Going through the motions

Another deadline day passes for Blackpool Football Club and so time to reflect on what happened, what didn’t happen, and what it means for the future direction of the club. Some will be satisfied that Tom Ince, Alex Baptiste and Matt Phillips were retained despite widespread interest. Some will be dissatisfied that the squad has not been strengthened with permanent signings or high profile loan acquisitions. Many will accept that the jury is out on the two loan arrivals – Matt Derbyshire and Reece Wabara – with both having performed to varying success at League One strugglers Oldham Athletic.

Picking through the debris, what can be deduced from the January transfer window, and should Blackpool fans have cause for concern?

The ins and outs

As already touched on, the impact the two arrivals will have is as yet unclear. Wabara was obviously deemed to have enough potential to be snapped up from Walsall’s youth set-up by Manchester City in 2007, but until this season had only made a few league appearances (one for City and six on loan at Ipswich during 2011/12). Since joining the Latics on loan this season, Wabara has been more or less an ever-present in the right back spot and shone during their cup victory over Liverpool. The position does seem to be one Blackpool want to address, with Neal Eardley out of favour and Baptiste preferred in the heart of the defence. Wabara is likely to get a chance to prove himself but it’s hard to know what we can reasonably expect from him, relatively untested as he is at this level.

As for Derbyshire, he is more of a known quantity, albeit not necessarily inspiring. Previously viewed as someone with great potential when bursting onto the scene at Blackburn Rovers, Derbyshire’s career has drifted ever since and whilst at Oldham he managed just four goals in 18 appearances. Cast out at Nottingham Forest, Derbyshire will be hoping this is the move that can kick-start his flagging career. The lack of competition in the striking department will at least give him the platform, although serious improvement on recent years will be required in order for him to impress.

One player left the club on deadline day, as Kevin Phillips joined up with Ian Holloway at Crystal Palace until the end of the season. It was something of a surprise that the club took up the option on Phillips’ contract last summer given how the veteran striker had struggled as the 2011/12 season wore on, although Blackpool’s former manager perhaps opted to retain Phillips rather than run the risk of entering the market for someone else. However, it’s clear Blackpool haven’t been getting value for money for the 39 year old who is reportedly the club’s highest earner. One might argue that he hasn’t been utilised effectively and that his role should have been strictly as a last 20-30 minutes substitute and nothing more. Nevertheless, in isolation the departure of Phillips is unlikely to be seen as a great loss by many Blackpool fans.

More of an issue is the dearth of forward options left in Phillips’ wake. One must also take into account that Blackpool effectively lost two other forwards during January, with Wes Thomas returning to parent club Bournemouth (before joining Birmingham on loan yesterday) and Wigan recalling Nouha Dicko following a lack of on-pitch minutes for the young Frenchman. Letting Phillips go without having a replacement lined up does not seem sensible, and the depth of the squad could be severely tested if injuries begin to take hold.

Seeing out the season

Having opted not to sell some of the club’s more coveted assets during the transfer window, the first XI that Blackpool remains relatively strong on first sight. A front three comprised of a combination of Ince, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Matt Phillips and Nathan Delfouneso is a match for most in the division, while midfield includes a number of options, especially when one considers that both Barry Ferguson and Elliot Grandin are once more training with the first team.

That said, the defence looks a little brittle with both Ian Evatt and Bob Harris injured meaning the team currently have very little cover in that department. And as has been the case all season, Matt Gilks continues to have no genuine competition for his place, which some may argue has led to a disappointing and somewhat lethargic campaign for the Scotland international.

It’s possible the club will seek to add a couple more players in defence and up front if injuries necessitate it after the loan window has re-opened, but it’s indicative once more of a reactive as opposed to proactive transfer strategy that has plagued the club for years. Indeed, the ad-hoc ‘strategy’ right now would appear to be to get to the end of season in one piece – i.e. with Championship survival confirmed.

What once promised to be a thrilling and successful season in the early days has turned into long hard slog, as the remaining three months exist purely to be ticked off a game at a game. Challenging for the play-offs is beyond fanciful, and while caution should still be taken not to get pulled into a relegation battle, points on the board and remaining quality within the team should make that worry redundant.

Three months of the campaign are still to be played, but it’s likely to be a case of going through the motions, before the club braces itself for a summer of near-unprecedented upheaval…

The forthcoming summer upheaval

The extent of change likely to take place over the summer can only be fully understood once you analyse the players who are out of contract in June. With that in mind, it’s worth listing the status of the squad – although only those who have featured for the first team this season. The large number of development squad players are mainly irrelevant in terms of quality and cost to the wage bill.

Out of contract

Neal Eardley
Kirk Broadfoot
Alex Baptiste
Barry Ferguson
Ludovic Sylvestre
Elliot Grandin
Gary Taylor-Fletcher
Kevin Phillips

12 month option in club’s favour

Matt Gilks
Bob Harris
Ian Evatt
Craig Cathcart
Isaiah Osbourne
Chris Basham
Tom Ince
Angel Martinez
Gerardo Bruna
Tiago Gomes
Nathan Eccleston
Stephen Crainey
Matt Phillips

More than 12 months left on contract (including an option year)

Alberto Noguera

When one sees the above list in black and white, it really does bring home just how much is up in the air approaching the summer. Of the 22 players currently on Blackpool’s books to have made an appearance this season, all but one could be allowed to walk away for nothing. Options remain on 13 of those – some of which will probably be taken up, some not due to the money they currently earn, while Tom Ince will almost certainly be sold. Of the eight free to walk in the summer, it’s entirely feasible none of those will still be at Bloomfield Road for the 2013/14 season.

All of this points to a big re-build job in the summer and only accentuates the need to address the biggest cause of instability at the moment – the lack of a permanent manager.

Continuing managerial uncertainty

It is now three weeks since Michael Appleton was officially confirmed as Blackburn manager – although longer since it was clear he would be leaving Bloomfield Road – and the Seasiders appear to be no closer to deciding what they want to do with the vacant manager’s role. This indecision is at odds with what Karl Oyston stated in the aftermath of Ian Holloway’s departure. At that time, Oyston was quoted in the Blackpool Gazette as saying:

“It’s important we make the right appointment as quickly as we can. I’ve seen some of our near neighbours take some time, and the instability has not done them any favours. So I’d like to move quickly, if we can.”

A cynic might say that a slow decision this time avoided a new manager wanting to put his stamp on the team by signing players in the transfer window. A cynic might similarly argue that by delaying the appointment until February, a new manager is restricted to make do with loan signings that allow the decks to be cleared in the summer.

The lack of direction from the very top is affecting the players according to Steve Thompson, who has been left to take the strain of this whole sorry mess by a chairman conspicuous by his absence at a time when communicating with the fans should be a must. Thompson has cast a sorry figure over the past few weeks, desperate to show he is capable of assuming the manager’s role, but not afforded the backroom staff or freedom in the transfer market to really make his mark.

If the plan really is to buy time until the summer for a complete overhaul of the playing squad, then the sensible decision weeks ago would have been to give Thompson the job until the end of the season. Instead, uncertainty has been allowed to fester while Blackpool have failed to land candidate after candidate. All the while, Thompson is expected to stay motivated enough to keep the group of players going despite a clear lack of faith and support from Karl Oyston.

What now?

While various names did seem closely linked to the manager’s job at one point – most notably Sean O’Driscoll who instead opted for debt-ridden, relegation-threatened Bristol City – the speculation has almost dried up this past week and an appointment seems as far away as it ever has. For the time being, it seems safe to accept that Thompson will be in charge for the foreseeable future. As and when a new manager does come in, they will have a few months to assess the players who the club retain an option on before a re-build job in the summer.

Between now and May, the focus has to be on picking up the necessary points to remain in mid-table safety and avoid a spectacular relegation, reminiscent of 1978 to those older than myself who are no doubt still haunted by that horror season – 15 more points from 17 games should definitely do it, and this team are capable of achieving that. Those optimists still dreaming of the play-offs may need to have a dose of realism however. It would require something in the region of 38 points from the remaining 17 games – equivalent to 2.24 points per game, or 12 wins plus the odd draw.

For the last seven or eight seasons, Blackpool fans have become accustomed to their team playing for either promotion or survival going into March and April every year, but with the calendar having only just turned to February, there is little to be decided on the pitch this time around. Indeed, the focus will now turn to the managerial appointment (whenever that may be) and perhaps most ominously of all, the release of the accounts from the 2011/12 season, when Blackpool fans will find out if the Oyston family have dared to cash in once more.

It is not a pleasant time to be a Blackpool fan right now.