The transfer window was a painful and protracted experience for Blackpool Football Club. Deals for players with whom they had been linked continually fell at the final hurdle or the mere rumours of certain tie ups alerted rival clubs, who invariably could offer more attractive terms and realistically a greater chance of playing in the higher reaches of the Championship. There is even an ersatz ‘team’ of players who Blackpool missed out on, including former loanee Ellis Simms, Manchester United’s Amad Diallo, and Oxford United’s Cameron Brannagan (who preferred to stay in a lower division), as did Colby Bishop. The list does though go on and could numerically fill out a whole squad. At least, those are the ones we know about.

The window was an excellent chance to get several players off Blackpool’s books who are obviously not good enough for second tier football. Whilst the likes of Matt Virtue, Reece James, Oliver Casey, Beryly ‘Bez’ Lubala, Owen Dale, and Doug Thame have gone out on loan – it is likely that only Thame and perhaps Casey have a future at the club – the cutting of ties with the likes of Virtue, Lubala, James, and Dale, as well as CJ Hamilton and Luke Garbutt who remain in the squad, has not come to pass. It does therefore bring into question if Blackpool are still paying a significant proportion of the salaries due to those who’ve gone out on loan, in effect impinging on the transfer budget available to manager Michael Appleton.

The squad is fundamentally weaker than last season. The loss of Richard Keogh, oddly transferred to Ipswich Town where he has only played ten minutes of football since arriving, has been keenly felt. A calming presence but still playing as if in his prime, Keogh’s influence on defensive partner Marvin Ekpiteta could not be underestimated. A fine distributor of the ball, Keogh would often be the building block of attacks, and was generally a positive influence on and off the pitch. Ekpiteta has not looked the same player this season, and whilst he is better paired with James Husband and/or Jordan Thorniley depending on whether ‘Pool are playing two or three centre backs, the former Layton Orient player has until recent games been undertaking central defensive duties with Liverpool loanee Rhys Williams, who has often looked off the pace, shaky, and defensively suspect. Thorniley isn’t without a mistake in him and is known for at times being caught out of position allowing opposition attackers to get in behind. He does though continue to offer a more reliable presence than Williams, who cannot simply be picked because he happens to be on loan from Liverpool.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the transfer window is that Blackpool only signed two permanent players – full back Dominic Thompson from Brentford and Callum Wright, an attacking midfielder sourced from Leicester City. The latter was in fact only snapped up in the last minutes of the transfer window, which is a microcosm of the disastrous trading period Blackpool endured. Despite insistence to the contrary a lack of succession planning allowed star man Josh Bowler to depart on deadline day, for a fee anywhere between £3.5-6 million, without lining up a permanent replacement. The injury prone Leeds United loanee Ian Poveda is a useful addition to the squad but in no way gets anywhere near to replacing Bowler, nor does the erratic but wholehearted Canadian Theo Corbeanu, loaned to Blackpool by Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The first few weeks of the season have flown by, with almost a quarter of Blackpool’s in regulation Championship games having already been played. At such a point it is not unfair to pass preliminary judgment on the Tangerines’ prospects for the rest of the season, with the omens to this observer at least looking ominous.

A somewhat fortuitous first day win against Reading did not offer much encouragement for what was to come, which was followed up by a very poor performance and defeat at Stoke City, who have since sacked then manager Michael O’Neill. Exiting the Carabao (League) Cup at the first stage is not always a bad thing, but to do so at home to Barrow, a club two divisions below Blackpool and who were recently playing non-league football is far from ideal. Once the 0-0 went to a penalty shootout, it was almost inevitable what would transpire.

A further reversal if albeit one not justified occurred at home to a poor Swansea City who exacted a perfect smash and grab to wrap up the points on the counterattack with only a few minutes remaining. It should though be noted that the Swans have an attack in the shape of Olivier Ntcham, Michael Obafemi, and Joel Piroe – the type of which Blackpool can only dream.

A backs to the wall victory at Queens Park Rangers inspired by a piece of Josh Bowler magic offered some hope, as did a herculean come back against big spending Burnley. Even what initially looked to be a victory but only where a draw was salvaged in the dying seconds against Bristol City at Bloomfield Road seemed positive, when a crippling injury list and poor transfer window were taken into account.

The four league games that have since followed have brought the actual task facing Michael Appleton into sharp focus. A poor home defeat to a basic and fragile Blackburn Rovers felt like three steps back after recently moving two forward. Followed by a fortuitous victory at Huddersfield Town aided by failing goal line technology which denied the Terriers’ a bona fide goal, Blackpool fell off the rails in such an ignominious manner at Rotherham that the only difference from last season’s humbling by an already relegated Peterborough United was the scoreline. Make no mistake – this was an appalling reversal against a side only vibrant through their ruggedness, and one who were last season plying their trade in League One. To coin a phrase Blackpool were lucky to get nil.

In their last outing less than 72 hours after the debacle against the Millers Blackpool had a chance to redeem themselves against a Millwall who finished last season well and had initially looked to be play-off contenders this time around. The Lions’ recent form has though made them ripe for the taking, something which was evident from Saturday’s events at The New Den. Time and again Blackpool could not seize the initiative when their final ball, and decision-making, continually let them down at the last. A common problem last season, with Josh Bowler often being the culprit, has not been rectified but in the absence of the mercurial talents of both Bowler and the injured Keshi Anderson, Blackpool have had to rely on the callow Corbeanu, fleeting glimpses of Poveda, and a rotation of Shayne Lavery and Jerry Yates to supply the ammunition from wide areas, something that is not in the respective strong suits of both the Ulsterman and the latter.

In all the games Blackpool have played this season the inadequacies of the current squad, a lack of suitable replacements for Dujon Sterling, Richard Keogh, and Josh Bowler, and the abject overall failure of their dealings in the transfer window has in some form or other reared its head. Without an upgrade on Gary Madine and the sidelined Jake Beesley, where the goals to stay in the Championship will come from is far from obvious.

Earlier I touched upon how in my opinion Blackpool’s squad is much weaker than last season. This assertion is twofold: both in terms of who the squad consists of, but also when injuries strike the options available to Appleton. Without Sterling, Keogh, and Bowler Blackpool have been shorn of three of their finest components from last season and who in their own contrasting ways dragged the club into midtable respectability. None of these players have been replaced. It could be said that Jordan Gabriel is Sterling’s in house replacement, but the former Nottingham Forest man has a lot to learn compared to the former Chelsea loanee. Similar to Bowler, Keogh is irreplaceable. Rhys Williams is not the answer to that particular question.

Now factor in who has been unavailable to Appleton. On his day Kevin Stewart is the best defensive midfielder in the Championship but those days are so infrequent that the oft-injured former Liverpool and Hull City player has become one of the lesser-spotted variety. Keshi Anderson, whilst being someone not particularly keen on tracking back is a fine winger and added balance to Bowler playing on the right side of midfield. Injured in the last knockings of preseason, the former Swindon Town player has been a huge miss when Blackpool have been struggling to create sufficient chances to win football matches. Retrospectively banned after video footage showed what was believed to be a stamp on a Blackburn Rovers player, Gary Madine is now available after a three-game suspension and whilst his height and presence are significant in both boxes, the ‘goal machine’ has never been prolific – something he has carried on into the autumn of his career. Nevertheless, Blackpool are a better side with Madine in it than not, but without splashing millions on an upgrade it can only be hoped that the big man can find 12-15 goals within his locker this season.

A squad without Bowler, Sterling, and Keogh, and their adequate replacements, plus the absence of Anderson, Stewart, and Madine, leaves a huge hole that cannot be plugged by the club’s current transfer strategy. The rigours of the Championship are well-documented, and with the best will in the world but also in my view a degree of short-sightedness and penny-pinching, the slack will not be picked up by playing kids acquired on loan from Premier League sides. For Blackpool to stabilise in the Championship a healthy dose of experience, which admittedly does not come cheap, should have been the order of the day instead of concentrating on buying in players to sell on, and placing an inordinate amount of hope on untried youngsters from top-tier academies.

Owner Simon Sadler (and the club’s CEO Ben Mansford) has made great play of building a new and expensive training ground, unfortunately earmarked for green belt land in neighbouring Wyre Borough. With a new east stand also in the offing but nevertheless an insistence that the playing budget has also been increased, some supporters are questioning the wisdom of throwing more eggs into off-field baskets than those concerning what goes on on the pitch. Blackpool cannot fill the east stand they currently have and will continue not being able to, unless the team markedly improves its performances and results. It is simply not viable to do so within the constraints of the current squad, and perhaps even with Appleton at the controls.

Should Blackpool be relegated this season – not enough goal threat equals relegation – then years of obscurity could beckon. The third tier is no respecter of reputations and contains bigger clubs than Blackpool in the shape of Derby County, Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth, Ipswich Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers, and perhaps Plymouth Argyle, exemplifying that there are no guarantees that promotion back to the Championship can be gained at the first, second, or even third time of asking. Remaining in the Championship is absolutely vital; the general feeling is that ‘staying up’ this season could be a greater achievement than gaining promotion 16 months ago.

With a nightmare run of nine games between the beginning of October and the first week of November including fixtures against Norwich City, Sunderland, Watford, Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion, and fierce rivals Preston North End, the die could very much be cast for Blackpool’s season by Bonfire Night when they play Luton Town, ironically during the daytime. I hope for the best but fear the worst.

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