That was the season that was. After a sour end to a campaign which in August threatened to be one of toil and chastening defeats, in the end Blackpool never looked to be in the relegation trouble which most of the pundits and those supposedly ‘in the know’ suggested would be the outcome of their return to English football’s second tier.
I for one was surprised by the lack of quality in the Championship. Many sides were characterised by aggressive tactics – Stoke City, Queens Park Rangers, and Blackburn Rovers immediately spring to mind – with visually dominant but otherwise limited centre backs who Gary Madine engaged in frequent battles with. Indeed, one of the more cultured centre backs insomuch how he reads the game and with an ability to initiate forward momentum was Blackpool’s own Richard Keogh (“Keogh. Keogh”).
An inability to move the ball quickly often frustrated the fans, and stymied advantageous positions allowing the opposition to regain their shape and repel what became laboured attacks. Instead of the ball finding the head of Madine the big striker would often have to drop back to win the ball and bring others into play, but be in too deep a position to expeditiously get into the penalty area. Despite five wingers at the club – Josh Bowler, Keshi Anderson, Owen Dale, Charlie Kirk, and CJ Hamilton – the amount of wasted possession in critical areas and final balls that couldn’t beat the first man or that whistled through the penalty area compounded the feeling that whilst Blackpool have done exceptionally well this season, they could have achieved even greater things.
The season as a whole will though be regarded as a triumph. Notwithstanding the points deductions received by Derby County and Reading and despite not being expected to be anything other than cannon fodder for the big beasts of what is almost a Premier League 2/Lite, Blackpool stayed up with ease. Other notable achievements of the season include the geometric growth of Marvin Ekpiteta as a future Premier League star in the making, and memorable victories over Preston North End and Sheffield United.
There were though many fine margins which could have precipitated a different overall outcome, how the season was ultimately viewed, and simply the way important individual games may have turned out. Whilst the following does not in any way intend to represent an exhaustive list, they certainly stick in the mind as ‘sliding doors’ moments:
Northern Ireland striker Shayne Lavery began the season like a house on fire, but was arguably not the same player after being cleaned out by Blackburn Rovers defender Daniel Ayala in the October fixture at Bloomfield Road. Not only should Ayala have been sanctioned by referee Josh Smith, more on him later, but there was no free kick or penalty awarded (I forget just how near the goal it was) and to add insult to Lavery’s injury, the player was then out for some weeks. Despite being Blackpool’s top scorer this season Lavery could have gone on to score maybe the same amount of goals again, and pick up the slack of the disappointing returns of both Madine and Jerry Yates.
It was noted how aggressive Stoke City were at Bloomfield Road in their attempts to nullify Blackpool’s vibrancy. Indeed, five yellow cards in the first half alone were viewed as something of a backhanded compliment to the Seasiders, although at the time it would not have felt that way. The failure of referee John Busby, one of the worst to ever officiate a Blackpool match, to send off Stoke striker Steven Fletcher eventually saw the Scottish international score the decisive goal. Whilst the game had 0-0 written all over it, it again proved that Blackpool expected little but got even less from several officials during the early months of the season. It was with some irony that in the return fixture where Blackpool prevailed thanks to a late Josh Bowler goal, that Fletcher was denied a 95th minute equaliser by a fine Daniel Grimshaw save.
The groundwork of Josh Smith’s refereeing abilities were there for all to see in the aforementioned match against Blackburn Rovers, but the young official really built upon his reputation during the first Blackpool game that Sky Sports (reluctantly?) showed during the season, against Queens Park Rangers. Despite the inconvenient 5.30 kick off a raucous atmosphere propelled Blackpool into a fast start, resulting in an 8th minute ‘goal’ from a Kenny Dougall header that got on the end of a corner rare in its ability to create havoc within an opposition’s penalty area. The ball had already crossed the line before Gary Madine helped it into the back of the net, but offside was given. Outrage in the stands, on the pitch, and even within the Sky studio. Referee Smith was only warming up before expanding on his night’s work, resulting in a litany of blunders that allowed a decidedly forceful QPR to escape with a series of cynical yellow cards including one from goalkeeper Seny Dieng, who should have been sent off for flattening Jordan Gabriel. Although a penalty was given for the blatant incident, for a second it seemed that Smith wasn’t even going to either sanction Dieng, or award the spot kick. Along with Neal Barry’s officiating of Blackpool’s match at Stockport County in 1996, this was the worst display by a referee I have seen in the last 30 years.
When Blackpool played West Bromwich Albion in November the Baggies were riding high under the auspices of Valerian Ismael, before a complete collapse in form saw the Frenchman replaced by Steve Bruce. In a game of few chances but shaded by WBA, substitute CJ Hamilton blazed over a glorious chance to win the game late on. This would prove to be a microcosm of the speedster’s footballing deficiencies, who blew the chance of securing an improbable victory. The match ended 0-0.
On a wet and miserable Saturday in January Blackpool went toe to toe with big spending and subsequently promoted AFC Bournemouth, leading for much of the game thanks to Josh Bowler’s goal of the season. An inability to kill off teams, especially at one and two nil, became a leitmotif of Blackpool’s return to the Championship and was never more evident than against Bournemouth. A string of fine saves from Cherries’ stopped Mark Travers included an implausible hand that repelled a Gary Madine header which if had been arrowed downwards would have made it 2-0, and likely game over. That it didn’t seemed to energise Scott Parker’s men, who grabbed two goals in the last few minutes to secure a barely believable and wholly undeserved victory. Such fine margins also had ramifications for Bournemouth, who without the three points against Blackpool and those secured last week against Nottingham Forest despite the Tricky Trees being denied a nailed on penalty, would have been looking over their shoulders on the final day of the season against Millwall.
Any talk of fine margins against bitter rivals Preston North End run the risk of being labelled sour grapes, but although tangerine through and through I am able to admit that one win for each side during the 2021/22 season was a just outcome from what transpired on the Bloomfield Road and Deepdale pitches. In the October fixture at Bloomfield Road Preston’s Ben Whiteman spurned a glorious chance to regain parity when the score was 1-0, whilst Preston’s Cameron Archer could/should have been sent off for causing a concussion injury to Blackpool custodian Daniel Grimshaw. Archer would go on to score the winner past substitute keeper Chris Maxwell.
It was predicted that Blackpool might have to frequently take the pain of a return to a Championship piled high with those regarded as bigger clubs, and teams underpinned by parachute payments. Bizarrely, it was only on the final day of the season against the already relegated Peterborough United when Blackpool took a fearful beating reflected by both the performance and scoreline. Otherwise, the nearest Blackpool looked to being taken apart was during the first half at Bramhall Lane, as Sheffield United played around and through them at will but somehow failed to score. The second half became a non-event until a long punt upfield from Daniel Grimshaw found Keshi Anderson in acres of space. Despite the midfielder’s best attempts to allow the Blades’ defenders to catch him up a deft check inside saw a shot unleashed into Robin Olsen’s top righthand corner. Cue pandemonium behind the goal, as 2,900 ‘pool fans went berserk. What followed was the since replaced Slavisa Jokanovic sending on one striker after another as United lost the plot and their shape in equal measure. At one point David McGoldrick was picking the ball up in central defence from Olsen, instead of being at the business end of the pitch. It was no surprise that a few weeks later Jokanovic was replaced, albeit by Paul Heckingbottom, who improbably might lead the Blades back to the Premier League via the end of season play offs.
Huddersfield have been this season’s Championship surprise package, with an impressive points total and high hopes of a positive end to their campaign as they anticipate taking on Luton Town for a place at Wembley against Sheffield United, or Nottingham Forest. Anyone though who was in West Yorkshire on Boxing Day to watch Blackpool against the Terriers will know that until Jordan Gabriel’s sending off for two needless challenges, Huddersfield were firmly in Neil Critchley’s pocket. Two goals in the last ten minutes snared an undeserved 3-2 home victory; for two thirds of the game Blackpool were comfortable and but for Keshi Anderson’s inexplicable miss to make it 3-1 shortly before halftime, would surely have left the John Smith’s Stadium with at least a point. Notwithstanding Gabriel’s moments of madness this again proved that not finishing teams off can and usually does come with repercussions.
It is moot to say if either goal should have stood, but late ‘winners’ for the home sides at Luton Town and Blackburn Rovers were chalked off for infringements, although poor game management has seen Blackpool concede numerous late goals when seeing the game out by whatever means would have resulted in different outcomes.
The ‘what ifs’ of Blackpool’s season centre on a lack of killer instinct when the opposition were there for the taking. Poor decision making and a lack of footballing intelligence has ben flagged up and time and again particularly in the final third of the pitch, but also from the wide areas. The defence has at times been placed under unnecessary pressure by poor or non-existent tracking back, the loss of possession and often poor final balls. It can be frustrating to see Kevin Stewart, a destroyer par excellence, to win the ball and give it to Kenny Dougall or Callum Connolly only for it to be then passed sideways or even backwards, consequently losing all momentum. Blackpool will need to move the ball quicker between the lines next season, preferably by exponents of the game who are more able to achieve this.
Further ‘what ifs’ stem from not ‘turning up’ at certain games where the opposition are poor; Birmingham City and Hull City away, and Derby County in both fixtures immediately spring to mind. This is never better exemplified by the three unanswered goals scored by Derby each of which were the first in the careers of Luke Plange, Malcolm Ebiowei, and Eiran Cashin. Failure to capitalise on red cards for Hull City and Queens Park Rangers cost Blackpool dearly, when only one point instead of six was ultimately secured.
Observations from the season include the seemingly ever deteriorating standard of matchday officials, even those with Premier League experience. I have never understood the attitude that Premier League referees should be regarded as better than those who officiate in the EFL, as professional standards should surely be the same across the board. With so much at stake for those promoted and relegated from the Championship it cannot be long before a compelling case is conclusively made for VAR to be introduced in the second tier, although players and fans in all divisions deserve a uniform but higher standard of officiating.
It has been said that fifteen players who would in theory have been available for selection at Saturday’s debacle at London Road were missing, but that should in no way excuse the disgraceful performance and result against Grant McCann’s relegated team. However, whilst it is impossible to know the real reason for each omission, one overriding truism from the 2021/22 season is that Blackpool’s injury record is unacceptable and must have a common thread running through it. Whether it is the intensity of playing style, the training methods, the Bloomfield Road and/or Squires Gate pitches, methods of recovery between games, all or none of the above, there is a requirement to get to the root of the problem as a squad that strongly needs reinforcing must also be numerically trimmed. If the frequent injuries of this season occur in similar numbers during the 2022/23 campaign, there may be less opportunity to patch the squad up with adequate replacements.
It must be remembered where Blackpool have come from in the last few years, and how the club was perhaps only a few months from oblivion before Simon Sadler rode to its rescue. It is arguable that the club was promoted to the Championship ahead of schedule, something that makes its successful return to the second tier all the more remarkable. However, I feel the honeymoon period is now over for Neil Critchley, who must not be above constructive and knowledgeable criticism from Blackpool’s more astute supporters.
For those who think that singing about ‘going on the **** with Jerry Yates’ is a valid reason to keep a player who hasn’t shown the necessary footballing intelligence to make the step up in quality, then it is time for a wake up call. It is the same supporters who did not see the bigger picture when Sullay Kaikai and Nathan Delfouneso were released, and Armand Gnanduillet was allowed to leave the club. If Blackpool are to consolidate their position in the Championship, it will be necessary to make clear-eyed decisions about the futures of CJ Hamilton, Jerry Yates, Ethan Robson, and Jordan Thorniley amongst others, whilst it is a given that Josh Bowler will leave and Charlie Kirk returns with a clean slate to managerless Charlton Athletic. There are frankly not enough goals in Madine, Lavery, and Jake Beesley without the acquisition of a proven striker, and those who can more reliably supply the ammunition.
There is much to ponder, celebrate, and anticipate over the short break between seasons, but Blackpool must not treat certain players as scared cows or being beyond criticism. Every member of the squad must justify his position within it, with the club having firmly put behind it the era where it had to keep substandard players in the absence of being able to afford replacements who would improve the team. It will be fascinating to see how the next few months unfold at the club, in effect acting as a bellwether to future ambitions and limitations.