With the dust long since settled on the disappointment of Wembley, the new campaign and a fresh assault on promotion to the Premier League is less than a week away. The feel to the playing side going into the opening day is notably different from recent seasons and optimism reigns – cup defeat to Morecambe aside. Many supporters are beginning to believe in the prospect of a first automatic promotion since 1985. That expectation may be premature, yet having come so close last time round, a few tweaks here and there and a smoothing of the rough edges could see that long-held ambition fulfilled.
Refinement not revolution
For the first season in a very long time, not just Ian Holloway’s tenure, Blackpool will be entering the new campaign with very little upheaval. Looking back at the previous three seasons since Holloway arrived, each one has involved a significant degree of transformation. His first year in charge naturally brought with it all the changes associated with a new manager including new signings and a different style of play. Promotion to the Premier League had the consequence of needing to build a team to compete in the top flight, while the ensuing relegation back to the Championship meant the loss of key players.
This time around, the turnover of the playing staff is low, and where players have departed it has largely been of Holloway’s choosing. The majority of outgoings were in the form of loan players returning to their parent clubs and of the permanent staff leaving Bloomfield Road, only Keith Southern was ever likely to have played a decent role in the forthcoming season. Arrivals have also been minimal, with Holloway aiming to avoid a repeat of last summer’s mistakes when too many arrivals had little or no impact.
The new additions so far are a mixture of young players who will be given time to develop their potential and a couple of midfielders who should be capable of immediately challenging for a first team place. That said, it’s entirely conceivable that Holloway could field a first XI against Millwall without including any new faces. In that regard it’s perhaps disappointing more quality hasn’t noticeably been added to the starting line-up. However, the lack of great transformation is not necessarily a bad thing when one considers the strong end to the 11/12 season.
At the time of writing, the composition of the defence is unchanged and consistency in this area could be key to a successful campaign – it’s worth bearing in mind that ‘Pool’s strong conclusion to last season tied in with a settled back line. Barry Ferguson and Angel Martinez look certain to carry on where they left off anchoring the midfield, while Tom Ince and Matt Phillips will pose a big threat to the rest of the Championship from wide areas.
The squad is clearly lacking in both ability and depth in the striker’s role, but this will surely be addressed before the transfer window closes, disappointing as it is that it hasn’t been made a more urgent priority. Yet Blackpool enter the season with a pretty settled team and while many of their rivals will be trying to find their feet with lots of new faces, Holloway’s side should be capable of hitting the ground running.
Style of play
This summer isn’t the first time Holloway has spoken of his fondness for the Spanish approach to football, but there seems to be more meaning to the rhetoric this time around. It would be easy to joke about the abundance of midfielders and dearth of strikers and suggest Holloway is taking things to extremes, yet there is the sense he is serious in his goal. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for Holloway’s dedication to the Spanish method is the transfer of the aforementioned Southern.
Keith Southern has been nothing short of iconic in a Blackpool shirt. The complete professional, his hard work and doggedness has been a staple of the team in the last 10 years and righly got a terrific send-off during his testimonial against Everton. However, for all his energy and enthusiasm, Southern had rough edges, and at 31 those were only likely to be exacerbated in the coming season. Holloway’s decision to allow such an integral player to move is surely a signal that he no longer felt Southern could play in the way he wants his Blackpool team to play.
Last season saw Blackpool ditch regular use of the long diagonal that had served them so well in recent success. If ‘Pool are to replicate even a fraction of Spain’s successful style, then more short passing, retention of the ball and pressing high up the pitch are likely to feature strongly this time round. Additionally, the majority of signings (and incoming players delayed by complicated paperwork) are from the continent – partly due to price no doubt, but also because Holloway probably feels they will slot right into his ideas.
Successfully carrying off an adoption of the Spanish approach will not be easy, but it is to be applauded that Holloway is aiming to evolve his team once again. The display against Morecambe was a stark reminder that there will be bumps along the way, but with more focus on possession it is to be hoped Blackpool can dominate more games for longer periods and continue the next stage of their development.
Off the pitch developments
Despite the on-field success of recent years, criticism of Karl Oyston’s chairmanship has continued, and in some instances even escalated – with valid reason. However, while the scrutiny on the club’s accounts is justified, it’s also important to recognise the positive strides that the club has made which could benefit the footballing side. One such area ripe for discussion is the approach to the next generation of players, the so-called development squad.
It was widely acknowledged that the development squad strategy last season didn’t really work out. The axing of the reserve team provided few playing opportunities for those out of the first team and behind-closed doors friendlies were too infrequent. As a result, many of the club’s youngsters found themselves out on loan for long periods in search of much needed game time. The whole notion that Blackpool had a development squad was dispelled by the fact those teammates rarely saw one another all season.
However, a key appointment this summer perhaps suggests there is some more joined-up thinking in regard to the youth set-up with Keith Millen being employed as Head of Coaching and Development. This move should provide the youngsters with more focus and direction from a well-respected football man. If friendlies can be arranged on a more regular basis, and the quantity of such matches in pre-season should be a positive sign, then this group of players can hopefully grow together and provide a solid foundation for the future.
Questions remain over the training facilites of course, and this key issue will continue to strangle the development to a significant extent. Until a new training ground is built, Blackpool will only ever be capable of a Category 3 academy under the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) scheme for young players. Yet while the longer-term aim should be for at least a Category 2 setup, Millen’s appointment is a step in the right direction and a sign that the club is professionalising bit by bit.