Blackpool 0 Birmingham City 0 – a result that technically stopped the rot but did nothing to suggest Blackpool will get out of relegation trouble, nor that Michael Appleton is the right man for the job. It is only eight months since a then Neil Critchley’s Blackpool put six past Birmingham – two results and performances as night and day as can be imagined. It should not be overlooked that John Eustace’s side should easily have won Saturday’s fixture.
Four defeats on the bounce have dropped ‘pool into the bottom three but events that began with Critchley’s abrupt departure to be Steven Gerrard’s cone collector at Aston Villa, a role that didn’t exactly age well, have ultimately conspired to a frankly deserved place in the relegation zone. The table does not lie in December, even after an unprecedented month off to accommodate FIFA’s Qatari-based whims.
Critchley leaving in early June has undoubtedly been extremely damaging to Blackpool, but was he tempted to do so not only by Gerrard’s blandishments but also by a lack of funds for essential pre-season strengthening? We’ll never know. The bizarre beauty parade of the likes of Michael Duff and Liam Rosenior before owner Simon Sadler and the board ‘unanimously’ agreed to appoint Appleton on the one hand smacks of a managerial appointment done on the cheap, but to then offer the former Lincoln City manager a four-year contract suggests a significant financial outlay. Appleton isn’t a Championship-standard manager but who turns down such a long contract, especially when already mates with Chief Executive Ben Mansford?
The departure of Critchley stuffed up any recruitment plans in place – but then maybe there weren’t any, hence my above theory that he had extra incentive to walk. A delayed appointment of an already unpopular coach further put back Blackpool’s attempts to strengthen a squad that ultimately lost Dujon Sterling, Richard Keogh, Ryan Wintle, and Josh Bowler from last season’s strongest available line up, whilst automatic picks Kevin Stewart, Keshi Anderson. and Jordan Gabriel have spent the first half of the current season in the treatment room. With over half of the starting line up gone or unavailable, Blackpool have utterly failed to accommodate such a loss, acknowledge that the Championship is stronger this time around, and source players that will fit into Appleton’s preferred 4-3-3 formation.
It can with some justification be said that Appleton has been dealt a poor hand, with at least a dozen targets opting against signing for Blackpool to either go elsewhere, or even stay put. It will always happen with the odd player, but for so many to say ‘no thanks’ it is fair to say that there is something seriously amiss.
Blackpool’s resurgence within the Championship was underpinned by a seemingly passionate Critchley who not only engaged with the fans, but actually looked interested in the events in front of him whilst standing in the technical area. This season’s team has been accused of passivity – a trait they surely get from their manager. If looking to Appleton for inspiration, they’ll not find any. Every person has a different personality but Appleton doesn’t look interested, and only seems to be a reactive coach when it comes to substitutions that are anything but proactive. What occurred at Wigan backs up the last sentence, when players dead on their feet having played 70 minutes a man down due to Marvin Ekpiteta’s sending off were not replaced until Curtis Tilt’s late winner. Against a poor Wigan side if Blackpool had taken off Gary Madine in let’s say the 70th minute and brought on C J Hamilton to have a run at the Latics’ nervous defence whilst pushing the rapid Shayne Lavery into the number nine position, the outcome could have been very different.
The connection between fans-players-management-boardroom looks broken. A relationship which was never evident or possible during the Oyston era but something a club like Blackpool needs has been severed. Crowds are dwindling, the legendary atmosphere has had the wind taken out of it, all the while the fans have a manager they never wanted and cannot relate to, with the feeling being that Blackpool owner Simon Sadler, a local lad made very good, does not ‘get’ what is first and foremost needed for a club to be successful. If a new training ground is to be built along with a shiny replacement east stand but the product on the pitch is substandard, where is the business sense to such a lopsided approach? Who will sit in the new east stand, when we cannot sell it out on the few occasions Blackpool fans have the chance to sit in it?
Mr. Sadler knows that at the ‘best’ of times Blackpool is an impoverished town, all the more so during the current nationwide crises. Current matchday and season ticket prices are far too high, with many potential, floating, or even dedicated fans not attending because of how much it costs to watch the team. For someone at the club like the extremely well remunerated Ben Mansford to say Sadler is more than doing his bit (which he has and still is) and so the fans must also do their part completely fails to see the bigger picture. Anyone spending the shrinking amount of disposal income they have on football will expect some entertainment, players capable of delivering it, and a manager fully engaged in the process. Blackpool’s crowds have always been lower than they should have been thanks to a lost generation of fans who stayed away rather than taking their families to a previously rotting Bloomfield Road, and the boycott during the latter stages of the Oyston years when many moved on to different past times – which they have continued to prefer. For Blackpool to get a steady 14-16.000 in the Championship including away supporters, far more has to be done to make attending matches a viable option for the many, not the dwindling few.
At what looks to be a serious test of Sadler’s judgment – do any ruthlessly successful businessmen/women ever acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made? – Blackpool stand at a dangerous crossroads. Relegation would be a damning indictment of top down failure, and whilst Critchley’s departure appears to be the catalyst, what has occurred since appears to be the result of indecisiveness and being hamstrung by giving the unproven Appleton such a long contract. The manager can protest that injuries have hampered him at every turn, but his preferred system does not suit a squad predominantly built by Critchley and underpinned by untried loanees.
My Christmas wish list for Blackpool would involve regime change within the dugout, with Kevin Stewart, Grant Ward, and Liam Bridcutt being paid up or a mutual agreement to terminate their contracts entered into forthwith. Furthermore, Rob Apter, currently on loan at Scunthorpe United, to continue his development at a League One side, with the callow Callum Wright doing the same. If Blackpool are to get out of their current predicament then the Josh Bowler transfer fee and Critchley’s compensation from Aston Villa, in total circa £6 million, needs to be spent in January. I acknowledge that the January window is a difficult one in which to source quality players and Blackpool couldn’t get them in the summer so what chance now when in the relegation zone, but nothing will be achieved with the current crop of players (and manager) other than certain relegation. As a minimum Blackpool need an experienced, commanding centre back – why was Richard Keogh allowed to leave? – a midfield enforcer and playmaker, a winger, and a proven goalscorer. All very expensive, but weakening the squad and expecting it to play in a tougher Championship was never going to get the desired results. For what it is worth, Chris Wilder to be appointed, please.
With a division full of big clubs for that level – Charlton Athletic, Plymouth Argyle, Bolton Wanderers, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday – relegation to League One would be a footballing disaster from which Blackpool will struggle to escape. I have no doubt Simon Sadler is as concerned about the situation as most of the fans are, but he now needs to come out with actions that show it. We are all grateful for his munificence and continued good work off the pitch but the honeymoon is over. The owner cannot be above genuine, constructive criticism.