Setting up for the summer

With Championship survival secured before the final day of the season, Paul Ince met his first objective as Blackpool manager by avoiding a disastrous, but at one point entirely plausible, relegation to League One. What his next target is remains to be seen, as the ‘Pool hierarchy continue to keep their ambitions for the club largely shrouded in mystery. However, whatever the goal, Ince’s summer task is to build a squad that will at the very minimum keep the club in the second tier of English football.

The most notable thing about the status of the squad was the number of professionals tied to the club, or rather the lack thereof. Out of 39 professionals at the club, only two were contracted for the 2013/14 season, Alberton Noguera and James Caton. That left decisions to be made on the remaining 37 players – some of which had options for an additional year in their contract, some of which didn’t. Depending on your viewpoint, this was either a potential catastrophe waiting to happen with a mass exodus, or a rare and golden opportunity for a manager to get rid of anyone not in his plans without having to pay them off and start with a clean slate.

Speaking before the end of the season, Ince’s comments in the press suggested wholesale changes were perhaps not on the cards:

“Now I will sit down with the chairman and start getting some targets. We do need fresh faces. I don’t want to dismantle the whole team, we have a fantastic core here and spirit, but I just want to add to it.”

With that in mind, how much of that core is still on the Fylde coast? Yesterday Blackpool published their retained list, and separated the players into five categories as follows (click the image to enlarge it):

Click to enlarge

Released

The best place to start is perhaps the players who have been let go altogether. None are particularly surprising, with the majority having never played league football for Blackpool. Of the more recognisable names, Kevin Phillips was always destined to leave following his loan stint with Palace, while neither Gerardo Bruna nor Ashley Eastham were likely to make an impact on the first team. Tiago Gomes showed promise early in the season, but ultimately looked a bit lightweight and an injury-ravaged second half of the season probably made it an easy decision to let him go.

As for Elliot Grandin, it’s very much a case of wasted ability. The Frenchman certainly has talent and in his early days at Bloomfield Road he formed a key part of our Premier League midfield alongside Charlie Adam and David Vaughan. However, his attitude has let him down and following relegation back to the Championship one always felt he would rather be elsewhere. There is a case to be made that he could have been managed more effectively, but a club with a backroom staff the size of Blackpool’s will always struggle to hand-hold a player who perhaps hasn’t earned that privilege.

Option to train and prove fitness

Two other players who might have seen the last of Squires Gate are Ian Evatt and Craig Sutherland, both of whom have been struck by long-term injuries. An invitation to prove fitness in pre-season before being offered a contract is a logical move, albeit unsentimental in the eyes of many who will feel that Evatt in particular might have deserved more loyalty from the club for his service through the years. The future for both though is uncertain and tying them to contracts before assessing their condition would be a risk.

Young professionals offered contracts

Five young professionals have been offered new contracts, although the logic in some of these decisions is a little puzzling. By the time next season begins, all five will be 20 years old or over, yet only Tom Barkhuizen has been able to play any form of regular league football. Chris Kettings has established himself as a steady member of Scotland’s U21 squad and so is certainly one to keep an eye on. Conversely, offering a deal to the other young keeper Mark Halstead is confusing. Halstead had a torrid loan spell in the Conference with Stockport County and has not looked up to standard in his few Blackpool appearances.Turning 23 in September, Halstead should have developed more if he is to be trusted as a back-up keeper at Championship level and it could be argued that retaining him will possibly hold back the younger and more talented Kettings. Neither Adam Dodd nor Liam Tomsett have been given much of an opportunity in Blackpool’s first team either and time is surely running out for them to break through, although the club have seen fit to give them new deals.

Senior professionals offered contracts

Blackpool had two senior players with an option, but have neglected to activate them in favour of offering new deals, presumably on reduced terms. The players concerned are Barry Ferguson and Stephen Crainey who both had signed contracts in Blackpool’s first year of receiving parachute payments. At 35 years of age it is understandable that ‘Pool may wish to reduce Ferguson’s reportedly high earnings, but should he refuse he will be a big loss to the club given his importance in steadying the ship to keep Blackpool up – his leadership was surely crucial.

Crainey will turn 32 this summer, and his advancing years combined with a drop-off in the level of his performances this season have likely prompted the move to offer a reduced wage. Bob Harris provides strong competition in the left back role, but Harris’ constant struggle with injuries demands a second left-back of Championship quality, which Crainey has demonstrated on a near-consistent basis, the last 12 months possibly excepted.

Alex Baptiste is almost certain to leave the club despite the offer of a new contract as rumours of a move to Derby County persist. Baptiste has been a shell of his former self as this past season wore on, seemingly with half an eye on his imminent departure – that he remained captain displaying so little leadership was bordering on a travesty. Ludo Sylvestre is also attracting interest elsewhere and his glut of goals towards the end of the season may see him offered better terms away from Bloomfield Road.

Following a calamitous few games at right back, Kirk Broadfoot cemented a position in the heart of Blackpool’s defence with performances that saw him as runner-up to Tom Ince in many fans’ player of the year votes. Retaining him would be a big boost for the Seasiders, but again one imagines that there will be competition for his services. Gary Taylor-Fletcher is likely to be in a similar situation. Since joining in the summer of 2007, Taylor-Fletcher has also been a key part of the club’s success, but once again being the wrong side of 30 may mean he has been offered a lower wage than his previous contract and may opt to leave for one last pay-day – there will be no shortage of Championship clubs interested in his services.

Of all the players in this category, Neal Eardley is probably the most surprising. Under Paul Ince he has been marginalised with both Baptiste and even Broadfoot featuring at right back ahead of Eardley. A short-lived experiment with the Welshman in midfield did not prove too effective, but his contract offer may be in anticipation of other players in the same situation turning down deals – Eardley could be seen as the fall-back option.

Options activated

12 players did have the options in their contracts taken up, and once more it’s a mixed bag of logical decisions and some choices that appear a little strange. The easy choices were to activate the options of Matt Gilks, Craig Cathcart, Bob Harris, Chris Basham, Isaiah Osbourne, Matt Phillips and Tom Ince. Angel Martinez was a somewhat surprising decision, not because of his undoubted quality, but due to his under-utilisation since Paul Ince took charge. Again though, it may be a case of resigning himself to losing Ferguson and thus Angel may step in as a direct replacement. Nathan Eccelston being kept on is possibly a decision made due to a lack of other strikers in the squad, but his opportunities this season have been few and far between – it remains to be seen if he will make the grade.

The other players to have their options taken require some explaining however. Anderson Banvo is only young, but has been nowhere near the first team all season despite his pedigree at Paris Saint-Germain. Jake Caprice who joined last summer from Crystal Palace’s youth setup had a short loan spell at Dagenham & Redbridge but seems to have done enough on the training ground to warrant further examination. Keeping Louis Almond on is possibly the most bizarre decision of all, with loan spells to non-league clubs being the same pattern every year – is this a player who will realistically ever be of value to our first team?

The squad as it stands

With the aforementioned Caton and Noguera already contracted, the current squad looks something like this:

To say it leaves Blackpool with a small squad is an understatement, especially when one considers that it could easily be argued that only eight of those 14 are capable of making an impact on the first team. It’s possible this list could be reduced further if Tom Ince moves to a Premier League team. It’s possible Ince will start the season with ‘Pool, but expect the bids to come in towards the end of August and the club’s resolve to be strongly tested.

As an absolute minimum, Blackpool need to sign 12 players of first team ability, which leaves a big task for Paul Ince this summer. Of course, one or two of the senior professionals who have been offered contracts may sign on, but any more than two or three would be fortunate. Then there’s also the loan players who ended the season at Blackpool – Nathan Delfouneso, Gary MacKenzie and Matt Derbyshire. It’s safe to say we’ll have seen the last of Derbyshire, but ‘Pool may like to return for the other two.

Delfouneso’s situation will depend on Aston Villa’s fate, but with survival now all but secured, they may be willing to let him move on, as it’s hard to imagine him competing at Premier League level. Whether Blackpool can agree a fee and wages though is uncertain, and past form would suggest not. MacKenzie may be more obtainable on both counts, and has become a fan favourite for his no-nonsense approach. However, despite the huge strength of his aerial game, he looks uncomfortable in other areas and it’s difficult to picture MacKenzie as part of a Championship team pushing for promotion.

Before the last home game of the season, I speculated on how many of the matchday squad against Derby County would line-up for the first game of the 2013/14 season. My prediction was five or six out of 18 at best, the squad that day being as follows:

Gilks
Crainey
Cathcart
MacKenzie
Broadfoot
Phillips
Sylvestre
Ferguson
Ince
Taylor-Fletcher
Delfouneso

Halstead
Eardley
Basham
Grandin
Angel
Derbyshire
Eccleston

With the retained list now published, it’s possible that figure could rise to around eight, but even then it shows that a big re-build is on the cards, despite Paul Ince’s claims to the contrary.

It is imperative that the squad building begins promptly, especially as the season kicks off earlier than ever. An August 3rd start to the league campaign will mean pre-season will begin in the middle of June, and as it stands it will be tough to arrange a 7-a-side match. Delaying new signings as we have done in previous years needs to be avoided at all costs – by the end of August there could be as many as six or seven league games played already. ‘Holding our nerve’ and waiting until transfer deadline day cannot be the plan. This is a very big summer indeed.

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