A warm welcome once again this morning to Chris Walker, steward of the Up the ‘Pool blog and known to his followers on Twitter as @OneDaveBamber. Last night, a late goal from Dexter Blackstock added to the climate of uncertainty enveloping Blackpool Football Club. Here, Chris takes the temperature of the Tangerines:
It’s late October and on Saturday, a Blackpool side struggling for form headed to Turf Moor for a televised fixture against local rivals Burnley – deja vu or what? 357 days on from the miserable low point of last season, Ian Holloway took his side back to East Lancashire with many parallels to be drawn one year on. Ahead of that last match, I wrote an article about Blackpool’s issues of the time for the sorely missed website The Seventy Two – now archived on these fine pages, of course. Re-reading that piece uncovers some chilling similarities and makes one ponder whether lessons have been learned.
The main thrust of that article related to the large size of the Blackpool squad last season, in spite of a commitment to focus on the fabled ‘quality, not quantity’. By late October Blackpool had signed 17 players since the end of the previous season. For large portions of the season the Seasiders carried a squad in excess of 40 professionals, many of whom featured only fleetingly, or not at all. 12 months later and Holloway once again has over 40 players on pro terms, having signed another batch of players this summer, primarily young ones. So why is it exactly that ‘Pool are stocking up on so many players – what’s the strategy?
The answer appears to lie in the now commonplace development squad, an approach which Blackpool half-heartedly adopted last season when the decision was made to scrap the reserve team. Positive steps were taken in this area over the summer just gone with the appointment of former Bristol City manager Keith Millen as Head of Coaching and Development. It is Millen’s remit to bring through the young players, allowing Holloway and his backroom staff to focus on those competing for first-team places. With EPPP now taking effect, one might have expected Blackpool to enter one of the new U21 Professional Development Leagues to provide the development squad with semi-competitive fixtures, but the club have once again opted to only play behind closed doors friendlies. Matches do appear to take place on a fairly regular basis, but with so many players fitness levels must still be below ideal levels. Furthermore, the opportunities for youngsters who have progressed through the club’s own YTS scheme are next to non-existent.
Additional problems are being caused by the situation regarding Blackpool’s Squires Gate training ground, which is long overdue relocation elsewhere or at the very least a major overhaul. Despite earning a huge Premier League windfall following promotion three seasons ago – and the parachute payments that accompanied the ensuing relegation – the training ground is still the same one that Holloway described as a ‘hell hole’ shortly after his appointment as manager in 2009. It was agreed at that time between Holloway and chairman Karl Oyston that the team would never again train there, yet plans for a new training ground are yet to emerge, despite vague statements that something is happening behind the scenes.
Not only is the training ground inadequate in terms of the full-size pitches available (two), it is also prone to flooding and has been out of action several times during the rain-filled last month. With no indoor facility to turn to, the squad have been forced into training in the gym in the new BFC Hotel within the club’s South Stand at Bloomfield Road. There is only so much players can do in the confines of a gym environment and when Blackpool have a notable weakness from set-pieces, the team needs to be on the training ground as much as it can. In a recent interview Holloway even said “A mate of mine who works for the PFA came to see me the other day and said: ‘This is the worst training ground I’ve ever seen.’” With the finances that should be available – the training ground situation is nothing short of disgraceful.
But what about on the pitch? Blackpool of course started so well that some bookmakers installed them as favourites to win the Championship – what has happened to the team that topped the table after the opening month of the season? One specific criticism might be that Holloway has changed his side too much, as he had done until this point last time around. 12 months ago Blackpool had used 26 players after 14 games heading into the match at Turf Moor – this season, and before the Forest match last night, ’Pool had used 23, but in four fewer matches. With Gerardo Bruna making a sudden appearance off the bench on Saturday, that had now risen to 24 players used in 11 matches. Once more players seem to appear and disappear at random.
An interesting comparison to make is the first few months of new signing Scott Robertson’s career which has striking parallels to that of Angel Martinez’s early days in tangerine 12 months prior. Going into last season’s encounter at Burnley, Angel had started one game in mid-September out of the blue only to drop out of the squad altogether for an extended period. After joining from Dundee United in the summer, where Robertson was an influential player for the other Tangerines, the 27 year old has featured only once – starting away to Cardiff in mid-September. Robertson will be aiming to follow Angel’s lead as the Spaniard ended last season as a regular and one of the first names on the teamsheet.
As an aside, to the surprise of many, Angel had found himself out of favour until being restored to the starting 11 at Turf Moor. Robertson meanwhile filled in at right back for the development squad against Fleetwood in last week, which serves to highlight not only the over-abundance of midfielders at Holloway’s disposal, but a worrying lack of depth at the back – one has to question why a defence as porous as Blackpool’s in recent seasons hasn’t been strengthened more significantly. Another injury suffered by the unfortunate Craig Cathcart in the warm-up at Burnley meant Blackpool had no defensive cover on the bench – the struggling defence once more unable to defend a cross into the box for Charlie Austin’s match-winning goal.
An ever-changing side week to week has become a source of frustration for many Blackpool fans, if only because it feels like history repeating itself. The Seasiders claimed their play-off place on the back of a settled second half of the season but Holloway looks to be once more taking his time to try and settle on a winning formula. Then again, who are we to question Holloway? This is a man who, on a budget usually inferior to that of his rivals, has repeatedly over-achieved with this Blackpool side. After the humiliating (and somewhat flattering) 3-1 defeat at Turf Moor last season, the play-offs seemed like a distant dream. Holloway was able to overcome many difficulties, and but for some poor finishing at Wembley, would have guided the Seasiders back to the top flight at the first time of asking.
Despite another poor derby performance, perhaps it’s just a little too early to draw too many significant conclusions. Yes, there is cause for concern. Yes, things could be better. All of that said, it’s still a long season and with 35 games still to go Blackpool still found themselves only three points off the top six. If they can find their rhythm again – as they did post-Burnley last season – then anything is still possible. The large squad, which right now makes Blackpool appear a little over-encumbered, could come in handy as the season progresses and other teams begin to flag. The Blackpool fans may be getting a little restless, but they would do well to turn their minds back to last season – trudging out of Burnley’s Cricket Field End it felt as if all was lost, but Holloway’s previous sides have shown they are made of special stuff. The true yardstick is in May and the local derby is but one step on the way there. Assuming Holloway doesn’t move on – rumours are quickly developing of a possible switch to Ewood Park – Blackpool’s season is far from over.