When Kenny Dougall’s two goals at Wembley nine months ago sent Blackpool back to the Championship a lot sooner than Head Coach Neil Critchley and owner Simon Sadler could have anticipated, the reality of (re)joining what has become a Premier League 2.0/Premier League-lite immediately dawned on all with tangerine in their hearts.
Dialling back nearly ten years when Blackpool were pushing for an immediate return to the Premier League after a final-day relegation during the 2010/2011 season, the club was respected by its peers as an established part of the second tier and not simply there to make up the numbers. This season has proved to be the antithesis, with an attitude amongst opposing fans that ‘little old Blackpool’ should be routinely beaten, and that their club ‘should not be losing to the likes of Blackpool’.
If we are going to perpetuate the time-honoured but specious arguments about what constitutes a bigger club – size of stadium, attendance figures, history, transfer budget – then we will still be none the wiser. Yes, on being promoted Blackpool have entered a lions’ den of big beasts and their at times swaggering and arrogant supporters, but a penny to a pound that the likes of West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United, Birmingham City, and Cardiff City would love to have the unity Blackpool currently has between its fans, players, and custodians of the club.
Having seen over twenty games in the flesh I can conclude that the Championship is awash with money but characterised by a surprisingly poor standard of football, and many players who are picking up unbelievable pay packets to go through the motions. The deteriorating level of officiating has perhaps been the biggest eyeopener, as time and again Blackpool have been on the wrong end of appalling and at times match-defining decisions including:
1 – A disallowed goal versus Queens Park Rangers – the only Blackpool game Sky have lowered themselves to cover – that was construed to be offside from a touch taken by Gary Madine AFTER the ball had crossed the line.
2 – First half on field thuggery from Queens Park Rangers players that resulted in four yellow cards, at least one of which should have been a straight red.
3 – The failure of ‘referee’ Josh Smith, perhaps up there with Keith Stroud as the worst seen at Bloomfield Road, to send off QPR goalkeeper Seny Dieng who flattened Jordan Gabriel which brought about Madine’s successfully converted penalty. Incidentally, a more blatant penalty you will struggle to find which referee Smith even looked reluctant to award.
4 – Stoke City’s excessively physical approach – undoubtedly a backhanded compliment to Blackpool’s dangerous wing play – which saw five first half bookings including what should have been a red for striker Steve Fletcher, who would go on to score the decisive goal.
5 – Otherwise instantly forgettable during his now concluded loan spell from Arsenal, Tyrese John-Jules was denied an obvious penalty at Nottingham Forest when tripped in the area.
6 – Marcus Tavernier scoring for Middlesbrough at the Riverside from a position so incredibly offside it boggles the mind how the linesman in question ever got to officiate in another game. Perhaps he didn’t.
7 – Twice during the last home game against Bournemouth the ball went out full ball for what on both occasions would have been throw ins to Blackpool. The linesmen missed both; the first example led to a passage of play from which Bournemouth were awarded a dubious penalty. Thankfully, Dominic Solanke’s woeful effort was easily saved by goalkeeper Daniel Grimshaw.
8 – In Blackpool’s last outing, the quicksilver and highly prized winger Josh Bowler was booked for diving when he was unceremoniously brought down by a Cardiff defender left in his wake. Darren Bond was the referee; it might as well have been the Russ Abbot character Basildon Bond, or newsreader Jennie.
This post is not though an ode to injustice, or a paean of Blackpool sticking it to the man or the division’s perceived big hitters against all the odds. As much as they were universally nailed on to make an immediate return to League One, it is instead Peterborough United, the side that last season finished immediately above Blackpool who are surely once more planning for third tier football and this morning are without a manager after Darren Ferguson’s resignation. After a very shaky first few weeks of the season Blackpool have never looked like being close to relegation trouble, but if anything the general feeling within me at least is that they should have done even better than they have.
It was anticipated that Blackpool would take a few heavy beatings this season. This has yet to happen. Only once, during the first half at Sheffield United, were Blackpool cut apart through the middle by the Blades’ sharp interchanges and incisive triangles which were ultimately futile. It is down the flanks where Blackpool’s vulnerabilities have time and again been exploited, with countless goals particularly but not exclusively at home coming from crosses. This is not necessarily the fault of the full backs – Jordan Gabriel has vastly improved, loanee Dujon Sterling has been outstanding and when he plays Reece James is the best left back at the club – but I would say a lack of tracking back from some of Blackpool’s jet-heeled wingers has left the full back positions exposed when the opposition overload the midfield.
Having lost fifteen points from winning positions a lack of cutting edge has often failed to deliver a decisive second or third goal, leaving the door ajar for opposition who should by that point have been buried. Against the likes of Blackburn Rovers and Fulham, Blackpool got away with it. At Hull City and Huddersfield Town, they did not. Where though Blackpool failed to land a knock out blow against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough, the latter who on this season’s evidence have the most arrogant, unpleasant, and self-entitled fans in the division, both resulted in two extremely painful 95th minute defeats. In these instances game management, the ability to successfully see out a game from a winning position, was sadly lacking. Calamities from James Husband and the now Hibernian player Demetri Mitchell undid the hard work to get back into the Middlesbrough game, whilst Blackpool lost their shape after Bournemouth’s equaliser to present the unmarked Siriki Dembele, who had imperceptively switched flanks, with the easiest of opportunities for an undeserved last-gasp winner.
All sides, whoever they may be, throw away points from winning positions. It is therefore unrealistic to say Blackpool ‘should’ have fifteen more points, but even if they had held on to half of them a play off position would either be in their possession or within reach. Therein lies the issue – far from being a division to be scared of Blackpool could and should have done better than they have.
Despite the wealth of attacking options used as inverted wingers by Critchley, I cannot help feel that at times Blackpool play with the hand break on. Despite the ultimately successful 2020/2021 season I was rarely enamoured with the style of play, but the end eventually justified the means. I know that an all guns blazing approach in the Championship would be tantamount to footballing suicide, but Blackpool are very reliant on Richard Keogh’s outstanding passing from the back when central midfield is invariably staffed by the far more defensively minded Kevin Stewart, Kenny Dougall, and Callum Connolly. To get the best out of C J Hamilton’s lightning pace the player is better running from deep with the ball than running on to it in more advanced positions, but a tendency to give the ball away in deeper positions can immediately put the team under pressure. The attacking thrust brought to the centre ground by the seriously injured Grant Ward is particularly missed.
It is likely that Josh Bowler and perhaps Marvin Ekpiteta will move on to bigger things in the summer, and to me at least there are obvious question marks over the futures of Chris Maxwell, Jerry Yates, Gary Madine, and Richard Keogh to name a few. I believe that Daniel Grimshaw would be unjustly demoted should Maxwell return as number one after his injury. It is unclear if Jerry Yates has the footballing intelligence to succeed at this level, and whilst Gary Madine is the epitome of nous, presence, and experience Blackpool need more goals from a classic number nine than the 31-year old brings to the team. Despite his advancing years and current injury layoff, Keogh has been outstanding and should be offered another year – if that is the former Derby County man wishes to prolong his career.
I envisage a far tougher Championship season next time around. Whilst the new money of Fulham and Bournemouth will likely further develop their respective yoyo club statuses, Norwich, Watford, and Burnley(or Leeds/Brentford) will add greater difficulty to a division that has in the main flattered to deceive. It can only be anticipated that Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, and Sheffield United will be stronger still, which will demand of Blackpool and specifically Sadler to significantly invest perhaps just to stand still.
Few Blackpool fans knew what to expect from the club’s return to the Championship, with many undoubtedly fearing the worst. Little could we have guessed with just over two months of the season remaining of a feeling of what might have been, rather than being resigned to a universally predicted relegation. Is it wrong to expect more? Perhaps, but a current position of fifteenth(sixteenth if Derby’s points deduction had not been activated) does in no way do justice to what Blackpool have achieved, but also what they might have done so.
There is much to be proud of and ponder, but where Sadler and Critchley can realistically take the club will be governed by a hybrid model of sign-develop-sell coupled with large single investments in proponents experienced at Championship level. It is easy as a fan to be too demanding and have unrealistic expectations, especially in the aftermath of the club being saved from its atrophying under previous auspices, but far from gate-crashing a party it has no right to attend Blackpool have proved that there is little to fear from the Championship – in which they could and probably should have done (even) better.