Contractual Cliffs and Parasitic Nematodes at Blackpool FC
Today, we’re very happy to welcome back Chris Walker, known as @onedavebamber to his twitter followers, and curator of the excellent blog Up The Pool. Here, Chris looks back on a flat campaign for Blackpool Football Club.
As the season draws to a close, there must be many in the wider footballing world wondering just what has happened at Blackpool. What became of the gung-ho, entertaining team you all knew and loved in the Premier League? Why have there been so many managerial changes this season? What does the future hold? And what on earth has happened to the pitch? All great questions, but ones that are even difficult for the most ardent ‘Pool fans to answer.
The best starting point is probably the managerial situation. The upheaval in this area has been the biggest contributory factor towards such a disappointing season that once promised so much. Indeed, Blackpool got off to the perfect start winning each of their first three games to top the table heading into September; incidentally it is that winning start which could prove the difference between Championship and League One football next season.
However, as summer turned into autumn, it became evident something wasn’t quite right on the Golden Mile. Results tailed off, expected signings failed to materialise and Ian Holloway’s weekly pre-match press conferences grew ever more fractious until an inevitable parting of the ways. The ins and outs of Holloway’s decision to leave after more than three years at Bloomfield Road have been endlessly dissected on the Fylde coast, but ultimately he saw a brighter future for himself at Selhurst Park and opted to make the move.
His naysayers will say he was motivated by greed and a higher salary on offer from Crystal Palace, while also arguing he had run out of steam. Others will say his patience with the club’s management had been exhausted and that a lack of backing in the transfer market – the club having the benefit of Premier League money notwithstanding – forced him away from Blackpool. The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but all Blackpool fans will lean slightly more to one side or the other, football being the partisan game it is.
The decision to appoint Holloway’s successor was taken fairly swiftly, with Michael Appleton arriving from the chaos of Portsmouth less than a week later. Appleton’s tenure began relatively brightly with his side unbeaten from his first seven games in charge, albeit with a large proportion of stalemates. He had a commanding air about him and came across as someone who had a plan and would be diligent in implementing it.
However, a disappointing festive points tally – ‘Pool took just two points out of a possible 12 over Christmas – put Appleton on the back foot, with the young manager eager to add to his squad. His frustration growing, speaking on January 4th, Appleton suggested “If we don’t look to bring in three, four or five players by next weekend, we could get punished for it.” The ‘next weekend’ Appleton was referring to was a visit to Charlton Athletic. By the time that game came around, Appleton had already been installed as boss of Blackburn Rovers – his spell at the seaside lasting only 64 days.
Writing on the sudden departure at the time, I commented: “What does it say about Blackpool that a manager who was able to stomach the turmoil at Portsmouth for nearly a year was eager to jump ship for another club experiencing instability like Blackburn?” The apparent madness of Appleton’s decision was borne out just 67 days later when he became the latest casualty of the Venkys’ ownership at Ewood Park. It’s hard to say whether Appleton would have made a success of it at Blackpool or not, but the fact he was willing to take a big risk by taking on the poisoned chalice at Blackburn makes one suspect he was not confident.
Indeed, an interview with the Guardian a month into his third job of the season, Appleton went on record to this effect: “It felt like a slightly more attractive opportunity than the one I was in at Pompey but I wouldn’t have left Blackpool to come to Blackburn if I was completely happy, or felt I could take the club to the next level and keep it there.” Once again, it’s almost certain an improved salary played its part in the decision, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to read first-hand from a former manager of the difficulties one faces in the Bloomfield Road hot seat.
A period of further uncertainty enveloped the club for six weeks, with caretaker Thompson desperate to get the job full-time, while chairman Karl Oyston was desperate to give it to almost anyone else who would take it. The club received public knock-back after knock-back, including both Sean O’Driscoll and Billy Davies coming close to accepting the role before opting for divisional rivals Bristol City and Nottingham Forest respectively. That Davies chose to return to the City Ground was not entirely unexpected, but rather more worrying is that O’Driscoll saw the Robins as a better opportunity than Blackpool.
Eventually, the club appointed a man who was in the shadows all along to watch his son Tom Ince, former England international Paul Ince. It seemed very much like a decision of convenience, with Ince’s recent managerial record hardly suggesting he was deserving of a job at Championship level. A common accusation from the more disgruntled element of the club’s support is that Blackpool is run like a Sunday League team, and appointing the star player’s father as manager served to reinforce that.
It’s not been an easy task for Ince to take on and despite all the instability, it looks like the club are on course for safety following a strong Easter period, even if not by much in one of the most open relegation battles ever seen. Ince has only lost two of his opening nine matches in charge, but like Appleton before him has overseen mainly draws, winning only three. In fact it is a heavy over-reliance on Ince’s son to score goals which has plagued ‘Pool all season long and the dearth of striking options available has not made for an easy run-in.
Three or four more points, however, should secure safety given Blackpool’s far superior goal difference over their rivals at the bottom, after which point Ince can look to the future. It’s hard to gauge what Ince will bring to the table in the long-term, primarily due to a low sample size so far and the fire-fighting nature of a relegation battle, but also because of the (yet more) significant upheaval facing the club in the summer.
In what some are terming the contractual cliff (OK, just me), almost all of Blackpool’s squad are out of contract in the summer. The club do have an option in their favour on over half the players, which means they are able to keep them for an additional year, but it is generally believed this would be at the same money (or better) as their existing contracts. With many of these having signed deals during the Seasiders’ sole season in the Premier League, it remains to be seen if the club will attempt to negotiate these contracts down, allowing the players to walk if an agreement can’t be reached. Matt Gilks, Stephen Crainey, Ian Evatt, Craig Cathcart, Chris Basham and Angel Martinez all fall into this category.
Of the players who are completely out-of-contract, Blackpool could be set to lose integral components of the squad which enjoyed success under Holloway, including Barry Ferguson, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Alex Baptiste, while to a lesser extent Ludo Sylvestre, Elliot Grandin and Neal Eardley can also leave on a Bosman. The club’s prize asset, Tom Ince, will surely see his option activated, but a transfer to a Premier League club is a near-certainty. The enigmatic Matt Phillips could also move on, although ‘Pool will be fortunate to get anywhere near the £5m they turned down from Southampton less than 12 months ago.
As well as a potential full re-build to contend with, Ince will be hoping that Karl Oyston finally acts to solve the pitch problems which have blighted much of the season. A quick google search of ‘Blackpool pitch’ yields the following terms: shambles, appalling, awful, terrible, quagmire, pudding, cabbage patch. Frankly, all of these words combined cannot overstate just how poor it has been, which makes the extra charge for pitch-facing rooms in the club’s new hotel all the more amusing.
A club statement last month pointed the blame at an infection of ‘parasitic nematodes’, much to the enjoyment of message board joke writers who were quick to draw comparisons to the owners and their removal of club funds, most (in)famously in the form of an £11m salary to majority shareholder Owen Oyston last year, discussed in these very pages. Recognition of the issue is but the first step, and the club must act decisively to put an end to the pitch gremlins once and for all with major improvements during the close season.
Given the shocking condition of the playing surface, there’s been little to excite home fans this season – the more pragmatic football being served up by first Appleton and then Ince is perhaps more a case of needs-must than an actual indication of the style of football we might witness next season. Ince has almost total freedom to mould the squad to his own ideas this summer courtesy of the contracts situation and it is to be hoped there is room for flair players on the surface worthy of them.
At the very least, the team should be well-backed during the 13/14 campaign. Perhaps wary of a fans backlash, season ticket prices have been reduced to a bargain £195.30 (to celebrate 60 years since the 1953 Matthews Final), which should ensure strong sales. Assuming Blackpool stay up, it is to be hoped that this season will in time be considered as just a blip. A clearing of the decks this summer, combined with a new pitch, could see much-needed green shoots start to emerge in August.