Opinion: Pre-Season Reviewed

“And you may ask yourself, ‘Well how did I get here?’”

Talking Heads – “Once in a lifetime”

Two months is a long time in football.

At the end of May, Blackpool fans had reasons to be optimistic. Under Neil Critchley, the side finished 16th with survival almost guaranteed from February. Our exciting young manager was under contract until 2026 and for the first time in decades, it felt like Blackpool had the time and stability to push on and further climb the Championship table.

At the end of July and with less than a week before the new season, the bookies are now giving odds that imply a 21st place finish and season-long relegation battle. 

Neil Critchley has gone to assist Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa, and has been replaced by the not-so-fondly remembered Michael Appleton. Appleton impressed in his spells at Lincoln and Oxford, but doubts remain that he can get the same levels from this collection of mostly young or journeyman players that Critchley turned into a well-oiled Championship squad. 

Signings have been minimal, with only Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers (2) and Wigan Athletic (2) ushering fewer players through the door – and the squad is looking thin as a result. Dominic Thompson, the only permanent new face, has become the only fit senior full-back not named Luke Garbutt. Callum Connolly is back to being a make-shift right-back. The other two signings are loanees: Rhys Williams (Liverpool) and Lewis Fiorini (Man City).

So how did we get here? Where did positive momentum turn into a stagnant summer?

While the club knew it would almost certainly be remaining in the Championship since February, the sudden loss of Critchley will have disrupted any deals nominally agreed with players at other clubs. The two weeks leading to the appointment of n Appleton will have further delayed any potential transfer business, while potential key targets went elsewhere. Even with the best planning in the world, Blackpool’s recruitment teams will struggle to execute when they can’t tell prospects who they’ll be playing under. While most Championship teams have been working solidly since May 8th, Blackpool could only begin to gain momentum in mid-June.

Recruiting talent was always going to be difficult this season anyway. With a much-needed investment into new training facilities and an enhanced East Stand – quoted at upwards of £30m – “on-pitch” investment had the potential to be tight. Even with Ben Mansford (CEO) publicly committing to a higher budget than last year, Blackpool will still be a financial minnow in the division. 

Fans were optimistic that, as well as fee from Aston Villa for poaching Critchley, the potential sale of Josh Bowler would potentially add a significant £3-£5m to the transfer budget. Instead, his two main suitors from January (Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest) have both been promoted and seem to have moved onto new targets. While Bournemouth always looked like promotion favourites, Forest were still outsiders in January and Blackpool likely hoped their interest would carry into the summer. 

There was understandably concern amongst the fanbase when new faces didn’t materialise by mid-July, but the club has since signed three players. That’s the exact number that, in our 14th July poll, 44% of fans said we needed to be ready for the new season.

Thankfully, amidst all this turmoil, the club has avoided taking a step backwards in terms of the quality of the squad. According to Experimental361’s consistently great analysis, Blackpool has retained the core of the squad (equivalent to 83.5% of minutes played last season) – the 4th highest total in the division. In a sharp break with the previous regime, key players like Marvin Ekpiteta and Daniel Grimshaw have all been extended. Meanwhile, emerging talent, such as Sonny Carey and Rob Apter continue to impress and could feel like new signings if they start to flourish with an increase in minutes on the pitch.

Conclusion

Aston Villa poaching Neil Critchley felt like the first existential challenge to Simon Sadler’s Blackpool FC project – and the worst possible start to the club’s summer. It disrupted our transfer plans and put us at a further disadvantage in a league where we already have a relatively small budget. Meanwhile, the unlikely promotion of Nottingham Forest has stalled our one big player sale (Josh Bowler).

To the board’s credit, Blackpool haven’t significantly regressed throughout this turmoil. A core of (now) experienced Championship players remain to fight for their spot in the division again. However, we haven’t added significant quality to compete higher up the table and – in a season where no relegation rivals are facing points deductions – stagnation may not be enough to ensure survival. 

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Published by Conor Hamilton

Northerner working in finance. Blackpool FC fan. I write about football with healthy doses of tactics, statistics and data visualizations.

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