I have delayed this post for a few days after Blackpool’s dispiriting reverse at Wigan Athletic not only to gather my thoughts away from the heat of the moment, but also to see if manager Michael Appleton would be relieved of his duties. One has taken place, the other has not.
The DW Stadium debacle was in part self-inflicted. Only 17 minutes into a frankly turgid but even first half Blackpool’s Marvin Ekpiteta, whose form has fallen off a cliff after a stellar few years at Bloomfield Road, was sent off for a ‘last man’ foul on Wigan’s Charlie Wyke. Despite a very poor 45 minutes of refereeing by Andy Davies, the only official on the circuit who was formerly a professional player but was forced off through injury at half time, it looked despite my distant vantage point to be a straightforward red card. The fact that a weak header by midfielder Kenny Dougall put Ekpiteta in such a position cannot be overlooked, but nor can the shocking downturn in form by the central defender since Richard Keogh left the club in somewhat of a hurry.
That Blackpool managed to take the lead 20 minutes later and go in a goal to the good speaks more of Wigan’s utter abjectivity than a heroic rear-guard action. The ‘tics first half display was the worst I have seen in the flesh this season, and although the loss of manager Leam Richardson only 48 hours before the game went down like a lead balloon with a lot of supporters, if that was the fayre being served up then it cannot have come as a great shock.
Nevertheless, despite Gary Madine’s disputed goal a penny to a pound that most if not all of the near-4,000 Blackpool fans in attendance knew what was coming. Yes, Wigan inevitably stepped up the pace and moved the ball quicker, but also the memo seemed to finally arrive regarding Blackpool’s vulnerability from diagonal crosses into the box and corners. That James McClean’s mishit corner kick evaded everyone including the hapless Chris Maxwell really set the tone for a shameful second half showing. I call it shameful not because of the effort put in by the beleaguered ten players, but how Michael Appleton set them up to fail.
It was evident from the start that Wigan lacked confidence and weren’t exactly brimming over with ability. A rudimentary style not exactly replete with variety would have seen an 11 versus 11 match up result in a comfortable Blackpool victory, but that they failed to take the game to Wigan in the second half despite being a man short resulted in the inevitable. I doubt Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones had a save to make in the second half as Blackpool showed as much adventure as an anchoritic hermit. Gary Madine fought an isolated, unwinnable battle and whose obvious fatigue should have been recognised by Appleton. A game in my view still there to be won, the obvious change at 1-1 would have been to bring on C J Hamilton to have a run at Wigan’s underworked defence, whilst pushing the otherwise lost Shayne Lavery into the number 9 position. For all Hamilton’s deficiencies he has lightning pace which would have pushed Wigan back from their high position, enabling both he and Lavery to break at speed. It could have backfired but going down trying would surely have been better than Appleton’s tactical ineptitude to not make a replacement until the 89th minute, a reactionary move brought about by Curtis Tilt’s winner.
Chants of ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’ from many but not all Blackpool fans behind Maxwell’s goal were only heightened by Appleton smugly clapping the supporters after the game. The players deserved respect, but I cannot say the same for the manager.
There has in recent times been some frankly unlikeable managers in charge of Blackpool. Just as Gary Bowyer and Terry McPhillips were respected, Lee Clark, Neil McDonald, and Simon Grayson were comparatively reviled. Neil Critchley ruined his legacy by disappearing to Aston Villa, from where he has subsequently been sacked, in the first days of June. This set the club and its recruitment plans back, but was the decision made easy for Critchley when it became obvious that owner Simon Sadler’s financial priority for the club was to build a replacement east stand, and a new training facility albeit in a neighbouring borough and on green belt land? We may never know.
Appleton has though lost the fans; one wonders if his lack of interaction and demonstrability has made it hard too for the players to connect with him. Not everyone can have sparkling personalities; fist pumps and thumping the club badge can be as hollow as it is insincere and patronising, but when the players look to Appleton in the technical area for inspiration, it is unlikely that they will find any.
Being incommoded with an astonishing injury list and a raft of suspensions from a litany of red cards, some deserved, others not, would seriously test any manager. It is also true, at least in my view, that the manager has been sold short by the board who have failed to recognise that the Championship is much stronger this season, whilst Blackpool’s squad is significantly weaker. Take Josh Bowler, Richard Keogh, Dujon Sterling, Kevin Stewart, and Keshi Anderson out of the team, as well as factoring in the loss of form by Ekpiteta, and replace the aforementioned with Theo Corbeanu, Ian Poveda, the more often than injured Liam Bridcutt, and Rhys Williams whilst not bringing in an experienced goalscorer, then the board can have few complaints if Blackpool are relegated. Appleton can therefore, presumably, not be blamed for this.
However, notwithstanding Neil Critchley arguably being the catalyst to Blackpool’s current predicament, Appleton was not a popular appointment. He probably fell within the same ‘grudgingly accepted’ category as Simon Grayson, but notwithstanding a brush with testicular cancer Appleton’s stock significantly fell at previously employer Lincoln City; who else on leading a League One side to 18th in the table after reaching the play offs the season before (where the Imps’ lost to Blackpool in the final) could expect to next get a gig in the Championship? Appleton was therefore the wrong appointment, and a habit of throwing players under the metaphorical bus honed at Sincil Bank has reared its head at Blackpool. For a man who is never wrong, the league table must make baffling viewing.
It is with some regret that I feel that Blackpool Football Club is also displaying characteristics of never making mistakes, or admitting to them. Owner Sadler is by all accounts a ruthless player in the financial industry, and it is common practice for those in authority to not own up to making what turn out to be poor decisions. The silence is deafening from the club, who must be fully aware of the ‘regard’ Appleton is held in by the vast majority of the supporters. Crowds are noticeably down this season, and that isn’t just because of the cost-of-living crisis. In my experience fans will find the money to attend games if they are sold on the on and off field project; that what is currently occurring on the pitch is failing on many levels is hardly attractive to both hardcore and occasional attendees. It is with some incredulity both at the time and in this moment that Sadler actually spoke out in June against the fan dissent generated by Appleton’s appointment, as if the supporters have no right to question his judgment. Again, one wonders what the owner thinks about pursuing Appleton when he espies the current Championship relegation zone?
Appleton is defiant in his selection of the flailing Chris Maxwell over Daniel Grimshaw. Both are good shot stoppers – aren’t all ‘keepers supposed to be? – but are hardly commanding or great distributors of the ball. I therefore ask myself – what has the towering third choice Stuart Moore done that’s so wrong?
With Jake Beesley, Keshi Anderson, Kevin Stewart, Lewis Fiorini, Jordan Gabriel, Liam Bridcutt, Jordan Thorniley, and James Husband all injured, Appleton appears to think that the recovery of some or all of the above will be akin to bringing in a raft of new signings. Drilling down into the detail suggest otherwise. Of the side-lined only Thorniley, Husband, and Bridcutt (for how long?) are likely to return before the new year. All are important members of the squad but are unlikely to precipitate a vital upturn in form. Anderson and Stewart are the greatest losses, but their respective injury records ensure they cannot be relied upon. It is therefore highly questionable how Appleton has arrived at his rather fuzzy logic.
To heavily misquote Billy Joel Neil Critchley started the fire, but we’ll never know if the finances at his disposal for the current season made his decision to leave a really easy one to make. The club obviously thought Appleton could continue his predecessor’s good work of ‘bringing on’ young players but I do wonder – was he willing to accept perhaps the lowest budget in the division when other more desirable managers, such as Tony Mowbray, would not? Again, we’ll never know. By though signing a four-year contract Appleton knows that should the ‘project’ go belly up, that he’ll likely receive a sizeable severance.
In short, the club recruited the wrong man. That is easy for me to say when I am not putting forward the ‘right’ names the club should have pursued instead but that is for Blackpool to conclude, not me. Appleton has never managed at Championship level, nor shown any likelihood of doing so. A detached personality devoid of connection with the fans and from what I can see the players too is a far cry from Critchley’s engagement with both. Perhaps we were duped by him, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt. His lack of explanation to the fans for the reasons why he went to put out Steven Gerrard’s cones might just be to spare Blackpool’s blushes.
An injury record that continues to astonish does not explain why Blackpool recruited so poorly during pre-season, nor since when pursuing free agents. A weaker squad in a tougher division spells trouble. Only the deluded can therefore be surprised by the club’s current league position, especially when considering the recruitment of the frequently injured – Bridcutt, the re-signing of Grant Ward, and Poveda – as well as inexperienced kids – Charlie Patino, Fiorini, Corbeanu, and Williams – to replace the departed, and injured within the squad. Appleton presumably cannot control who is not available for selection, but the club have failed to give him the necessary tools in terms of quality, experience, and those who can step into his preferred 4-3-3 system.
Nearly a week into the season’s 28 days pause Blackpool’s fans will be quite rightly concerned about the club’s lack of dialogue regarding on field matters, specifically the toxicity reverberating through the DW Stadium’s away end. Such a response was not simply a reaction to being defeated in a ‘must win’ fixture but has been building in recent weeks. Appalling reverses against West Bromwich Albion, Hull City, and Middlesbrough interspersed with an undeserved defeat against Luton Town have somewhat watered down the achievements of previously beating Coventry City and local rivals Preston North End. It should though be remembered that a wave of food poisoning had decimated Mark Robins’ team, and PNE outplayed Blackpool for 70 minutes. Coupled with faulty goal line technology handing Blackpool victory at bottom side Huddersfield Town the tangerines’ could by now be adrift at the foot of the table, despite two epic 3-3 draws at highfliers Burnley and Sheffield United. There is a certain schizophrenic nature to Blackpool’s results and performances and yes, they have been incommoded by some egregious refereeing, but the table does not lie at this time of the season.
As it stands, without eating humble pie and significant intervention on the pitch and within the technical area, Blackpool will be relegated. The club has a manager who should never have been appointed but who hasn’t been properly equipped to do the job and has only served to alienate supporters with his less than subtle ‘it’s not what you say but how you say it’ utterances in the media. There is though, ultimately, one source which bears full responsibility for the current deterioration in performances and a broken relationship with the supporters. It isn’t Appleton, nor Critchley.