Throughout preseason and the early games of this season, I’ve been astounded by the amount of negativity around our fanbase from some supporters. It’s easy for me to sit and write a blog after two wins in three games which have essentially made it a steady start to the season, but now feels like the opportune moment to take a little perspective from our season so far, and look at the last 18 months collectively, to consider how far we’ve come – and why people are wrong to doubt which direction our club is heading.
Social media is well-known for bringing more negativity than positivity in all walks of life, but after a game we haven’t won – and particularly defeat – it’s recently become difficult to read and doesn’t level with my perception of what’s happening at the moment. It makes me wonder what people expect this season – is 8 points off 8 games not enough for people? Do we need to be challenging for a top-half finish, whilst also building the East Stand, a new training ground and filling our stadium? To some, the answer seems to be yes.
Attempting to think more rationally, here are the key reasons I don’t get down after a defeat and have reason to believe we’ll come good and stay up this season:
Critchley is the man
Neil Critchley is my favourite ever Blackpool manager for a number of reasons. The way he talks about our club shows that he gets it – he knows what struggles and sacrifices we have had, he knows how dedicated and passionate our supporters are and he tries to play football the right way. Not only that, but he attracts the right players to our club and makes them better – something I’ve never seen before at Blackpool where we’ve typically had players who are past their best or on loan from someone else’s reserves.
12 months ago I wrote a blog on why he needed more time, and now I’m convinced he’ll keep us in the Championship.
The key concern here is that we’ll surely lose him to a Premier League club at some point – such is the nature of the business. When it comes to that moment when one is interested, the hope is that the trust the board has shown in him and the backing they’ve given him, that he’ll know the grass isn’t always greener and that he’s building something special on the Fylde coast. It won’t last forever, but I hope it lasts a few more years.
A criticism thrown at the manager and the board this season was that the recruitment was underwhelming. Yes, it took until deadline day to do some of our main business due to the nature of the market, but the club spent over £1m in a summer for the first time since 2011 and that’s something which is really exciting. We’d made six signings within a month of getting promoted, and also offered financially lucrative terms to key men Chris Maxwell, Kevin Stewart and Jerry Yates. Other business took the full window, but that was no fault of the club’s hierarchy.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve seen from the new recruits so far as we look to review the business done at the end of the window, rather than midway through.
Josh Bowler and Shayne Lavery have hit the ground running and become first-team regulars, as has Jordan Gabriel who we all wanted to see return and it’s a brilliant statement of intent from Simon Sadler to bring him back from a divisional rival.
The club has also looked to strengthen in players under the age of 21 who do not count towards the squad cap – Oliver Casey surely has a bright future and you can listen to our podcast with him here. There’s also Sonny Carey who has looked good when he’s played and will play his part over the season. As well as Bowler and Lavery, there are Connolly, Grimshaw and Dale who are all aged between 22-24 of our new recruits. Critchley is building a core group of players under the age of 25.
A little older, Reece James (27) is one who’s yet to really make an impression, but will strengthen our squad and is relatively low-risk coming in on a free transfer, and then there’s Richard Keogh. Initially, I must admit I wondered how he’d make it through our strong recruitment system and the move really stuck out like a sore thumb. But – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – he’s filled the void left by Dan Ballard and adds experience next to Marvin Ekpiteta who was playing in the sixth tier of English football as recently as 2018.
The loan market has been utilised again – Dujon Sterling will add competition at right-back while Tyreece John-Jules has also added something different to our forward line and will surely improve as the season goes on. Then there’s Ryan Wintle, who is probably the first central midfielder on our teamsheet at the minute and hasn’t put a foot wrong for us.
Would Sullay Kaikai and Ollie Turton really improve us at this moment? Do we really miss Elliot Embleton? I’ve no doubt we’d be back in for Ellis Simms and Dan Ballard if they were available, as was confirmed by Ben Mansford in his interview with Tangerine TV, but injuries and Millwall respectively meant that couldn’t happen in the summer. I prefer to wait until the end of the window, and ideally when I’ve seen them play a few times, to judge the club’s business – and I’m confident there are more successes than failures in our current squad list.
The whole club is now built on steady progression – our recruitment is set up to find players with the right characters and capabilities, at the right age where we get them at the right point in their careers and can either benefit from their key years, or sell them when the time is right for a tasty profit.
Marvin Ekpiteta has moved up five levels in the last five seasons and will surely fancy his chances of playing higher, given he’s only 26. What an asset he is for us. He was in League Two the season before last – as were Jerry Yates, Keshi Anderson, Ryan Wintle, Owen Dale, CJ Hamilton and Jordan Gabriel. We’re now asking them to play consistently in the Championship.
Demi Mitchell, Daniel Gretarsson and Dujon Sterling all haven’t played in the Championship before this season either. This team will take time to adjust – that’s the one negotiable we have when bringing players to the club in that the players look like they can do it at this level, but need to go out and do it, and there’s no replacement for experience.
So are we lacking in experience? Well, Richard Keogh has made 428 Championship appearances including 21 last season. Gary Madine has played 162 games at this level, Grant Ward has 134, Connolly has 84, Maxwell 76, Stewart 55, Husband 53, Luke Garbutt 33, Bowler 29, James 13 and Kenny Dougall 12. That’s over 1,000 games across the squad and while Keogh has nearly half, there are 11 with a good level of games at this level prior to the season out of a squad of 22. We’re starting to acclimatise at this level, and through Critchley’s coaching and the January recruitment, we’ll finish this season a lot stronger than the team we have right now.
We play football the right way
Some of the sides I’ve seen this season – while better equipped at our level than ourselves – has reinforced the fact that I’m proud of Critchley’s core principles of play. Cardiff and Middlesbrough are two obvious ones who I wouldn’t swap places or managers with, that’s for sure.
It takes patience playing the way we do, and watching it too – there were early season groans (myself included) as we watched Keogh and Husband or Ekpiteta pass the ball between each other despite the fact we were chasing the game. But it allows us to create space further up the field for the likes of Keshi Anderson, Josh Bowler and Tyrese John-Jules to exploit. That allows us to create plenty of chances, and hopefully we should become more clinical in front of goal.
That brings me to my next point – getting the ball in the onion bag. Jerry’s clearly a man who scores in runs of games and then goes a few without – particularly when adapting to a new level as he’s had to in both seasons with us so far. Lavery has certainly made up for his shortfall, while the creativity behind them is really exciting. I wanted to particularly call out Keshi for praise, who has taken to the Championship like a seasoned pro.
There have been some calls for us to abolish all of our work in pre-season and in the games so far, and to try a new formation. Potentially five at the back, which would allow Gabriel and Garbutt to push forward. My question is, why? Why put Husband into the backline at the expense of one of our forward options? Is the benefit of getting our full-backs further forward going to benefit sacrificing an attacker for the extra defender?
For me, the full-backs get forward as much as any other side in the league and don’t need any more creative license than they have. We attack and defend as a team, and if you watch closely you’ll see that we’ve often got both full-backs more advanced than our two central midfielders. Kevin Stewart in particular is good at covering at the back, but whoever is in the two central midfield positions essentially acts as a third and/or fourth defender. The key to success for us is working out how to work the ball from our centre-backs into midfield and into the forward areas. That’s where we rely on Keshi, TJJ and Bowler to come and receive the ball, and to try and make things happen. Keshi is the best for it, as he loves to drift into the CAM position and take a player on, getting at the opposition’s back four.
Another attacking weapon we have seemed to improve on is our set-pieces. Wintle now takes the corners from the left, while Garbutt takes those from the right, meaning we have an in-swinging corner from both sides. That’s how we created the second goal at Middlesbrough and that wasn’t the only time we looked dangerous from set-pieces.
We prided ourselves on our tight defence last season which is something we haven’t seemed to replicate so far this season – why is that? It’s simply because we’re against better opposition. We’ve conceded 12 from 8 games this season – six from either set pieces or headers, two screamers (Millwall and Huddersfield), one which was offside (Middlesbrough), one which came off the attacker’s hand and was arguably offside (Coventry) and two at Bournemouth. There’s a bit of sloppiness in there and a bit of bad luck. We’d conceded nine at this point last season and went on to concede a further 28 in the next 38 games, so the evidence is there that we’ll likely tighten up as the players familiarise with the team structure.
We’ve got Simon Sadler
People seem to be becoming tired of the rhetoric that we’ve got our club back, and say it doesn’t mean we can’t criticise our club. My answer to that is, to criticise the club when they fail to hit the mark we all expect. The club may have lost a little bit of its charm to certain supporters as it’s become a more professional outfit, and the staff may be more accessible, but we’re in the Championship now, with a young, hungry manager, squad of capable players and play a good brand of football. We’ve got plans for a new trainig ground which are due to be released in the coming weeks. We’ve had stadium improvements, three smart new kits and much more marketing happening from the club.
So yes, we can be critical as fans if we’re disappointed, but I wish people would be slower to fly off the handle after one defeat, poor performance or slow transfer business. Looking at patterns and trends from the last 18 months, our club is on the up both on and off the field and we’re collectively building something very special at the moment. Not that that will mean much to some on Twitter in a couple of weeks if we fail to win a couple of games.
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