Considering Blackpool were the national media’s darlings last season – the phrase ‘breath of fresh air’ was muttered on no fewer than 1,057 occasions – Ian Holloway’s team have largely gone unnoticed this time around, writes Chris Walker.
‘Pool may be hidden away from the prying eyes of the Premier League, but the story at the club continues to be compelling for those who remain interested, specifically the size of the squad.
The way the club coped with relegation was always likely to be key to a successful Championship campaign, and the early signs were fairly positive. Admittedly, the ‘big three’ of Charlie Adam, David Vaughan and DJ Campbell did leave the club to continue playing top flight football, but that wasn’t exactly unexpected. However, Holloway was able to retain the services of Matt Gilks and Stephen Crainey, both of whom seemed likely to depart on a free transfer, while at the same time tying down other members of the first team to longer contracts.
Even the noises at top of the Blackpool hierarchy were encouraging. Chairman Karl Oyston, forever under fire from a significant portion of the ‘Pool faithful, insisted “it is probably a better policy to bring in fewer better players than just bringing people in for the sake of it”. Quality, not quantity – it was what all Blackpool fans wanted to hear. The goalkeeper and the defence remained intact, and in Keith Southern, Elliot Grandin, Matt Phillips and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Holloway could call upon four other players who at varying times made positive contributions to the club’s memorable season at the top table. Five or six quality players in is all that was needed to mount a serious promotion push, right?
The two big summer signings, Kevin Phillips and Barry Ferguson, fitted the bill perfectly. They may be at the wrong end of the age spectrum, but their ability and experience cannot be questioned, and in the Football League they’re still marquee names. Beyond those two though, the transfer policy is a little more difficult to comprehend. Before the transfer window closed, Holloway signed a further 10 players on permanent deals, and another one on loan (James Hurst, who has already returned to West Brom as he was not featuring). Four more signings since then – two on loan and two who were out of contract – takes the tally of new players since the end of last season to a staggering 17. Quality not quantity, remember.
Taking Ferguson and Phillips out of the equation as they have been genuine additions to the first team, the other 15 new faces have started just 16 league games between them, and eight of those players haven’t started in the Championship at all. There seems to be little rhyme or reason for when these players come into the starting XI either, having used 26 players already – some teams will likely not reach that number all season. For instance Angel Martinez, signed from Espanyol in the summer, had not even been on the bench for the first eight league games, yet suddenly started away at Coventry at the end of September, only to disappear out of sight again. With squad number 39 already taken, it’s not unusual for even ardent fans to forget we have certain players, so is it a similar story for the manager?
In a fairly candid interview given to BBC Lancashire, assistant manager Steve Thompson revealed that even the management team think the club may have brought too many players on board. He stated that other than himself and Holloway, Blackpool have only one other full-time coach. That coach is former Seasider John Murphy who, and this isn’t made up, was working on a building site in August but was drafted in when previous coach Stephen McPhee left in acrimonious circumstances. With only two full size training pitches at the club’s dilapidated Squires Gate training ground, Thompson admitted it is difficult to coach such a large number of players during the week, as well as keeping them happy.
The upshot of all this is that with such a big squad the reserve team will have a great chance of winning its league. Wait, what do you mean there isn’t a reserve team? That’s right, despite a squad numbering around 40 professionals, the club decided in its infinite wisdom to scrap the reserve set-up for this campaign, favouring instead to play behind closed doors friendlies. The official reasoning given for this decision was that bookings don’t count towards the first team, and that games could be arranged when convenient rather than being at the beck and call of the reserve fixture list.
This all sounds reasonable enough, but the aforementioned interview with Thompson let slip that the decision hasn’t been to the liking of the management team. Thompson suggested that the squad would have been large enough to cope with both the reserve league as well as additional behind closed door matches, and that it is a struggle to keep players’ fitness up with the amount of games currently being played. An added concern for Thompson was that the second year scholars in the youth system are being held back, as normally they would play in reserve games to see if they’re ready to step up a level. However, with a professional squad of nearly 40 it just isn’t possible to give the youngsters a run in the behind closed doors games.
One potential reason for signing so many players, especially those in the 18-22 bracket, might be as a result of the much-maligned new EPPP ruling. Blackpool’s approach to youth development has never been a shining light, evidenced no less by the erroneously titled “Centre of Excellance” [sic] sign welcoming those arriving at the club’s training facilities, with Karl Oyston sceptical of investing heavily in youth. It’s been over 10 years since the club brought through a player to make a genuine impact on the first team, and EPPP gives Oyston licence to neglect the youth set-up further. Don’t be surprised if he voted for EPPP.
Instead, Oyston’s plan is to try and cream off the best players at the age of 18-22 who don’t quite make it at the top level – Tom Ince is one example where this looks like paying off. Why invest millions in an academy when you can have the Premier League academy dropouts at a bargain price? That’s the Oyston hypothesis. For those unable to make an immediate impact in the first team though, such as Ince’s former Liverpool colleague Gerardo Bruna, one wonders how they will develop with limited chances to play and a huge squad with which to compete.
This approach is at odds with the ‘quality, not quantity’ aim, and along with the Premier League millions largely unspent is a sore point for supporters, who have not been slow to make their views known. Ian Holloway has another huge challenge ahead of him. Manage the expectations of the fans, manage the size of the squad and manage all of this on a budget which is far below what would be expected of any club reaping the rewards Blackpool are currently earning through parachute payments. Holloway has been accused of being a jester before, but this if he can juggle all of these things and in the process deliver a play-off place, it may well be his best achievement to date.