A topsy turvy first three months to Blackpool’s season in the second tier of English football has failed to give any definitive indicators as to whether the club will survive in the Championship.
A more volatile set of results in the club’s recent history, or even in my 39 years of watching the club, does not readily come to mind. Several false dawns have led fans to believe that the side are on the cusp of achieving something significant, which in the Seasiders’ case would be safety and a midtable finish, only for the bubble to be burst by several damaging defeats and more importantly, performances where the side simply haven’t turned up.
Injuries, and latterly illness, have been particularly crippling on an honest but fragile squad, although the condensed Championship schedule to accommodate the Qatari World Cup has precipitated personnel problems for many clubs. Blackpool cannot therefore simply bemoan their fortune when in this instance, they are far from alone in being incommoded by unavailable players. Questions were though asked last season if the playing surface at Bloomfield Road and Squires Gate training ground are bringing about injuries. Whilst I am unaware of any study that compares where Blackpool’s injuries occur – Bloomfield Road, Squires Gate, or away grounds – the club cannot legislate for such rank stupidity of one its players requiring knee surgery after falling off a stool at his home. With training methods obviously being different under manager Michael Appleton than predecessor Neil Critchley but with the number injured even higher than last season, it is difficult to apportion blame to either coach.
I have taken the view that recruitment in the summer has been seriously found wanting. Some recent matches have seen starting elevens with perhaps only one non-Critchley or even Simon Grayson signing within the side. A player with a history of injuries, Liam Bridcutt, was signed to replace long-term and perennial absentee Kevin Stewart. Former player Grant Ward, who Michael Appleton categorically stated would not be resigned, has recently been so after 17 months out of action. From Saturday’s evidence Ward is a yard or more off the pace since a potentially career-ending knee injury but Appleton had little choice to pick him in a midfield that is more a revolving door than the engine room of the side.
Three of Blackpool’s best players last season have not been adequately replaced. Mercurial winger Josh Bowler, now bizarrely on loan at Olympiakos after parent club Nottingham Forest’s incessant pursual of the player has been replaced by Leeds United loanee Ian Poveda, a player not unfamiliar with serious injury and who has failed to make an impact this season. Chelsea loanee Dujon Sterling, a player who starred last season at both full back positions but particularly on the right hand has in effect been replaced from within the club by the manful displays of Callum Connolly, who is more at home in central defence or as a destroyer in front of the back four. Jordan Gabriel is out for some months after falling off a household stool, and with Connolly now suspended for tomorrow’s home clash with Middlesbrough, it may fall upon Ward or out of favour Luke Garbutt to fill in on the right side of defence. It does not take a degree in Particle Physics to suggest that opposition boss Michael Carrick will target that side of Blackpool’s back line.
In the autumn of his career Richard Keogh was at times last season Blackpool’s last line of defence. Leading by outstanding example the former Republic of Ireland international guided fellow stalwart Marvin Ekpiteta to performances that reached new heights and signed a new deal in the summer prior to Neil Critchley’s bombshell departure to Aston Villa, from where he has already been sacked. For whatever reason Michael Appleton decided to let Keogh leave days before the August transfer window closed, in effect replacing him with Liverpool loanee Rhys Willaims who does not carry within his locker the technical ability, reading of the game, and calm assuredness that came as standard with Keogh. It can be emphatically stated that Ekpiteta is not the same player since Keogh left the building.
With a forward line – Gary Madine, Jerry Yates, Shayne Lavery, and Jake Beesley – last season scoring around 30 goals it was imperative that Blackpool upgraded its striking options this season. That this hasn’t occurred coupled with injury to wide man Keshi Anderson and the gaping hole left by Bowler has led fans to question where the goals will come from. Whilst Blackpool have scored in fits and starts this season a lack of a deadly number nine in the squad plus poor decision-making in and around the box as well as frequent failure with the final ball that even often struggle to beat the first man are highly predictable problems that have not been remedied. It can be argued that Anderson has been replaced in the squad by Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Canadian international Theo Corbeanu, whose raw ability but callowness has only added to the unpredictability and indecision frequently seen during Blackpool’s faltering attacks. A series of 1-0 defeats – Swansea City, Blackburn Rovers, Norwich City, and Luton Town – at headquarters all of which Blackpool should have got a point or more from highlights how a lack of quality in wide areas and at the top of the pitch has harmed their chances of comfortably staying in the Championship.
What therefore do Blackpool need to retain their Championship status? From my subjective standpoint loanees Ian Poveda and Rhys Williams should return in January to their parent clubs, and midfielder Callum Wright sent out on loan to a League One side. I anticipate Luke Garbutt leaving the club, whilst most of those loaned out to clubs down the pyramid – Reece James, Oliver Casey, Bez Lubala, Matthew Virtue – will presumably never play again for the club, although Doug Tharme, Rob Apter, and Owen Dale could still have parts to play this season.
If Anderson can once more regain full fitness and Josh Bowler returns on loan from Forest via Athens, I would say that Bridcutt, Kenny Dougall, Charlie Patino, Sonny Carey, a returning Lewis Fiorini, and perhaps Grant Ward offers adequately cover for central midfield. I anticipate that the best defensive midfielder at the club Kevin Stewart will never play again, at least not this season. Defensively the soon to arrive Andy Lyons from Shamrock Rovers could cement a place at right back and make it difficult for Gabriel to get back into the side, especially with the versatile Callum Connolly acting as cover. James Husband and Dominic Thompson can cover the left back berth, but it is at centre back, where Connolly and Husband can both play, that requires serious surgery. Assuming that Williams returns to Liverpool, Blackpool are left with just Ekpiteta and Jordan Thorniley as recognised centre backs. A player such as free agent Michael Hector could be an astute acquisition but if not, someone of his experienced ilk is needed.
In the final third Blackpool again need an experienced proponent to share Gary Madine’s physical burden and contribute when Jerry Yates goes through his regular goal droughts. Michael Appleton has never really got to grips with where Shayne Lavery should play but I think he or Yates are best served starting alongside Madine or similar in a 4-4-2. As Appleton prefers a 4-3-3 it would therefore not surprise me to see Lavery move on. Jake Beesley could eventually play the Madine role, but injury and a lack of experience says to me at least that it will be a long while before the former Rochdale man is ready at this level. On returning to fitness a stint on loan may better serve both player and club.
Blackpool are fortunate to have three goalkeepers worth their salt, although it is not unrealistic to suggest that Daniel Grimshaw is unhappy to have been usurped by former number one Chris Maxwell. Whilst Maxwell is not everyone’s cup of tea, he has not been at fault for any of the goals conceded since he took over from Grimshaw. Neither he nor the former Manchester City stopper are what you would call a complete keeper, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Grimshaw pushes for a move in January. In this event third choice keeper Stuart Moore is mo(o)re than capable of being second choice and even deputising when called upon, but it is imperative particularly at this level to have three goalkeepers who can be trusted with the gloves when called upon.
As the league position and squad stands, I think it is borderline as to whether Blackpool will retain their Championship status. Injuries are hurting the side, but goals, creativity, and defensive robustness are also pertinent issues that must be addressed within the budget set Appleton by owner Simon Sadler. Relegation to a third tier which includes the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Charlton Athletic, Plymouth Argyle, Portsmouth, Ipswich Town, and Sheffield Wednesday would be disastrous but as a club are Blackpool seriously out of their depth in a league of much larger stadia, crowds, and budgets, that is underpinned by Premier League parachute payments? Perhaps, but only by staying in the Championship will the Seasiders grow as a club and improve upon their modest attendances. These next few months, including a likely significant churn of personnel in the summer represents the most important period to date of Simon Sadler’s hand on the tiller.