Following a colossal 11-match unbeaten run, Neil Critchley is beginning to receive the plaudits from near and afar after 12 months of laying the groundwork. After a mass turnover of playing staff in the summer, and a turbulent start to the season, the Seasiders are now playing with confidence and flair, whilst remaining a stubborn and organised side to break down. In my opinion he’s the best Head Coach in League one and here’s why.
Fresh off Larry’s unsuccessful encore, Neil Critchley joined Blackpool on the 2nd March 2020, challenged with the task of turning the fortunes of a team whose season was meandering into nothing. 11 days and just two games later, the league was suspended, with Critch not leading the team out for a league fixture for a further 6 months.
Planning & preparation
Rather than resting on our laurels, Simon Sadler, Critchley and the recruitment team got to work on assembling essentially a new squad, with 17 new faces coming in and 13 departing, including last season’s captain Jay Spearing and top goalscorer Armand Gnanduillet.
The team which took the field on the opening day of the season at Plymouth on the 12th of September consisted of six debutants, with a further three on the bench.
Not only was it a whole new side, but a whole new style of play that has been the best we have seen since Ian Holloway’s departure in 2012.
This was Critchley’s first exposure to league football management. To say he will have learnt a lot in the first 6 months of his tenure has to be considered a serious understatement.
The season did not start well, losing five of the first eight games. People were quick to criticise.
“This is what happens when you sign League Two players”
“Youth coach with no experience managing grown men”
“Sack him and bring in Paul Cook”
Twitter and AVFTT were toxic, and everyone was understandably frustrated at our slow start to the season in terms of points – especially given the positive signs in preseason which included strong performances against Everton and Liverpool.
This feels like the opportune moment for Tom’s blog on why Critchley needed more time from October to re-emerge.
Considering the mass turnover in the summer, and the changes that were happening internally at the club, success was never going to be instantaneous. I got it wrong myself with how quickly I thought success would happen – my £25 stake on Automatic Promotion reminds me of that on a weekly basis.
An away victory at Peterborough, followed by a 2-0 first-half performance away at Doncaster (lets not mention the second), were clear signs of progress. Jerry Yates finally got his first goal, then his second straight after, in our away win at Burton. Colin Calderwood came in and helped us to be more organised, and Kenny Dougall and Daniel Gretarsson both came into the side.
As you can see above, Blackpool have led the league in PPG over the last 25 games, and that doesn’t include the recent home win against Peterborough and the recent draw with Plymouth. This is a remarkable feat for a side which has been built on-the-go over the last 9 months. Whilst the recruitment team obviously deserve credit for identifying some core fundamentals in what a Blackpool player should hold, Critchley has been key in blending the squad into a formidable opponent, conceding the fewest amount of goals in the league.
What really highlights the exceptional work that NC has undertook has been the injury count in recent weeks, and how the squad have overcome.
Players who can’t play at the minute are Keshi Anderson, Gary Madine, Matty Virtue, James Husband, CJ Hamilton, Marvin Ekpiteta, Kevin Stewart and Daniel Ballard. Daniel Gretarsson has only recently reappeared after a long absence too. You could argue that we’re missing seven of our best eleven, and we’re still on the best run – and the longest unbeaten run – in the league.
Looking at the centre back partnerships specifically, Tuesday night’s partnership of Turton-Thorniley – the same we used against Plymouth – was the ninth of the season. That is astounding. Now consider the fact that Blackpool have the leanest defence in League One. That is a remarkable job, ensuring the whole group are singing from the same hymn sheet, and injuries to key defenders has not impacted results.
Jordan Thorniley himself was considered to be surplus to requirements as recently as January, but injuries allowed him to make an appearance at Brighton in the FA Cup and he’s since staked his claim for a regular spot in the squad. The fact he has fitted in relatively seamlessly in recent weeks is not only testament to himself, but hugely complimentary to the job Critchley and his team has done.
Players who have been on the fringes of the squad have been called upon, with most integrating like they have been playing in the system all season, negating the potential drop off in performance you would expect when somebody like CJ or Keshi is missing.
Critch is the man
Managing an unfamiliar squad, turning round the fortunes of an under-performing team, dealing with continuous injury setbacks, all whilst in the midst of a global pandemic in your first role in management. Blackpool currently lie 6th in League One, games in hand on immediate rivals, with 11 games remaining in the season.
Given the circumstances, Neil Critchley has done a remarkable job in his first full season as Blackpool Head Coach. Yes, we may have expected to be up there this season and he’s hitting the brief, but to balance style and substance in the way he has, improving our playing style hugely from last season, as well as winning games with the backdrop of the pandemic and the number of injuries, is incredible.
Who is his competition?
There are some obvious honourable mentions when it comes to looking at the top managers in League One. Grant McCann has done a remarkable job in halting the sinking ship at Hull, and John Coleman continues to do a wonderful job on a shoestring with Accrington Stanley, but would you want NC to be replaced with either? Personally, there is not one gaffer in the division who I would want in our dugout over the current management team. It’s been a while since any of us have been able to say that.
We shouldn’t get carried away with our recent form – the unbeaten run won’t last for the rest of the season and we may not get promoted in May. But to be in contention, playing the way we are doing, is giving everyone a reason to dream and be optimistic in a world of uncertainty and negative news. If Critchley can drag this club up from League One in his first season in charge, there’s every chance he could build something really special and we’d be able to make up for lost time over the last few years. Let’s enjoy the ride and see where it takes us.
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Image: Football League World