Neil Critchley became Blackpool manager last March, on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, swapping the comforts of Liverpool’s academy setup for League One, Blackpool and Squires Gate. It’s clear that there’s been a culture change at the club during that time, as we’ve come out of the pandemic far stronger than we went into it and Critch has had time to imprint his identity onto the squad he’s built. It’s not been plain sailing and there’s still work to be done, but safe to say it’s been a successful first 12 months on the whole.
Speaking to The Athletic last week, Critchley explained: “More than 8,000 turned up midweek for my first home game against Tranmere and I felt the energy and passion they have for the club. It’s been a tough time for them. Unfortunately, there’s been a certain perception around Blackpool in the past five to 10 years after the spell in the Premier League. It’s up to Simon, myself and the players to change that perception. Through adversity, sometimes you see the strength in people and we’ve certainly seen the strength in the Blackpool supporters. They’ve been kicked on a few occasions.
“We want to give them a team they can be proud of but also one they can identify with. When you come to Blackpool, you come to be entertained and you want to be excited. We want to give them that on the pitch.
“They’re honest, hard-working people in this area and we want to also give them a team who give everything for the shirt. We’re on our way to doing that.
“Blackpool have been to the Premier League once, I’m not saying we’re going to get there again, but the aim is to try to improve the club both on and off the pitch. If we can do that then who knows where that’s going to take us.”
The leap of faith
So after coming to national attention while in charge of Liverpool, Critchley was identified by Blackpool’s board as the man to take the Seasiders forward and was offered an interview. How did that come about?
“It all happened very quickly… I didn’t put myself forward, I just got a call completely out of the blue. It took me back a bit, to be honest.
“From thinking ‘I’ll go and speak to them and see what happens’, it soon developed to ‘they actually want me to do this job’, which then put me in a really tough situation because of my connection with Liverpool, how much I enjoyed the job and the love I have for that club and the people there. It was an extremely difficult decision. I just felt that if I was ever going to do it then this was the right time and this was the right club.”
Critchley has admitted that it was a very tough decision to make and one that he didn’t take lightly.
“Alex (Inglethorpe – Liverpool’s academy director) was my first port of call and it was very emotional. I went back in on the Monday morning when it was announced publicly I was coming to Blackpool but I was an emotional wreck. It was a bit embarrassing. I never managed to string more than three words together.
So what learnings has Critch taken from the main man at Liverpool, and do they still have a relationship?
“Jurgen sent me a really nice message wishing me good luck. He was brilliant, what a fantastic man. I know even now if I ever wanted any advice I could pick up the phone and speak to him straight away.
“When we played Liverpool at Anfield in pre-season, I spent some time with Jurgen and he was so open and honest. I was so fortunate during my time at Liverpool because Brendan Rodgers was the same. They both had empathy for me and my position and they both believed in young players and gave them opportunities.”
Klopp’s approach to interviews has also rubbed off on Critch, who says that he tries to remain balanced after a win or a defeat, and opts not to look for excuses or complaints.
“I don’t discuss the injuries or moan about them. One of the things I picked up from Jurgen was his ability to always find a solution from within. You hear some managers in every interview say ‘we’re missing him and him’. But Jurgen never spoke like that so all the players always felt part of it. That way, when players came into the team, they didn’t feel second best. It was a collective environment and that’s what I’ve tried to create here.”
The tough start
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Critchley at Blackpool so far. Having lost seven of his first 11 league games and lost to both Stoke and Accrington on penalties in the cups, there was unrest from fans on social media and some calls for him to be axed.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t worries or self-doubt. Of course there was. We lost six of our first nine (this season). We actually played very well in a lot of those games but everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. We had players sent off, we dominated but couldn’t score, decisions went against us. But if anything that made us and me stronger. It would have been easy to think ‘right, we’ll change everything’, but we stuck to our principles. I felt the players still had that belief in what we were doing and we came through it.”
The turning point
Critchley was still assembling his squad at this point, with Dan Ballard and Daniel Gretarsson still getting up to speed and Kenny Dougall and Ben Woodburn also brought into the squad. Steadily, results and performances started to turn, starting with a 2-1 win at Burton where Jerry Yates bagged his first two goals in tangerine.
“We decided to go with two strikers at Burton that day and it worked well. We then beat Wigan a few days later… We started to develop that team and coached them to play slightly differently with the ball. Without the ball, we’ve been very consistent. You have to change the way you organise your defence and your pressing with the different systems but we want to be a team who are on the front foot and attacking. I think in the second half of the season we’ve scored more goals but we’ve also kept that defensive solidity.”
With a 46% win record so far in the hotseat, nobody has had a better first season than him. Grayson, Holloway and Allardyce managed to reach the play-offs and had more games in charge, so he’ll need to keep it up if he’s to have his name compared to them in years to come of course.
The Calderwood effect
Another important change which contributed to the turn in form was the appointment of Colin Calderwood as First Team Coach. So was this a knee-jerk reaction from the board, or was it always part of the plan?
“When I first got the job I said to Simon (Sadler) and Ben (Mansford) that I thought it would be important to have someone with experience alongside me and it took us a period of time to identify the right person.
“I didn’t know Colin before he came here but we had a few meetings and I found him really comfortable to talk to. He’s been great for me. He gives me words of advice. He will question my thinking which is important. He’s been there, seen it and done it in some situations that I haven’t. He takes the helicopter view where me and Mike are more on the grass and coaching based.”
So it’s been a good start from our perspective, because we’re playing football which is better to watch and we’re competing at the right end of the division. But nothing’s been achieved yet and the success of his first season will be dictated by the final seven games and potentially the play-offs.
Fingers crossed he can build on the solid foundations he’s helped to put in place, and we can go back to watch our beloved tangerines either in the Championship, or right at the top of League One.
You can read the full article on The Athletic, who spoke to Critchley at Squires Gate last week. You can currently sign up for just £1 a month.
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