventually take the club, stadium, and immediate surroundings into the realms that could never have been achieved or thought of under those whose surname shall not be mentioned.
Steeped in a determination to put something back into his home town and crucially the club supported from afar whilst building a very successful financial services business in Hong Kong, Sadler combines a rare resolve to invest significant amounts of money which he may never see again into a third tier football club, and selflessly bring about wider benefits to one of the most impoverished and unhealthy towns in the UK.
If results don’t eventually follow the intended trajectory in Sadler’s mind he will undoubtedly act, as was the case when Simon Grayson, the owner’s first managerial appointment, was relieved of his duties following a series of deteriorating results and performances. Where and how Blackpool finish the season is crucial to Critchley’s future at the club, but amid hand wringing about performances on the pitch it should never be overlooked how far from the gates of oblivion the club has travelled during the last two years, and that its future is in safe, benevolent hands. Few fans of other clubs can rest as easy, safe in such assurances.