The challenge facing José Riga

The ink is finally dry and after an interminable delay, Blackpool have a permanent manager after going 141 days without. Karl Oyston’s defence will, and indeed has been, that the choice is more important than the speed at which the appointment is made, but it goes without saying it could and should have been resolved much, much sooner.

Yes, it’s true that now more than ever it’s vital the club gets the right man and not rush into anything, but nearly five months is the exact opposite of a rush. The enormity of the task Blackpool are facing as a club this summer and beyond should not be underplayed and the lack of time available to the new man José Riga is not ideal.

José Riga

The man himself is mostly an unknown quantity from an English perspective, having only managed Charlton for 16 games before being relieved of his duties. Although brief, Riga’s impact at the Valley was massive as he helped guide the Addicks to Championship survival having taken over from Chris Powell with the club in real danger of going down. It seems evident that Charlton’s decision to part ways was not a solely football-based decision and many of the south London club’s supporters seem displeased with Riga’s hasty departure.

Digging deeper into Riga’s past, before arriving on these shores Riga managed a host of lower league Belgian clubs gradually working his way up to become Standard Liege manager in 2011. A disappointing end of season play-off campaign in Belgium’s confusing top flight however meant that Riga lasted just one season in charge at the Reds. Spells coaching youth football in Qatar and at Milan pre-empted the Belgian’s move into English football in March of this year.

Quite who is coming with Riga to Bloomfield Road to assist him is at this point not known, but in Riga’s first interviews with the local press he has spoken of how crucial it is to build his staff first, with the players coming next. Riga seems aware he cannot do the job alone, and in addition to requiring a staff, Riga spoke of needing support from both the chairman and the fans. It’s a sentiment most Blackpool fans can buy into, yet backing from the fans alone will be useless without genuine support from the club’s owners.

Togetherness was very much a theme of Riga’s opening statements, and the specifics of what he has planned beyond that were kept close to his chest. Like the chairman, Riga emphasised that he does not want to rush into anything, although is aware of the size of the challenge facing him. So what is that challenge, and what must he attend to first?

The Seaside Six

Riga inherits a slender squad, with only six players signed to professional contracts as things stand: Steven Davies, David Perkins, Tom Barkhuizen, Gary MacKenzie, Bobby Grant and Charles Dunne. If the quantity (or lack thereof) wasn’t concern enough, then the quality of this small group of players also raises questions. Dunne and Grant are both young, but have little to no experience above League Two and League One respectively. Injuries also blighted their season, so a good build-up in the coming months will be essential if they are to have any chance of proving themselves at Championship level.

It was a testing past 12 months for MacKenzie, who started the season well enough while Blackpool’s gameplan was to sit deep and soak up pressure, but whose many shortcomings were exposed as the season wore on. MacKenzie has one more year on his current deal in which he can redeem himself, but big doubts remain over his pace, positioning and on-the-ball ability. A significant improvement will be needed if he is to cement a place in the heart of a defence that has any chance of surviving the 2014/15 season.

Davies swiftly became a target for criticism among a sizeable section of the ‘Pool support and it will be a season the former Bristol City man will be eager to put behind him. A goal on the opening day at Doncaster gave early hope, but he added only two more to his tally for the rest of the season. Injuries also limited Davies’ playing time, restricting him to 28 appearances in a team in which he struggled to find his place. Davies’ past record in the second tier suggests he can still be a useful player for the Seasiders, but unless he hits the ground running there will be little respite from the terraces.

Local roots will provide Barkhuizen with a little more leeway and patience, but this is a big year for the young forward. In a team starved of attacking impetus last season, Barkhuizen did at times provide exciting glimpses to give hope for his future. Sentimentality and talk of potential can only go so far however, and this season is make or break for his Blackpool career. In stark contrast, ex-Barnsley midfielder Perkins is the one player most fans will have most confidence in of the six players remaining. His energy and enthusiasm is infectious and was certainly refreshing in a team that spent much of the second half of last season sleepwalking to relegation. One does feel though that Perkins must be surrounded by midfielders with genuine on-the-ball quality, as workrate alone will not see Blackpool progress from last season.

Budgeting for success

Having only six contracted players is obviously worrying, but at the same time it does provide Riga with a near clean slate from which to build his squad. With very little deadwood on the books, Riga has the opportunity to craft a squad to suit his ideology. Of course, there are two major caveats to this, the first being the limited amount of time he has to accomplish this task. In order to have a squad of 22 in place for the opening game of the season on 9th August, Blackpool must sign a player every 3.69 days. In terms of preparing for pre-season, the time limits are event stricter.

The second caveat is money, and the budget that Riga has at his disposal will be a key factor. Despite Karl Oyston’s protestations recently in the Blackpool Gazette that “money isn’t everything”, the bare fact is that money and success are inextricably linked in football. Countless studies have shown time and time again that there is a strong positive correlation between wages and points gained. Yes there are exceptions to this general rule, but the odds are stacked against the teams that spend less.

So what will Blackpool’s wage bill be in 2014/15 season? Looking at recent figures is likely to provide the best guide and in 2012/13 the football-related wage bill weighed in at £9.6m. 2013/14 figures have not yet been published, but Karl Oyston is on record as saying the wage bill for last season was a third higher than in our 2009/10 promotion season. The pre-bonus wage bill that season was £6.8m, which would mean that the 2013/14 salaries would total £9.04m. As a starting figure then, it’s reasonable to assume the 2014/15 budget will be something in the region of £9m.

Looking at clubs who have operated a sub-£10m wage bill in the Championship during the last three seasons shows the size of the challenge.

sub10mwages

With no official figures released for 2013/14, we cannot be certain which clubs had a sub-£10m wage bill, but those listed are the ones who possibly operated under that threshold based on historical data. Not one club operating on a wage bill below £10m has finished in the top half in the last three seasons and, Blackpool aside in 2012/13, all have finished 18th or lower. Blackpool’s 15th place finish two seasons ago also involved a gap of just five points to the relegation zone.

How well money is spent is also key, but realistically there is a glass ceiling to what you can achieve on a relatively small budget. Karl Oyston has said that 15% of the 2014/15 budget has been accounted for with the existing six players, although it’s unclear if transfer fees are included within this budget, or solely wages. Nonetheless, it does provide the new manager with a more or less blank canvas.

Youngsters

Three players who could become quick additions to the squad are Harrison McGahey, Connor Hunt and Mark Waddington who have come through the club’s own youth system and been offered professional terms. As yet, there have been no announcements to state that any of these contracts have been signed, although Waddington does at least have one more year on scholar terms given he is a year younger.

Obtaining a signature from McGahey should be an early priority for the incoming manager as the young centre back showed enormous potential in his end of season displays, when he deputised for the injured Kirk Broadfoot and MacKenzie. It’s common knowledge that terms offered to first year professionals have not been particularly enticing down the years, but as someone who has already displayed an ability to feature in the first team, McGahey should be rewarded with an improved deal to keep him at the club.

In the balance

Blackpool chose to release a large number of players when disclosing the end of season retained list, but did talk of wanting to discuss new contracts with eight players: Chris Basham, Neal Bishop, Craig Cathcart, Ricardo Fuller, Matt Gilks, Angel Martinez, Tony McMahon and Isaiah Osbourne. Of the eight, only Basham has found a new club so far by dropping a division to sign for Sheffield United, although it is believed Cathcart could be set to also cross the Pennines to join Huddersfield or pen a deal at Watford.

Of the remaining six, Matt Gilks would obviously be the most crucial one to retain, although is sure to attract interest from elsewhere. The others, on the right terms, could be useful to have around the squad and help maintain some semblance of continuity, but how many Riga will aim to keep is unknown. A completely fresh start by passing up on the majority of these players may sound appealing, but such a large turnover would be an incredible gamble and require very quick gelling of almost entirely new faces.

Fresh targets

What of those new faces then? Even if some of the out of contract players do return, the squad will still need a large number of additions and this is Riga’s objective in the coming weeks and months. Indeed, Paul Ince faced a similar predicament 12 months ago and went into pre-season with very few new signings and a whole host of sub-standard trialists.

According to the Gazette, a list of up to 50 players has been presented by Riga and the club must now swing into action to make deals happen as quickly as possible. With pre-season less than three weeks away it will require a lot of diligent work to just get to a point where a 7-a-side match is possible on the first day at Squires Gate and the club cannot afford to dither in the transfer market.

In terms of the type of players being targeted, it is hard to anticipate. One imagines Riga would have been drawing up a list of players to bring in at Charlton had he been kept on there, and those same players may be suitable for Blackpool given the fairly similar budgets of both clubs. It’s also pretty likely Riga will be looking overseas, certainly more so than any British manager would, and looking abroad may be a way to secure undervalued players in the market.

Ian Holloway, Michael Appleton and Paul Ince all inherited some players who were on contracts far below what their true market value would have been, but Riga does not have that luxury. In order to make Blackpool competitive on a sub-£10m budget, he’s going to have to find value-for-money himself, and it is to be hoped he either has the existing network to source those players, or will be given support by the club to achieve this.

Changing the overall ethos

Following the mess of the last two seasons, Karl Oyston has been keen to outline that the club will be taking a fresh approach, openly admitting that he has perhaps become complacent or sloppy in his running of the club. In the eyes of many, that will be an understatement, but giving the benefit of the doubt for a moment, what is this new approach? In appointing a foreign coach for the first time in the club’s history, it suggests a shift to a more European model, backed up by a quote given to the Gazette:

“I think there’s a different culture from European managers which clubs over here need to buy into. Right from the top to bottom of our club, it’s time we caught up and I hope Jose can assist this.”

But what specifically about the European approach does Oyston like? He doesn’t specify. What exactly constitutes the new approach? Well, a different approach to training and player recruitment have been mentioned, but how will training be different and how will player recruitment be different? No details. For all the talk of a fresh approach, the explanations so far have been a bit woolly and filled with weasel words.

What would truly be energising would be for the chairman to spell out his objectives. What does he want to achieve this season, in the next three seasons, both on and off the pitch? And on the European approach, does this mean we will be following virtually every continental club and appointing a Sporting Director or Director of Football to handle recruitment? So far we have no idea if this will be the case.

Karl Oyston capped off his latest interview with Radio Lancashire by encouraging fans to buy season tickets, because the early bird deal offers great value and the deadline is fast approaching. He went on to warn fans that buying later will be more expensive for anybody “jumping on the bandwagon”. It’s at this point Oyston could learn a thing or two about togetherness from his new manager, and instead of trying to antagonise and divide his customer base by attempting to issue an ultimatum, he could open up.

Oyston was explicit in stating there was no rush to appoint a manager, but by the same token why should fans be forced into the same rush to buy a season ticket? The managerial appointment alone will not be enough to convince some fans to commit, and if Riga seeks to take some time over his signings, the early bird deadline could be extended to give fans more time to see what the club’s new approach entails and willingly buy in if suitably impressed.

That some fans have still not been completely swayed by a price of £195.30 for a season ticket should send a message that change is a must. Oyston is attempting to talk a good game on that front, but such is his history for not translating words into action, allowing extra time for some of these changes to become tangible is the least the club can and should do.

Into the unknown

All in all, it’s a journey into the unknown for Blackpool in the coming season. The decision not to go for just another face off the managerial merry-go-round is a brave one. Riga comes from an interesting background and his brief time in English football earned him near universal praise from the Charlton fans. In isolation, the appointment of Riga gives rise to optimism and his opening interviews paint the picture of an intelligent and likeable figure.

It doesn’t mean that it isn’t a gamble however, and while any appointment carries risk, Riga’s relative inexperience in operating in this country perhaps increases the size of the gamble. The new manager has spoke of requiring support from Karl Oyston, and what form that support takes will be crucial. Every Blackpool fan wants to see a new leaf being turned, but let’s not break out the bunting just yet.

It’s a new era at Bloomfield Road and it’s important that lessons have been learned from past mistakes. The next month and a half will be a good indicator of whether that’s the case. José Riga is stepping into a challenging position, but let’s wish him luck and hope that both the club and the supporters can provide the togetherness he has requested.

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