One of the surprise success stories so far in 2013-14 has been Blackpool FC, with critics who touted them to be among the Championship relegation candidates being forced to hide in the corner for now. However, a promising start to the season is beginning to fizzle amid a volley of sendings-off. Here, Chris Walker of the Measured Progress blog runs the rule over Tangerine tantrums. You can follow Chris on twitter at @onedavebamber
‘It’s never dull at Blackpool’ is an oft-heard phrase round these parts, but one that at the moment is both true and false. Certainly, there’s plenty to reflect on at Bloomfield Road, be it our surprisingly lofty position in the Championship despite being tipped as relegation fodder, or our new-found status as the disciplinary bad boys. Yet if one limits the focus to what’s happening on the pitch – more specifically what the performances are like – then dull is about as apt as it gets. Dull, dull, dull.
Of course, that’s a pretty subjective thing to say, but it’s fast becoming the prevailing, if not quite unanimous, view. There are some who state they are able to glean some compulsion from the pragmatic football being deployed, but many, myself included, are finding this season hard work. It’s perhaps worth considering though how many of these opinions are being influenced by what preceded it – context is always key.
The ghost of one man haunts the club – that man being Ian Holloway. It’s now been over 12 months since his controversial departure, but his name still infects the discourse on a near-daily basis. It’s “Holloway this, Holloway that” and his merits and failings are discussed in Blackpool circles nearly as much as the current manager’s. For ‘Pool fans who enjoyed some of the most exciting years under his reign, it has been hard to let go…but let go we must.
Enough has been said of our former manager. Holloway is not going to return as some mythical saviour, and nor should he. Never go back, right? So comparing Paul Ince’s team to the sides of Holloway is redundant and it’s time to accept the ‘new normal’ of the Ince era, even if it is a little more difficult to warmly embrace. With that in mind, what defines the current Blackpool and why, when results have taken the club towards the top end of the table, is there so much unrest bubbling beneath the surface?
Up until the weekend’s 5-1 defeat at Derby, the Seasiders had occupied a play-off spot for the entire first third of the season while amassing an impressive 31 points. It’s a position most ‘Pool fans would have taken in an instant back in pre-season when the club dithered in the transfer market entertaining hopeless trialist after hopeless trialist. It was a frustrating summer for Blackpool with squad-building left to the last minute, despite a raft of departures, many of whom had been key players in the club’s recent success.
Somehow, despite the chaotic approach to the transfer strategy, Blackpool won five of their first six league matches, drawing the other. The foundation of this early success was undoubtedly the defence, and making his side hard to break down has been Paul Ince’s modus operandi. Indeed, three of those first six results were 1-0 in Blackpool’s favour. What makes this even more remarkable is the lack of a specialist right-back at the club, even now, 19 games into the campaign.
Right-back Bradley Orr did arrive on loan from Blackburn in September, but only managed three starts (one of those at left-back!) with questions over his match-fitness, before succumbing to a fairly serious injury which has effectively curtailed his loan spell due to expire in January. The right-back duty has mostly been fulfilled by a combination of four other players, centre-backs Kirk Broadfoot and Craig Cathcart, and midfielders Neal Bishop and Chris Basham – although the latter does have form for being a utility-player. With that in mind, a consistent back four can hardly be cited as the secret to the defensive success. What, then?
Rather, it has been an all-round cautious, safety first, approach. One up front is now widely accepted as a valid tactic, the fulfilment of Jonathan Wilson’s inverted pyramid, however, whereas in most modern variations of this formation the two wide players will form a front three when in possession, Blackpool’s 4-5-1 is a genuine 4-5-1. This has without doubt contributed to becoming a more resilient team and it is rare to see an opposing team overrun ‘Pool.
However, this strength has clearly been at the expense of the more creative side of things and 23 goals in 19 games is a disappointing return given the league position. Additionally, only Millwall and Doncaster have racked up fewer shots per game than the Seasiders. The defensive formation doesn’t allow for quick counter-attacks, with Ricardo Fuller required to hold the ball up while reinforcements can get up to pitch. Fuller has done this task ably, but many of his fellow attacking players have struggled to shine.
One notable disappointment has been the form of Tom Ince, whose impact has been severely reduced this season, and arguably ever since his father was appointed as manager. Ince Jr. remains an exciting young player, but the set-up of the team has not brought the best out of him and as a result, his frustration (and at times petulance) has been clear for all to see. It was believed that having his father as manager would be a good thing by encouraging Tom Ince to stay and bring the best out of him. As it happens, his career is stalling somewhat and when he inevitably moves on in the summer (or even January), the value he will command is sure to be less than the offer on the table from Cardiff back in August.
Furthermore, there’s the curious situation of regularly seeing five or six attacking players on the bench, none of whom are often given more than a token substitute appearance in which to demonstrate their value. Steven Davies, Nathan Delfouneso, Bobby Grant, Michael Chopra, Nathan Tyson and Marvin Zeegelaar were all brought in to provide more attacking thrust, but between the six of them they have managed only 12 league starts. In fact, Tyson has already found himself out on loan at local neighbours Fleetwood despite only signing on deadline day in September. When creating chances and scoring goals has been difficult for Blackpool, it has naturally been frustrating to see these many options go largely unused.
Conversely, in defensive areas the squad is disturbingly thin. In addition to the aforementioned issues at right-back, the club has only three senior centre-backs on the books, one of whom is Cathcart who has been dogged with injury throughout his time at Bloomfield Road. The lack of alternatives in this area was brought home to roost when both Broadfoot and Gary MacKenzie were dismissed (along with Ricardo Fuller) on a horrendous night at Yeovil. The past weekend’s 5-1 hammering at Derby can partially be explained away by the need for midfielder Basham and left-back Jack Robinson to form a makeshift partnership at the heart of the defence, with Bishop also out-of-position at right-back.
It’s concerning that such an unbalanced squad has been assembled, and the frantic nature of the summer transfer window was surely a contributing factor. It’s been a problem waiting to happen and between the manager and the chairman, back-up in this area should have been a priority for both the permanent and loan transfer deadlines just gone. It’s even more unforgivable when the club is still benefitting from Premier League parachute payments which negate any cost argument for not having sufficient defensive cover.
Two further dismissals at Derby also raise the topical issue of the club’s discipline, with the red card tally for the season now up to eight. For the record, in the last 15 years in the Championship, the most red cards in a season were picked up by Millwall in 2005-6 when they managed 13 – Blackpool look well on course to beat that. Paul Ince and chairman Karl Oyston have both suggested this week that discipline is not an issue, with the former suggesting much of the blame lies at the feet of “amateur referees officiating our games.”
Ince himself is of course no stranger to disciplinary issues having been handed a severe five game stadium ban for laying hands on a 4th official and threatening to “knock him out” after being sent to the stands in his side’s 2-1 win at Bournemouth in September. This was infamously followed by an ill-judged PR stunt from local media who distributed Paul Ince masks in support of the ‘wronged’ manager, as if some FA conspiracy was responsible for the ban as opposed to sheer unprofessionalism from a grown man who should know better.
The notion of leading from the front does not help Ince’s case and the manager has drawn significant criticism in light of the team’s poor discipline. Calls have even made for the manager to be sacked, citing him as unfit to represent the club, although it’s hard to imagine these demands are unrelated to those already unhappy with Ince for his style of play. Sacking him would possibly be too extreme, but the discipline of the side certainly must improve.
The latest hullabaloo about discipline has possibly distracted many however from the fact that Blackpool’s current form just isn’t very good. Since the incident at Bournemouth, Blackpool have collected only 1.15 points per game, winning only three of the last 13 league matches. A more pragmatic style of play can be tolerated to an extent, but if a lack of entertainment is combined with a lack of positive results, then the situation could swiftly turn more problematic and the dissenting voices grow louder.
Then again, is the call to be entertained even reasonable in the first instance? How many Football League fans are genuinely entertained by their teams on a weekly basis, let alone demand a sense of entitlement – the “entertain me or I’m off camp” have got short shrift from some quarters. Plenty of Blackpool sides pre-Holloway were not exactly thrilling to watch, so is this once more a case of needing to move on and accept our lot? That’s part of being a football fan, right – in sickness and in health? So much as lying in 7th place in the second tier – a dream only 10 years ago – can be considered ‘sickness’.
However, that’s not to say fans necessarily have to just be grateful the club is no longer back in the dark days of the 1980s and have no right to critically appraise the situation. There is already talk of a significant drop-off in season ticket renewals for 2014-15 – the club having effectively backed themselves into a corner after a huge discount to only £195.30 for the current season. Returning prices to previous levels would surely see attendances plummet, much as the atmosphere already has this season with little to inspire those watching from the stands.
Blackpool have some work to do then, and while expectations have been wildly inflated from 5-10 years ago, it is something the club has to accept along with the Premier League influx of cash. Acceptance is required on both sides effectively, from the fans who need to realise that the incredible years under Holloway are in the past, but also from the club who cannot rest on their laurels either. A little more attacking ambition from Paul Ince and his side could be key to squaring this particular circle.