When you think back to the first few games of the season, many a Blackpool fan will shudder and think of the comments they made on social media – and rightly so. This season was unique in that nobody could voice their opinions in the stand and therefore opinions were amplified online.
Back in October, following six defeats from our first nine games, I wrote a blog on why Neil Critchley needed more time. I felt I needed to do that on the backdrop of the intense pressure and scrutiny that many fans were giving to the team. Let me be clear that a lot of the concern was justified – we looked fragile in both boxes, seemingly lacked passion and leadership, and didn’t seem to carry much of an attacking threat. So what changed? Kenny Dougall came into the side, Jerry Yates scored his first league goal, and Colin Calderwood joined the coaching staff to help us turn things around. Without one of those changes, the run we’ve been on since wouldn’t have been possible, and had things continued as they were then Simon Sadler would’ve had an uncomfortable decision to make.
But the most frustrating part – both at the time and looking back now – is how impatient a lot of fans were. We’ve got Simon Sadler and he absolutely knows what we’re after, but things worth having often take time. After making so many changes – both on the field and off it – in the months before the season, it was always bound to be a tough start. Perhaps we didn’t expect it to take so long, but what right do we have to start expecting to win every week and challenging for the league title?
The dynamic on the training ground and in the changing room was going through transition, with leaders such as Jay Spearing, Liam Feeney and Armand Gnanduillet departing. There was criticism of our recruitment given many players came from League Two, but the blueprint that the club set of recruiting young players who haven’t yet hit their peak and have a sell-on value, and playing football with the right principles, has played out for us all to see in recent weeks.
Did we actually look that bad in the early part of the season? Okay, we conceded some daft goals, had a few sendings off and missed our chances. But it was far better than the football we’d seen with Simon Grayson and we were punished by individual errors.
Critchley is one of the most qualified coaches in the world and has now been afforded the time to work on the likes of Marvin Ekpiteta, Grant Ward, Sullay Kaikai and Jordan Gabriel who have all got better as the season’s gone on. Others include Oliver Turton who’s had a terrific season, as well as Jerry Yates who is on the verge of hitting 20 league goals – the first to do it in nearly 30 years.
Patience is key
There are learnings to be taken here. If there were fans in stadiums, would Critchley and the club have been allowed the freedom and time to calmly assess what was going wrong and address it? Or would fans have started getting onto players’ backs? Would Jerry have felt even more pressure while going through his goal drought, and eventually come good? I would hazard a guess that things wouldn’t be looking so pretty right now. Perhaps Sadler would’ve had his hand forced, perhaps performances would’ve continued to decline as players felt the pressure, or perhaps Critchley would’ve made a knee-jerk reaction to try and buy himself more time. We’ll never know in truth, but it’s fortunate that everyone was able to get the time to build a squad we’ve been watching in recent weeks as we seem to improve each game and make a real charge for the League One play-offs and beyond.
Take a think back to the best Blackpool team in living memory, under Ian Holloway. The fans in the stadium gave Holloway our backing, remained patient at the start of the season because we could see positive signs, and reaped the rewards as we steadily became one of the most exciting teams in the country. That squad had been built over the previous 2-3 years by the likes of Simon Grayson, Tony Parkes and Steve Thompson. We didn’t have such a luxury this year as we cobbled together our coaching department, recruitment team, medical staff and squad within the space of a few weeks, in the backdrop of a global pandemic.
So what can we learn here? Every time we’ve had success, we have done it when we have allowed a manager to build a squad and take time to make his own impression. Neil Critchley wouldn’t have been allowed that time by some fans, and that would’ve been a real shame based on what we have achieved in recent weeks. If we don’t go up this season and have a slow start to next year, my fear is that some fans will start to become restless and make things harder for the players and manager. If we do go up, it will be even harder in the Championship. And when Critchley is eventually replaced, the next manager will also need time to leave their mark on the squad.
In some circles, there is still frustration that we haven’t seen out a few games to be in with a hunt for the automatic promotion spots. To those, all I can say is that Neil Critchley and the coaching staff are getting the most out of each of the players in our squad. We’ve got a long list of injuries and absences, and yet continue to turn out solid displays against varying League One opponents who all have their own styles and threats. No team has won more points than us in the last 30 games, and if that continues then it’s only a matter of time before we get out of this league.
If we had a fit CJ Hamilton, Gary Madine, Matty Virtue, Kevin Stewart et al, and if we’d started the season at Burton away, then we’d be top of the league. But if my grandmother had balls she’d be my uncle and you can always wonder what if. It can be unhealthy to do so, and you’ll be much happier in life if you look more towards the positives in my opinion.
As Blackpool fans, we know what can happen first hand when a team is allowed to blossom after laying early season foundations. There’s a sense of entitlement nowadays because of Simon Sadler’s investment, but patience and cool heads in the stand will give this team the best chance we’ve got of achieving something special. Let’s look forward to a positive future in a new era for Blackpool FC and be proud of how far we’ve already come.
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