With just 15 games to go in the League One season, Blackpool currently sit 12th in the table, with promotion to the Championship remaining the priority target. George Wincott considers whether we can still make it.
Although recent results have caused doubt amongst a portion of the Pool faithful, the Seasiders remain very much in and around the promotion mix up, with just a small margin of five points separating ourselves and the League One play-off places. The Tangerines also have numerous games in hand over other sides in the division, with some teams even having played four more league matches than the Fylde Coast outfit this season – that’s a total of 12 additional points to be earned.
However as all football fans know, you’d rather have points on the board than games in hand – particularly as ours are against the likes of Peterborough (h), Sunderland (a) and Doncaster (h) who all currently sit within the top six, as well as Accrington (h). Although these fixtures appear daunting on paper, we have shown that we are more than capable of mixing with the division’s big boys, having already beaten Peterborough, Hull City, Charlton and Portsmouth twice in the league this season. I truly believe we are more than capable of finishing within the top six, but due to the immense competition within the division, it’s needless to say it certainly won’t be easy.
Goals win games
As of late, concerns have be raised by number of fans, due to our inability to ‘kill off the game’ so to speak, by snatching that illusive second goal in matches when leading one nil, in order ultimately ensure we finish the game with three points. Since the 3-0 win at Charlton, Blackpool have scored four goals in the last five games, with one win and four draws. It’s clear to see the root of the problem is largely down to our low goalscoring tally, given the absence of not only Gary Madine, but also Keshi Anderson and CJ Hamilton. This isn’t a new problem for us and has hampered us all season, as only four League One sides have scored less goals than us. Jerry Yates recently lifted his League One goal scoring tally for the season to 12, but the absence of the injured Madine has meant we have struggled to find an alternative goal source, as when Yates isn’t firing, Blackpool have struggled for goals.
Due to Madine’s injury, Yates has been often partnered up by loanee Ellis Simms, who joined the Tangerines on loan from Everton in January, with an impressive goal record at youth level, netting over 50 goals in 80 appearances for The Toffees. Whilst Simms has managed three goals so far since joining, including a debut double at Wigan, it was always going to be a tough ask for the young striker to score goals on a consistent basis during his first spell in professional football. However Simms continues to show signs of what he can do, with a particularly impressive performance away at Charlton, in which he dominated the Addicks defence.
I think it’s simply just a matter of time for Ellis, in that the more football he plays, the more he will adapt to League One level, and ultimately develop a healthy goalscoring habit. Unfortunately that’s time Blackpool don’t have, with the season coming to a close and Blackpool in need of an alternative goal source. Simms’ short-term spell is also set to expire at the end of the season, as he returns to parent club Everton. We all know he is a player with real quality and potential, but the partnership of Yates and Simms hasn’t quite boded the same as Yates and Madine did earlier in the season.
Madine and Yates were the self-proclaimed next ‘Yorke and Cole’, in light of Manchester United legends Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole’s famous partnership. The pair were expertly able to play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses, through Madine’s physicality and ability to hold up the ball up for Yates and create space for the striker to finish, whilst also providing an ulterior goal threat himself. Unfortunately Simms and Yates have just not had the same connection on the pitch, which I believe is largely down to the fact that Ellis Simms is not a target man like Gary Madine, and therefore often tries to play the same game as Yates, with the pair struggling to mould opportunity for one another. There is no doubt in my mind that both strikers are able to score goals in this division, but it’s just about finding the right formula that suits both of their strengths and weaknesses.
Against Burton Albion, the game changed for us when Elliot Embleton came on for Ellis Simms and Pool played him behind Yates as the lone striker. This gives us another option which may help us to create more chances in the upcoming games, and it’s likely that Embleton may have done enough to warrant a start at Oxford United on Saturday.
Failure to punish our opposition
Recent weeks have emphasised to Blackpool just how crucial it is to get that second goal when leading 1-0 in matches, exemplified by the late slips at home to Crewe and AFC Wimbledon where we drew 1-1 in both games respectively. This blip has led to us missing out on four vital points that are especially disappointing to lose at such a late stage in both games, with the race for the League One play off spots heating up – a time in the season that holds very little margin for error. With six teams standing between ourselves and the play off positions, it’s only normal to think that these matches were a huge opportunity missed out on. Of course I’m not expecting us to win every game for the remainder of the season, but other teams around us will take advantage and thrive on our missed opportunities, using them to propel themselves further up the table, and away from Blackpool as they approach those play-off positions.
As you can see in the League Table below, we’re still in with a shot but need to turn those draws into wins – something Neil Critchley is well aware of as mentioned in his pre-match press conference for the Burton game.
Strength to strength
It goes without saying that we’re definitely creating the chances to be able to reach the play off heights. However, we’re lacking true conviction and ruthlessness in the final third, to be able to get out of sight and put our opposition to bed in matches – a recurring theme this season. Although when presented with a chance, I back any of the Seasiders’ front men to score, showing quality is not the issue, but rather our ability to stamp our offensive authority onto the game by pinning sides in and keeping them on the back foot.
One reason I’m optimistic for the remainder of the campaign is the reintroduction of CJ Hamilton, returning from a lengthy spell on the sidelines. CJ is able to pin back opposition defenders through his electric pace, forcing them on the back foot on a consistent basis, whilst also creating a flurry of chances for our strikers. Although CJ has struggled to regain full fitness, an impressive performance against Fleetwood allowed him to attack the flanks and provide plenty of opportunity for teammates, as well as striking the post himself. Before his injury, sides struggled to deal with the unique dynamic he offers cutting onto his left foot, something that could be the key to further punishing our opposition’s defence in the fight for promotion. CJ was missing from the squad for the Burton game so hopefully that was precautionary rather than a flare up of his previous hamstring injury which had kept him out since Christmas.
Jerry Yates has also hit fine goal scoring form as of late – after a slow start to the season, the striker recently took his League One tally up to 12, with plenty more to come. Yates finally seems to be finding his rhythm without the assistance of Madine, something that will help boost his personal game massively. And with Madine edging ever close to a return from his spell on the sidelines, we could be looking at the extra firepower we need to get us over the line when looking to breakdown stubborn opposition defences, particularly at home where teams are seemingly happy to take a share of the spoils.
Madine has proved so many times this season that he can be a handful for opposition defence, and a menace in the box. Madine possesses the type of experience, prowess and reputation we require to throw off opposition defences, having being known for his ‘tough’ persona, as well as collating multiple promotions throughout his career. Not only this, but Gary has also shown he has the technical ability of a striker more than capable of play at a higher level, netting against premier league opposition twice this season for the Pool, and provides a crucial physical challenge for opposition defenders – the type of player you need in and around the box to make something happen.
Solid as a rock
One of the main reasons I think Blackpool are more than capable of achieving the play offs is due our excellent defensive record – we hold the second best defensive record in League One, conceding just 29 goals, and keeping 14 clean sheets this season, proving that we’re more than capable of shutting sides out and mixing in with the big boys at the top of the division. Even with our main defensive partnership in Marvin Ekpiteta and Daniel Gretarsson both out injured, we’ve shown a unique bounce-back ability and have continued to remain comfortable, due to our immense defensive squad and competition at the club. This is complemented by our ability to throw a like-for-like replacement into the mix at an extremely high standard, with multiple players capable of playing in the same position at a consistent level.
The absence of Marvin Ekpiteta last month through injury, arguably our best centre back, looked to be a real blow for the Pool, only for James Husband to slot in the following game with a 10/10 performance away at high flyers Portsmouth in a one nil victory. And when Husband later registered a knock a week later 5 minutes before the start of the Charlton game, in came Jordan Thorniley to keep a clean sheet in a 3-0 away victory, to continue our defensive solidity. Pool have multiple options of quality in each defensive position, meaning that injuries only prove to be a minor setback for us. With Dan Gretarsson also expected to return from injury soon, the strength and mentality of the Blackpool back line continues to build.
Mentality is a key word, one I believe sums up Blackpool perfectly. Our mentality on and off the pitch is second to none in this division in terms of our ambition. Blackpool possess a unique bounce-back ability, to recover from major setbacks and adapt when things aren’t go to plan. You’ve only got to look at our defensive adaptation, with multiple players drifting in and out of the side at the same high quality standard, due to our exceptional squad depth. Our ability to fight on from a problematic start to the season that saw us win just two of our opening nine league matches. Coming back from that takes some doing, as that nightmare start to the season probably led to even the players and staff to believe the season was fading away from them already. We’re in a position in which we’re five points shy of the play off places, with multiple games in hand over other sides, and are currently unbeaten in eight league matches, showing that we’re more than capable of stringing a late run together in the fight for that last play off place. We’re also unbeaten at home since October.
It’s hard not to think about how excellently we have responded to the setbacks suffered in recent weeks. After conceding two heartbreaking last minute equalisers when leading 1-0 in the dying stages at the hands of Crewe and AFC Wimbledon, it would only be natural for morale to take a dip, having professionally led for the majority. The slip-up allowed other sides in the division to sneak ahead of us in the table, whilst others would strengthen their gap between themselves and The Tangerines, a hugely frustrating prospect.
This blip has somewhat led to many to believe that the play offs are now out of our reach, with the players undoubtedly also feeling the full effects of the play off pause. How we responded to the setback however was fantastic, showing this is certainly not the case, with a well structured, professional and organised performance, with a clean sheet away at MK Dons the following Tuesday in a 1-0 victory. One which entailed another solid defensive display to keep the Dons at bay, and saw a moment of individual brilliance and composure from Seasiders’ striker Jerry Yates, who expertly took the ball around the MK Dons’ goalkeeper and calmly finished, to grab three points.
The fact we are able to easily pick ourselves up and dust ourselves down within a matter of three days says a lot about the character, desire and willingness to succeed in this young, fresh and exciting Blackpool side, and leaves me in no doubt whatsoever that we are more than capable of achieving promotion this season. Of course nobody is expecting Blackpool to win every game for the rest of the season, but with other sides waiting to pounce, it is crucial that we take advantage of our games in hand.
Blackpool displayed a similar bounce back mentality against an in form Burton Albion outfit on Tuesday. After an lacklustre first half, we came out of the blocks with an inspiring second half performance, dominating play, with the substitution of Elliot Embleton and a revitalised Sullay Kaikai performance proving pivotal. A Luke Garbutt strike earned us a point, in a game which The Pool were presented with a flurry of second half chances that could’ve seen us snatch all three points on another day. A tough trip to play-off hopefuls Oxford United awaits on Saturday, in what could prove to be another crucial game in defining our season.
The future is Tangerine
There’s no doubt in my mind that Blackpool are in for eventful and dramatic run-in to the League One season, to which there will undoubtedly be ups and down, and will require a test of true character. But there’s always a positive to take, with this one being that even if we do fall short, we are taking experience and development of character into the next League One campaign, that will be advantageous over other sides in the division. You’ve only got to look at Oxford this season, who currently sit ninth, and will carry experience from their learning curve of falling short in the League One play off final during the last campaign. Positively, it’s unlikely to be a whole squad overhaul like we’ve done in the last couple of seasons, and it will be more a case of adding 5-6 with real quality to build on what we’ve achieved this season and really push for the automatic places next season.
Realistically I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll finish in the play off spots this season, its just so hard to predict in such a competitive, tightly contested league. Our squad definitely has the character and ability to do so, and its going to be really exciting to see what the future holds, especially with some key faces returning from injury for the run in.
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