Having booked our trip to the Kassam Stadium in the semi final of the League One play-offs on Tuesday night, followed by the return fixture on Friday – can the Pool reign victorious in the play-offs once again?
I analyse the likelihood of the Tangerines making it to Wembley for a eighth time. With the best record against the current top six out of any side in the division, it’s safe to say the Seasiders are more than capable of dispatching Oxford and any team we may face in the final.
Blackpool have recently confirmed our place in 2020/21 League One play-offs, after a meteoric rise up the table during the second half of the season – rising 10 places from 13th to 3rd. During this same period, the Pool also managed a remarkable run of 16 league matches unbeaten, with top scorer Jerry Yates also becoming the first Blackpool player to reach 20 goals in a season since Andy Morrell, during the 2006/07 promotion-winning campaign. Chris Maxwell also earned the League One Golden Glove, with an astounding 21 clean sheets from 43 appearances – shedding light on the Seasiders’ supremacy in all areas of the pitch this season.
Sunday’s final-day results means Oxford United are the next in the firing line for Pool, over the course of two legs. Portsmouth had look set to seal their place before Sunday’s proceedings, needing a victory at home to Accrington Stanley. Fellow promotion chasers Oxford and Charlton were waiting for any slip-up and, in a truly dramatic style, Pompey suffered a 1-0 defeat on the final day. A 4-0 victory for Karl Robinson’s Oxford United lifted them into sixth, due to a better goal difference than Charlton Athletic, who only managed a 1-0 victory at home to league champions Hull City.
With the Seasiders finishing in third, the first leg will be played at the home of the Yellows, with Blackpool earning the perceived luxury of the second leg fixture at home. This could prove vital given the return of fans who will be able to go to both legs, though no away fans will be permitted. For the Seasiders, 4,000 lucky fans will be granted access to Bloomfield Road on Friday 21st May.
One key factor to consider is that Oxford will be without manager Karl Robinson for the entirety of their Play Off campaign. As he recently received a four-game touchline ban – based on an incident during the Yellows’ clash with Sunderland in April. Robinson, who also received a fine as a result of his actions, served the first of his four game ban on Saturday. Perhaps the fact that Oxford came out 4-0 victors without Robinson in a final day thrashing of Burton Albion suggests they won’t be hampered too much by their very vocal coach’s absence. The U’s have also been in impressive form as a late, with six wins from their final seven games of the regular season, including a 6-0 thrashing of Crewe Alexandra away from home.
They’re also one of the highest scorers in the division, with 76 goals this season, compared to Blackpool’s 60. However on the flip side Blackpool have the best defensive record in the league, conceding just 37, with Oxford letting in 55 this season. This game will truly be an unstoppable force vs an immovable object and is a tough one to call.
The main factor that scares me about Oxford United it that they have recent play-off experience having only fallen at the final hurdle last season. Their 2-1 loss against Wycombe Wanderers will be etched into their minds and they won’t want to face that pain again like last season. With many of that Oxford side from last season playing for them regularly this season, the likes of Taylor, Brannagan, Ruffels and Rodriguez to name a few, these players and many more will have undoubtedly gained experience and character from their play off woes. They will surely be driven with that extra desire and passion to put that right.
Ones to watch
Matty Taylor (ST)
In terms of ones to watch ahead of the tie, there’s only one place to start, and that with top scorer Matty Taylor. Taylor has scored 18 goals for Oxford this season and is a proven, prolific striker at League One level. He also scored 13 goals in 2019-20, despite the fact it was cut considerably short due to the pandemic. Taylor is a small, nippy striker, who loves to float in and around the opposition penalty area, and has proved a significant handful for League One defences year after year.
I’d describe him as a different type of striker, in that he’s not your typical power and presence centre forward, but more of a more agile, crafty finisher, that is able outsmart and dribble away from opposing defenders. His agility, speed and skill could well prove an issue for the Seasiders’ defence, who will have to be on top form in order to keep the Oxford front man out.
However with the best defence record in the league this season, Blackpool have shown that we’re more than capable of shutting out League One’s top forwards, including the likes of Charlie Wyke and Jonson Clarke-Harris, who both failed to score against us this season. I truly believe that with the most clean sheets and fewest goals conceded in the division, being particularly shrewd since the turn of the year, we’re more than capable of nullifying any opposition attack. In saying that, having Matty Taylor in your box for 90 minutes isn’t an exciting prospect for any opposition defence, as he only needs one chance to score.
Olamide Shodipo (LW/LM)
One player that seriously frightens me heading into the play-off clash is QPR loanee Olamide Shodipo. The left winger has scored 10 times in the league for the Yellows this season, and is extremely direct on the ball, causing nightmares for opposition defenders. This is largely due the fact he is right footed, playing on the left hand side, therefore has ability to shoot on both feet by cutting inside opposition defence. It didn’t long for Shodipo to demonstrate his ability to use both feet in our visit to the Kassam stadium in March, as despite not scoring, Shodipo caused nightmares for Ollie Turton when subbed on. He also came close on numerous occasions, and had me on the edge of my seat, due to his threatening, direct running style and drive going forward.
Shodipo certainly wasn’t afraid to take the shooting option when given the ball, which is only why I can imagine he has acquired a impressive goal scoring record from the left wing position. The U’s will struggle to keep hold of him next season, as he’ll be looking to make the step up to the next level with parent club QPR in the Championship. For now, we need to make sure we keep him quiet over the course of what will no doubt prove to be two difficult fixtures. He is one of those players that can get you a goal out of nothing, because of his directness, therefore Turton or Jordan Gabriel will have to ensure they’re on top form over both legs.
The first leg
The first leg is set to take place on Tuesday 18th May, at the Kassam Stadium. Whilst it would fantastic for us to acquire an early advantage, I’d be more than happy to bring a draw back to Bloomfield Road given that the second leg of the fixture is at home. This will prove to be difficult as Oxford have the third best home record in League One.
The fact Blackpool have scored considerably less goals than the rest of the top six this season could also prove costly, as more than a one goal deficit could be difficult to overturn in the second fixture.
For the fixture, I hope we revert back to the 5-3-2 formation we have playing in recent weeks. It has provided us with numerous clean sheets and further defensive security, something that will undoubtedly prove crucial against high-scoring Oxford. Having also rested key players on the final day of the season such as Jerry Yates, Dan Ballard and Chris Maxwell we should be in for some fresh performances. The pressure is on for 22-goal striker Yates and in-form striker Ellis Simms but if they’re on song they could be the key to firing Pool to the final.
Oxford will most likely stick to their attack-minded 4-3-3 formation which has been successful for them in recent weeks. Taylor, Shodipo and Elliot Lee have started to find the net and the Seasiders will need to be wary of Oxfords ability to fashion a goal from multiple areas of the pitch.
Overall, we need to impose our style of play, the one that’s been so successful for us since October. It’s easier said than done of course, as it’s so easy to caught up in the occasion, however I’m 100% confident that this Blackpool side can go all the way and achieve promotion to the Championship.
The Second Leg
The second leg of the tie will take place three days after the first, on Friday 21st May, at Bloomfield Road. It’s difficult to discuss the second leg at this point, as we are yet to learn the outcome of the first game. However, having the home leg last could prove advantageous to the Seasiders, as having 4,000+ Blackpool fans spurring the team on could be boost we need to get over the line to Wembley.
It’s now time to take a look at the other sides we could face if we’re to make it all the way to the final at Wembley…
A look at Lincoln
“I don’t want Lincoln in the Play Offs” is a statement I’ve heard all to often from fellow Blackpool fans over the past week or two, and there’s certainly a reason for that. I suppose its a psychological thing, with the Imps going down as the only top-6 side that we’ve failed to beat, and also the only one that has beaten us, this season. The Seasiders suffered a 3-2 home defeat and a tough 2-2 away draw with Lincoln this season after leading in both games till late on.
The Imps have been lingering in and around the promotion picture for the majority of the campaign, and occupied the automatic promotion places for a large period of the season. A mini blip however during the second half of the season pushed the Imps down into the end-of-season lottery. They do look as though they have found their feet again in the race for promotion, and have demonstrated their ability to convincingly beat off fellow promotion chasers in this division.
Sunday’s results mean they take on Sunderland in the other semi final – two sides that I’m glad we don’t have to face. If ourselves and Lincoln are to meet in the final however, there are a number of attacking threats we need to be aware of…
The main aspect that scares me about this Lincoln side is their plethora of attacking creativity, which I believe is amongst the best in the division. Like the Seasiders, the Imps spent the summer heavily recruiting ahead of the league campaign, making over 15 new signings. The staff behind the scenes at City have clearly been working wonders, with the Imps seucring top talent that are more than capable of playing at a higher level than this division.
The loan signings of Alex Palmer, Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers have proved vital for Lincoln this season, as well as the incredible capture of goalscoring centre back Lewis Montsma from Dutch side FC Dordretch. Montsma netted the winner in the Imps 3-2 victory against Blackpool at Bloomfield Road this season, and has already proved he is arguably the best centre back in the league, having helped keep 15 clean sheets. The central defender has also scored a remarkable 8 goals this season in all competitions this season, phenomenal numbers for a centre half.
Brennan Johnson (LW/LM)
The attacking presence on loan Nottingham Forest winger Brennan Johnson has been excellent for City this season, with the teenage wonder netting 10 times for the Imps this campaign, with 5 assists, through his direct and aggressive style of play. Most wingers are regarded for the ability to assist others, although Johnson’s direct style has allowed to hit double figures this seasons from wide positions – with similar traits to that of previously mentioned Oxford winger Olamide Shodipo. Johnson showed Blackpool just how deadly he be last month, as the Seasiders were made to pay when he fired an equaliser into the roof of net during the 2-2 draw at Sincil Bank. He’s certainly a player that we need to be aware of, and one that the Imps will struggle to hold on to, as Championship clubs will undoubtedly be interested in the wide man. Parent club Nottingham Forest will also likely look to throw him into the mix next season alongside Jordan Gabriel.
On-loan Manchester City midfielder Morgan Rodgers has also proved an exciting asset for the Imps, with the 18-year-old scoring six goals this season.
Tricky Irish forward Anthony Scully also has 11 goals and 4 assists. Like Johnson, Scully managed a goal against the Tangerines in the 2-2 draw at Sincil Bank, as well as an assist – another two players the Seasiders need to look out for if facing Lincoln.
The scary thing about this Lincoln side is that they produce goals from anywhere and everywhere on the pitch, whether it be from forwards, wingers, midfielders and even goal scoring sensation from centre back Montsma, making it so difficult for any opposition to nulify their attacking threats. I believe this is largely down to the creativity, intelligence, flair and technical brilliance of midfielder Jorge Grant, who has been exceptional for the Imps this season. Without Grant’s attacking flair, Lincoln are essentially a completely weaker and different side, with the 26-year-old scoring 13 goals, and assisting seven times this season from midfield. His technical ability and off the ball intelligence help open up opposition and he is a target of numerous Championship clubs. For me, Grant is the biggest individual threat that the Seasiders have to face this season, and is capable of opening up and dispatching any opposition side in the division.
Goalkeeper Alex Palmer has also kept the third most clean sheets in league, only behind Lee Burge and Chris Maxwell, proving that the Imps are solid in all areas of the pitch.
Summary on Sunderland
Having already triumphed at Wembley this season in the Papa John’s Trophy final are Sunderland, who were also hovering in and around automatic places for the majority of the season. Due to their previous League One play-off experiences in recent seasons, Sunderland will be an extremely tough game if we’re to meet them in the final.
As well as the immense strength in their squad, they are undoubtedly still feeling the effects of missed opportunities over the last couple of seasons following back-to-back relegations from the Premier League. The Black Cats fell at the hands of a last minute Charlton Athletic goal in the 2019 play-off final, but undoubtedly took immense amounts of experience and character from that. With the likes of O’Nein, Power, Wyke, Gooch and McGeady to name a few all featuring in that final, who remain key faces in the Sunderland side.
This, along with the Papa John’s Trophy triumph this season, could prove extremely beneficial for Sunderland heading into the lottery this time around. These players know what it’s like and understand the pressure, emotion and passion that comes hand-in-hand with these huge games. Although we have dispatched the majority of the league’s top quality opposition, this experience and emotion is something that this relatively inexperienced Blackpool side may lack, due to lack of encounters in these big occasions. This could therefore potentially be a largely influencing factor on the performance of the players on the big day, if we’re to meet Sunderland in the final, as many of their players have already had to deal with the heartache and heartbreak of losing out when it matters most, and will potentially be better prepared mentally.
One thing that Blackpool can take into our potential encounter with Sunderland is we have managed to see oft the Wearsiders twice this season, claiming six points from a possible six in the space of 10 days, without conceding a single goal. The goals in these two games came courtesy of Luke Garbutt and a screamer from Sullay Kaikai respectively. It’s safe to say that in both games the outcome could’ve been extremely different on another day, if it wasn’t for some heroic Blackpool defending. By all means I suppose we have that psychological edge over Sunderland, in that they know we have beaten them twice this season, and they know what a clinical, deadly and difficult side to beat we are.
Whilst we managed to pick up two hard-fought and well-earned results, as well as two clean sheets against the Black Cats, we didn’t exactly nullify their threats, with the North East Side coming extremely close to scoring in both games. Blackpool relied on the post to stop Aiden McGeady curling one into the back of the net in the home fixture, whilst some goalkeeping heroics from Chris Maxwell helped earn all three points in the away match at the Stadium Of Light – proving that Sunderland are certainly no easy walkover. Take nothing away from two professional and hard-fought Blackpool performances however, displaying true character, worthy of picking up three points in any game.
In terms of squad ability, Sunderland have arguably got the best side in league on paper. But football matches aren’t played on paper, with confidence and drive proving costly for Sunderland in the dropping of crucial points this season. Their main asset is of course 25-goal Charlie Wyke, with an incredible record this season. The Seasiders were able to keep Wyke quiet for the majority of our two fixtures against them, not something that many sides can say they have done this season. Although in saying that he gave Blackpool fans a late heart in the mouth moment in the last minute of the away fixture, forcing a what can only be described as sensational save out Maxwell.
Wyke is still clearly a threat, and Sunderland’s main tactic appears to be using experienced winger Aiden McGeady to deliver ball into the box towards Wyke, who will often finish in due course. The pair have formed the best duo partnership in the league, and have been the focal point of Sunderland’s promotion push. The two of them even went as far contributing to all four goals in Sunderland’s 4-1 victory over Doncaster earlier in the season, with Wyke scoring four goals, that were all assisted by McGeady. Despite numerous points dropped this season, if there was ever any doubt about the extent of just how good this Sunderland side are, that is your proof.
Goalkeeper Lee Burge was named in League One team of this season, despite losing out on the Golden Glove to Maxwell, as well as versatile right back Luke O’Nien also earning himself a spot in the team, highlighting the Black Cats defensive outlets.
When playing with high confidence, Sunderland are arguably the best side in division, and are more than capable of playing at Championship level. However, that isn’t always the case for the Black Cats, with the loss of on loan star centre half Dion Sanderson through injury proving a massive blow to their defensive line – a potential contributing factor to their fall from within and around the top two.
Whilst I’d hope to avoid meeting Sunderland in any stage throughout if we can help it, I feel as though we’re equipped with the overall character and capability to beat them at Wembley, as shown by results this season.
Hundreds of Blackpool fans gathered outside Bloomfield Road before the Pool’s final game of the season in celebrating the overall progress and success of our current club climate, finishing third in the league. It was amazing to see the jubilant scenes amongst fans, who were clearly delighted to be brought back together, supporting the club we all love and share a unified passion for. It was clear to see by the players’ reactions on social media that they clearly appreciated our support and passion. Hopefully we can replicate some of this atmosphere inside the ground against Oxford in the semi-final second leg, in order to help get the players over the line to Wembley. Check out my vlog below for the scenes outside the ground during the Bristol Rovers game!
I think the Seasiders are more than capable of beating any of the three sides heading into the play-offs, particularly given our extremely impressive record of winning promotion in five of our eight attempts. We also have the best record against the sides in the top six positions this season. The most crucial factor heading into the two legs is that we ensure we play to our game, without getting too caught up in the occasion. Whatever happens, we can all be proud of what has been a truly outstanding first season under Pool boss Neil Critchley. Even if we just miss out on the ultimate high this season, we certainly have an exciting future ahead of us to look forward too, especially with fans expected to slowly return to stadiums next season.
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