As the dust continues to settle since Blackpool FC brought their 2020/2021 League 1 season to a close in perhaps one of the most stunning turnarounds in the club’s history, thoughts have inevitably turned as to how promotion will affect the squad’s makeup in the Championship, which of the players won’t make the cut, and perhaps most intriguingly, who of the loan players that contributed in varying degrees over the campaign could once more be called upon.
Without the considerable efforts of Dan Ballard and Ellis Simms, Blackpool would not have been able to sustain a run of form in the second half of the season that if honest, I expected to eventually burn itself out such was the constant pressure of a Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday schedule, and an at times frankly ridiculous injury list. Such was though the side’s resolve to not be beaten, exemplified by being the best team in the division when without the ball, several disappointing home draws were offset by a run of victories away from Bloomfield Road that highlighted the virtues of a solid defensive unit that was complemented by an attacking threat which signficantly increased in the final few months of the season.
A needless red card at AFC Wimbledon during which proved to be Blackpool’s low point of the seaon was not the start to Ballard’s loan move from Arsenal that he would have wanted, and despite several injury setbacks the Northern Ireland international became first choice in what at times seemed a revolving door of centre back partnerships. With his parent club seemingly in relative turmoil as the heady days of Arsene Wenger’s stewardship and initial success firmly and distantly behind the Gunners, Ballard will perhaps be eyeing a place in Arsenal’s Premier League squad. I would though be surprised if at this juncture the 21-year old was given such responsibility without having played in either of the two top divisions, with instead a further loan spell, this time at a Championship club, appearing to represent the next logical step in his career. It is difficult to say whether that will again be within Blackpool’s ranks, and whilst the Seasiders will be in the box seat to re-engage the player’s services, Ballard’s form and international recoginition will have put him on the radar of a host of clubs.
When Ellis Simms joined from Everton in the January transfer window, I had hoped that the youngster’s arrival would be complemented by the signing of a more experienced finisher to aid Jerry Yates in the absence of the then injured Gary Madine. A Cameron Jerome, Eoin Doyle-type player did not transpire, and for a time Blackpool’s lack of goals and overall creativity put in question the club’s play off credentials. Little did I know how the season would go on to finish!
As perhaps was expected in his first stint within the day to day squad of a professional club, Simms’ inital impact was disappointing, or at least fluctuated from terrorising for example the Charlton Athletic defence in a 3-0 demolition of the Addicks at The Valley, to ineffectual anonymity in other outings. Blackpool wouldn’t though have reached the play offs, let alone chalked up another successful Wembley outcome had Simms’ form not dramatically increased in the final months. A penchant for dropping off to receive the ball and bring others into play a la Gary Madine signified a greater maturity to the 20-year old’s game, which I am sure benefitted from the advice and sagacious words imparted by the otherwise unavailable Madine.
If Simms had greater pace Blackpool might not have secured his services in the first place. For the same reason it is perhaps unlikely that the player will find himself in first team contention at Everton any time soon, but as the attributes of his game continue to flourish and outweigh a perceived lack of pace, continued attention to his movement and positioning will complement Simms’ vastly improved finishing. I see no reason in these circumstances why the player cannot eventually challenge Dominic Calvert-Lewin for a place in Everton’s squad, but for now and similar to Dan Ballard, the next step in Simms’ development should involve a season in the Championship – be that at Blackpool or elsewhere.
Elliot Embleton arrived at the end of the transfer window as a relative unknown – arguably also so with many fans of Sunderland, his parent club. With chances of usurping League One superstar Aiden McGeady close to nonexistent, loaning out Embleton to a so-called rival nevertheless will have raised eyebrows on Wearside and perhaps betrayed a lingering arrogance at the Stadium of Light that despite being in the same division, Blackpool should not be mentioned in the sale breath as the ‘massive’ Mackems. It has since been said that Embleton was loaned out to get game time under a respected coach(Neil Critchley) and hopefully assist Sunderland by helping Blackpool take points off his parent club’s direct rivals for promotion. Well, I would argue that aside from his stunning finish in the second leg of the play offs, against Oxford United, that Embleton’s impact at the seaside was minimal. There were flashes of trickery and quick feet reminiscent of McGeady, but overall I would say that a lack of killer instinct and an often disappointing final ball characterised Embleton’s loan spell. Perhaps this is extremely harsh, but I do feel that the judgment of many Blackpool fans’ has been clouded by his goal of the season contender againat Oxford.
Conflicting stories in the press suggest a tug of war is now developing between Blackpool and Sunderland for Embleton’s future services. The player may well be able to take his game to a different level under Critchley’s expert tuterlage, but I have my doubts that Embleton is a Championship-standard player at this moment in time. Sunderland have stated that it was always their intention to bring him back into the fold after what they hoped would be a successful loan ‘playing the right way’, but I cannot shake the feeling that what has been said from the player’s parent club since Blackpool secured promotion amounts to little more than revisionism, in what could be attempt to save face after Sunderland once more failed when it mattered the most.
With only a year left on his deal with the Mackems and with possible interest from Blackpool to make any future deal a more permanent arrangement, Embleton does now find himself in a strong bargaining position. I feel his heart will be at Sunderland, but an immediate chance of Championship football with a squad of players he is already familiar with could be a very attractive counter-proposal. Unless Blackpool make Sunderland an offer too good to refuse, it is unlikely that manager Lee Johnson will risk further alienating an already sceptical fanbase.
The fourth loanee to end the season with Blackpool was Jordan Gabriel. The former Arsenal youth found his way to Nottingham Forest after being released by Liam Brady was predominantly brought in to challenge Ollie Turton for the right back berth, although Gabriel’s pace was at times also utilised further upfield in the absence of speedster C J Hamilton. Despite the 22-year old beginning the season in Forest’s side the arrival of Cyrus Christie on loan from Fulham left Gabriel with the likelihood of being sidelined unless a loan move of his own could be facilitated. So it proved, and whilst the player showed glimpses of the quality that initially attracted Asrenal’s attention, there was a lack of consistency in his play that earlier in the campaign was characterised by poor defensive positional play, and indifferent decision making when a decisive pass or cross was required from more advanced positions.
It concerned me that Gabriel thought himself to be far better than he was. This perhaps stemmed from previously being involved for so long with an elite academy, but for him to say later in the season that promotion with Blackpool will look good on his CV, and that he thought of himself as a ‘big fish in a small pond’ during his time at the seaside suggests someone who is a long way ahead of where in reality his game is currently at. Perhaps Gabriel will go straight into Forest’s starting 11, but I saw little in the way of consistent evidence that the player is good enough at this stage of his career to play week in, week out in the toughest ‘second’ division in world football.
Dan Kemp was on loan for half a season at Blackpool from West Ham United, but on his return to East London was immediately signed by League Two side Leyton Orient. I would suggest that the fourth tier is perhaps one too low for a player Blackpool used admittedly sparingly and usually as an impact substitute, but with no real chance of making it at the London Stadium it made sense for Kemp to stay geographically close, very close, to his now former parent club.
Ben Woodburn arrived at Blackpool with a reputation that needed rebuilding. Known by coach Neil Critchley for over a decade, the Liverpool midfielder’s career has been pockmarked by injuries and previous unsuccessful loan moves at Sheffield United and the Kassam Stadium. Despite still being only 21, the feeling is that Woodburn’s days at Liverpool are numbered; even if his spell with Blackpool had been a success, it is hard to imagine that he would get anywhere near to becoming an integral or bit part of Klopp’s red machine. With a year left on his time at Anfield it would seem his inevitable departure could come this summer or the next, but will be one or the other. His time at Blackpool was admittedly hindered by contracting Covid-19, but had otherwise failed to catch fire before being laid low by the virus. Brought in to help solve, or at least bolster Blackpool’s faltering early season attacking intent, Woodburn needed to nail down the left side of midfield or number 8 position, especially the former where Keshi Anderson, Bez Lubala, Sullay Kaikai, and Demetri Mitchell had failed to make a convincing case for being a shoo in for a position that was overstocked with options, but which lacked an automatic selection. It is now very easy to forget Blackpool’s early season travails, and the at times stinging critcism, including from me, which the team and Critchley received.
Loan moves can make or break careers, confirm what parent clubs already knew, and highlight the need that some players have for a different style of play and coaching. Dan Ballard and Ellis Simms would be welcome editions to Blackpool’s Championship squad for the 2021/2022 season, with Elliot Embleton’s ability being on the borderline of what is required for the second tier. I feel that Jordan Gabriel would benefit from another season in League One, although I doubt the player and probably his agent would acquiesce to that. Whilst Dan Kemp has found a new home and a potential stepping stone to playing once more at a higher level, the future is far from certain for Ben Woodburn.
Therein a microcosm lies the contrasting fortunes, back stories, and likely career trajectories of those loaned out by their parent clubs, in a sextet of very different players that Blackpool used during an ultimately triumphant season.