In Conversation – 2014/15 Season Preview

It’s finally time for the football to do the talking with the 2014/15 season only 24 hours away. With the return of Measured Progress’ ‘In Conversation’ feature, John Kane and Chris Walker discuss a summer of upheaval at Bloomfield Road and what it may mean for Blackpool’s Championship prospects in the forthcoming campaign…


CW: So…here we are again. Only 12 months ago we were discussing a rather troubled pre-season but it seems lessons haven’t been learned and it’s been even more disastrous this time around. Such is the mess that it’s hard to know where to start to analyse what’s gone on, but perhaps the best place is with the decision to part ways with Barry Ferguson. What were your thoughts on that?

JK: I don’t blame Ferguson for effectively ‘getting out’. He knew how the club operates and had developed a good understanding of what needed (still needs) to be done at the club. I couldn’t really make my mind up about his managerial ability. Clearly learning on the job is suited to certain characters and I think he’s able to do that, but not at a dysfunctional club like Blackpool.

All in all I think it’s a good move for all parties. Blackpool now have a manager with more experience and Ferguson has a ‘cleaner’ opportunity to develop as a manager. I think taking the manager job at Blackpool might have caused both parties damage. What do you think about his departure?

CW: It’s a tricky one. I was really willing him to succeed but we’re all aware how awful the second half of last season was. Pinning too much of the blame at his door for that would be wrong, because he clearly inherited a complete mess, yet at the same time many of his decisions appeared strange from the outside looking in; the sudden appearance of Louis Almond against Burnley perhaps the most bizarre of all.

I think he can be a success in calmer waters, and Clyde is a better starting point for him. I’d agree that we needed a fresh start, and Ferguson didn’t need to risk his future career by staying. Moving onto the players, a large number exited the club but it wasn’t surprising to see many of them go. Which departures do you think are most notable?

JK: First and foremost Matt Gilks. Quite simply he is an outstanding goalkeeper, consistent and capable of making saves of genuine quality. I fully expect him to make the number one spot at Burnley his own. In addition to his playing ability we also lost a real character behind the scenes and obviously a last real link to the ‘glory’ days. I know that some fans liked to have a go at Gilks for the odd thing or two, but given he was at the club for six seasons I couldn’t give you a list of five critical errors he made during that time.

I’m a little disappointed about Angel Martinez leaving, he certainly cares for the club, but he needs to be played in a very specific way which isn’t always ideal and I suspect he doesn’t perform brilliantly in training. The latter arguably being the main reason for not being a regular pick as most managers believe in the mantra of ‘train well, play well’, even if that might be a load of nonsense. Of the other players I’m not too concerned about those that we lost, the real talent drain occurred last summer for me. Do you think we lost players this summer that we should have kept?

CW: There were very few that I was disappointed to see go, including Angel to be honest. For all his charm, he hasn’t produced in the last two seasons despite being excellent in the near-miss play-off campaign of 2011/12. However, despite not being too bothered to lose the bulk of the players that departed, there’s an argument that we should have kept some of them unless we replace them with better. The jury’s out on that so far, which we’ll come to later.

The big frustration for me though was Harrison McGahey being allowed to slip through our fingers. He was obviously still raw, but you have to wonder what’s the point of a youth system if you don’t even try to nurture the rare talents that display some level of promise. What did you make of the McGahey saga?

JK: I think it looks very confusing from the outside, I’m not sure what was going on from a contractual standpoint. On one hand it looks like we’ve not understood the value of youth development, on the other it might be that those close to the player (in terms of his development i.e. coaches) didn’t see value in keeping him.

To be fair I saw him play for Sheffield United at the weekend (vs. York) and it confirmed to me what I saw from him at the end of the season. A young player lacking some basics and a lot of development ahead of him, not a first team Championship player. Personally, I wouldn’t have kept him on. I think the next breakthrough from the youth set up will be interesting. What do you think?

CW: That’s one way of looking at it, but for me the money it would have been taken to keep on McGahey and try and develop him would surely have been less than what we’re spending on West Brom loanee Donervon Daniels and it will be them and not us who will be the beneficiaries of any improvements in his game. I’d liked to have seen McGahey at least kept within the club and maybe loaned out if necessary, but if it’s Riga’s choice then so be it, although my view is it’s short-sighted.

There’s not many other youth players right now who look on the verge of breaking through, but someone like Mark Waddington or Henry Cameron might get a chance if injuries take hold on our small squad. As for the seven professional players that do remain from last season, it’s not a great bunch, is it?

JK: Totally agree with that statement. David Perkins and Tony McMahon are both solid players, but the rest (Charles Dunne aside) shows where we’ve been in the last year or so. Poor players, poorly recruited. Both Gary MacKenzie and Steve Davies have always looked very sluggish and unfit and it’s hard to see them stay at the club beyond Christmas.

Tom Barkhuizen has good raw pace and as we saw at Bolton, the ability to score from distance. However, he lacks the technical ability to really make a step up to become a regular first team player. Although I’m saying that, I have no real idea of what level the club aspires to. How do you see the remaining batch of players?

CW: At best unspectacular, and at worst relegation-worthy. We don’t know much about Dunne, but it’s a huge step up for him especially on the back of an injury-ravaged year. I agree with your analysis of Barkhuizen and the same probably applies to Bobby Grant; both will find it hard to make it at this level. Perkins and McMahon will put themselves about, but they’re more the filler around which you would put more talented players and we’ll be in trouble if they’re expected to carry the side.

I can still see a flicker of talent in Davies, but I just don’t see it working out for him here sadly. As for MacKenzie, he’s a write off. He’s simply not up to this level and hopefully Riga sends him on his way soon. Looking at the new arrivals, there appears to be an eclectic mix of styles being brought in. Which of these fascinate you the most?

JK: I’m a sucker for a full back, so Joan Oriol intrigues me greatly. I don’t see a middle ground with him right now, like a few of these signings, it could be sink or swim. Apart from that Jacob Mellis is the stand out for me. Everytime he played against us for Barnsley he impressed with his passing and creativity. I’m surprised it has taken this long for him to get to us, his sacking from Chelsea was a classic Oyston signing scenario. I’ve got a feeling you might be interested in what José Miguel Cubero will bring to the table. Would I be right, Chris?

CW: Most definitely. What I can’t understand is how he’s ended up at Bloomfield Road just weeks after playing in a World Cup quarter-final. In the midst of all our chaos, how can we recruit someone like that? He comes with a good reputation as a holding midfielder and perhaps could be someone who anchors the midfield. What we mustn’t do though is put too much expectation on him. None of us truthfully know anything about him, or the Costa Rican league from whence he’s come. I’d agree with your ‘sink or swim’ theory; we just don’t know how these players from overseas will adapt.

Similarly, Sergei Zenjov looks to have made a decent career for himself in Ukraine, but will his form (and goals) translate to the Championship? It’s so hard to tell, but this might explain why we look to have swung to the other extreme with the more ‘known quantities’ we’ve brought in. What do you make of the returns of Peter Clarke and Nathan Delfouneso to Blackpool?

JK: Delfouneso I like as an individual, tidy, technically competent, however, I’ve not seen him make a position his own during the spells he has had with us. There were a few games when he appeared to relish playing as a wide left forward in a front three, however, as with lots of Blackpool players over the past couple of season, the side has never settled really in personnel or shape.

I don’t mind seeing Clarke return, he’s an improvement on MacKenzie and I think he’s a leader, which MacKenzie really isn’t. Given we’ve apparently changed our recruitment approach this season to become more diligent then I’ll trust Riga that he’s brought him in for specific reasons. What do you think about Clarke’s return?

CW: I think I’m a little less enamoured with it than you, putting it kindly. Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of Clarke the first time around and he was one of the few bright sparks in the dark days of Colin Hendry’s tenure; I’ll never forget his last-gasp equaliser at Brentford as a makeshift striker which helped keep us up that year, for instance. However, it’s clear his best days are behind him and he’s struggled badly whenever I’ve seen him for Huddersfield in recent years.

As you say, his leadership qualities are a good attribute, but that alone won’t save him and I do worry if we’re going to be relying on him in the centre of defence week-in, week-out. For me this is a case of ‘never go back’ and it’d be a shame if his previous spell was diminished if he performs poorly this time around. The two young Premier League loanees are interesting though, John Lundstram from Everton on a season-long deal and Donervon Daniels from West Brom on a short-term loan. Do you know much about either of these two?

JK: Virtually nothing to be honest. I’d like to think that our new ‘diligent’ approach has lead to us watching back as many of their loan appearances as possible so that we have an understanding of who they are. As loan deals strike me they aren’t the type of player on the verge of a breakthrough at their parent club, so I don’t think we are acting as a finishing school with these two. I do get a feeling that we’ve gone a little Phil Brown on recruitment and ended up ‘getting bodies in’. However, contradicting myself a little (a lot) the signings of Tomasz Cywka, Joe Lewis and Ishmael Miller look interesting. What are your thoughts on those?

CW: Lewis seems a fairly solid one in my book. He’s regarded by Peterborough fans I’ve spoken to as their best keeper in the past 15-20 years, but with David Marshall ahead of him in the pecking order at Cardiff he never really got a chance. Cywka has ability, but the fact he didn’t establish himself as a regular in Barnsley’s midfield doesn’t bode all that well.

As for Miller, he proved last year he can still get goals at this level while on loan at Yeovil, but the off-field issues that led to his time in Somerset being curtailed is a concern. Then again, at Blackpool we specialise in ‘damaged goods’ so to speak, and without those problems we probably wouldn’t be signing him. We obviously still need more players, but what areas of the pitch need the most attention in your view?

JK: I’m not sure we have attacking width to vary the point of attack and nor do I think we have a centre back of sufficient quality (there’s a bloke at Chesterfield who could do a job). Assuming creative duties sit with Mellis and possibly Cywka, it’s a little lightweight there. What am I saying. We have holes everywhere still. Depth is lacking all over. Our earlier discussions about the residual players show that even when we had eight players on the books, effectively we had about one. Where would you place your attention in terms of final stages of recruitment?

CW: You’re right, it needs attention everywhere. As the bare minimum I’d agree it’s width in midfield and at centre back where we look weakest, but all over the pitch there are question marks. It says a lot about our team that virtually every player we’ve discussed comes with a caveat of sorts, so ideally we still need another five to 10 players, and people who can come in and impact the first team, not just make up the numbers with ‘bodies’ as you alluded to earlier. It’s alright having a few wildcards if you’ve got a settled squad which they can complement, but in our case we need almost all of the so-called gambles to come off. It’s a high risk strategy and I think we’re in agreement that the manager faces a daunting task. What are your first impressions of Riga?

JK: I’ll be honest I don’t think he’s a good fit for the club. That’s not saying I don’t think he’s good. He’s clearly got a good background in skills and player development, plus he was pretty good at Charlton last season. The way they played us on the counter on the last game of the season was impressive. I really like his media silence on many levels, on one hand press conferences are a nuisance and oxygen for Sky Sports News, but on the other hand we don’t know much about him. You can tackle the stand off from either a talk or not talk angle. Talk and spout off and you’re wasting energy. Talking to placate the situation is a waste of time. Personally, not talking is a sensible play.

However, the ideal managerial fit for a Blackpool manager experienced (seen it done it type) and extremely desperate (failed recently and wants to prove a point and will eat shit to get things done) so I don’t see him lasting. Riga is experienced, but far from desperate. However, Miller’s words about him suggest he’s impressing players, which can only be good. Hopefully, he’s a draw (like Holloway) and players will sign for us to work with him which is critical. How do you read Riga’s start in his post?

CW: He certainly seems set on doing things his own way, which I admire. For the most part I’d agree that a dignified silence is a good way to play it, but at the same time I am now quite interested in understanding what vision he has for the club, much in the same way Ian Holloway set out his agenda not long after his appointment five years ago. However, he may argue that with a squad in total flux he’s not able to tell us what his approach will be; he can hardly tell us how we’re going to play if he barely knows who is going to play.

From the signings so far, I’d say he’s probably secured a few of his preferred targets from overseas but then had to settle for the better of the British-based trialists thrown at him by the chairman in order to reach a compromise and break the stand-off. As for whether he’s a poor fit, time will tell. The ultimate test would be a poor start, Riga demanding the reinforcements he needs, but being blocked in spending the necessary money by the chairman. Do you think Riga will fail to see out the season?

JK: Yes I do. If he continues failing to get the players he wants, then that will increase the tension, potentially degrade performances and he’ll walk. Alternatively he might get this band of brothers bonded and playing well, then I think he’d be approached and leave. I just can’t see a scenario where he lasts. Do you think I’m being overly closed minded about that? Is there another scenario I’m missing?

CW: Well it’s hardly promising that a chairman and manager at the start of their working relationship are already having such difficulties, but then if they can ride this out maybe they will be all the stronger for it? It all depends on how we start, I believe. A sluggish start – and this is likely given our preparation – and the Riga-Oyston relationship could further deteriorate quickly as everyone is already so on edge that the pressure will mount in a very short space of time. A good start to the season is wishful thinking based on how few warm-up games we’ve had, isn’t it?

JK: Totally. The warm up games were futile. Technically our first friendly is on Saturday against Forest. This is totally unacceptable from a professional club where people are paid money to deliver a service to a standard of quality. However, I’m not sure Blackpool have a pre-defined notion of service quality. It appears that the party line is to write off the first five or six games and because it’s a 46 game season then we have plenty of time to ensure survival. Firstly, no. secondly, no. That’s frustrating from my perspective. Can you see any sense in that party line?

CW: No, not at all. This is where Karl Oyston gives off the air of just being completely out of touch with reality and to think that signing players this late in the day without any preparation won’t adversely affect us is just pie-in-the-sky. His argument appears to be quite clearly that leaving recruitment this late not only saves us a month or two’s wages, but also means we pay less as players get more desperate as the season draws close and drop their weekly demands.

It’s another prime example of him knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing, or penny wise pound foolish to adopt another cliché. However, if we do manage to stay up on what will surely be one of the lowest budgets in the division again, the chairman will feel justified in his approach. Not the stuff of ambition, but he will genuinely feel it’s a mark of success and validates “the unique way in which we do things”. Taking all of what we’ve discussed into account, what do you make of our prospects, both for the season and more short-term with the trip to Nottingham Forest?

JK: Both my gut and my head say that we will drop. I just don’t think this approach will lead to performances of sufficient quality that can sustain themselves over a whole season. Something somewhere will go badly awry like last season. It’s how quickly we turn around that slump that will give us a chance of staying in the league. I wouldn’t be surprised having said all that if we pinch a point off Forest on Saturday. They’ve had a fair bit of chaos themselves, plus Stuart Pearce (to date) has fallen very short in the managerial world. We will play them on the counter, which will stress our centre backs, but if we can connect going forward we might hurt them occasionally. Essentially what I’m saying is that new players might positively impact performances early on and then we will tail off (in a bad way). Sound familiar?

CW: It does ring a bell now you come to mention it. All logic certainly points to a long and tortuous relegation battle. We saw last season that once you get into a rut, it can take a very long time to turn the tanker around. I’m yet to be convinced we’ve got either the quantity or quality of players to survive, especially when the bottom end of the Championship looks stronger than last season – it’s hard to imagine there being three sides as poor as Yeovil, Barnsley and Doncaster to save us this time around.

I’m not sure I can share your optimism of a point on the opening day either. In comparison to us, Forest’s problems are miniscule and Pearce is such a cult hero in those parts, as hard as it is for outsiders to appreciate that, that I feel the atmosphere and energy in the City Ground alone could be too much to bear. If we concede an early goal, I really fear we could take a bit of a pummelling. After that we’ve got a tough couple of weeks packed with fixtures which could take its toll on our under-cooked squad. The one hope I have is Riga, but placing too much expectation on him would be unfair. I’m pretty worried about it all, to be honest. Up the ‘Pool, eh?

JK: Yeah…up the ‘Pool!