Blackpool suffered their first opening day defeat since 2008 and their first loss at the City Ground since 1977 going down 2-0 against Nottingham Forest. Here are my thoughts on the game…
1. Four substitutes
Four substitutes. Four. Only four substitutes. It takes quite some processing, that. The chaos of pre-season hasn’t exactly been a secret at Bloomfield Road this summer, but over the course of the last week or so, it had seemed that the extent of the crisis had eased. From a lowly eight players, the squad size rapidly expanded to 20 and it seemed that not only would Blackpool have no issues fielding a starting XI, they would also fill out a full 18 man squad.
However, this being Blackpool, we should have known it was never going to be so straightforward. A variety of injuries – to Bobby Grant, Steve Davies, Gary MacKenzie, Tom Barkhuizen – reduced numbers to 16, and then player registration issues meant that José Miguel Cubero, Joan Oriol and Ishmael Miller all had to sit out too. That left ‘Pool with just 13 senior players – two of those goalkeepers – and two youth team players in their matchday squad.
Indeed, in his post-match interview José Riga admitted that at one point on the morning of the game just nine players were correctly registered. How can something like this happen at any professional football club, let alone one in the second tier benefitting from the financial rewards of Premier League parachute payments? A serious review of internal procedures must follow this latest farce but one feels this underlines the impact of the loss of former club secretary Matt Williams who departed for the CEO role at Shrewsbury Town at the end of last season.
With the four subs that were available, none of them really provided the manager with any viable options to change the course of the game. Charles Dunne’s Blackpool career looks like it may be over before it’s even begun, as despite being the only left-back available for selection, Riga opted to deploy David Perkins out of position; hardly much of a confidence boost for the former Wycombe player.
Meanwhile second year scholars Mark Waddington and Dom Telford, as impressive as they reportedly were for last season’s successful youth team, can’t be expected to be thrown into such a messy situation and have a significant impact. So Riga pretty much had to go with the 11 that started the game and hope for the best. A 2-0 scoreline against this kind of backdrop is better than what most people had feared would happen.
2. Snap judgements
In the match review of last season’s opener at Doncaster, which Blackpool won 3-1, I used a baseball analogy to stress the importance of not attaching too much value to one result. This is the case at the start of any season – just look at Huddersfield Town for a team breaking this golden rule – but it applies even more with the difficult circumstances affecting the Seasiders going into this season. With that caveat out of the way then, the observations from yesterday are snap judgements at best.
As well as keeping the scoreline to a minimum with a hard-working shift, there were a few other positives to take from the performance. In midfield, Jacob Mellis, John Lundstram and Tomasz Cywka all showed flashes of their ability. All three look capable on the ball, seem to have good vision and look to move the ball quickly on the floor. Joe Lewis also appeared to be a dependable goalkeeper dealing well with any crosses that came his way. The goals gave Lewis little chance, although his kicking did let him down a little on occasion.
On the flip side, there were a couple of causes for concern. Andrea Orlandi and Nathan Delfouneso were quite subdued and failed to hit the target with the visitors’ best two opportunities of the game. Sergei Zenjov struggled for fitness with fatigue starting to show as early as the half hour mark, but with a lack of pre-season minutes in the legs, it’s surprising he was the only one to look noticeably unfit. However, Riga was astute in spotting that Zenjov was tiring, and with few options on the bench, switched Zenjov inside and moved Mellis out wide right so that Tony McMahon was offered a little more protection down the flank.
But as I say, it’s still early days. Those who played well today could prove to be garbage, and those who were poor could be world beaters. We’ll learn more as we go and that’s the pity of the situation. Blackpool are still a considerable way from being ready for this league season, both in terms of numbers and fitness. By the time those come, and in the case of the former you also need it to be matched with quality, it’s to be hoped the club aren’t too far behind the rest of the pack.
3. Forest take it easy
While there was a danger of the floodgates opening when Nottingham Forest broke the deadlock with a debut goal for Michail Antonio, Blackpool were probably content to limit the damage to just a two goal defeat. However, it must be said that at 2-0, the home side’s tempo dropped considerably. Forest seemed happy to conserve energy and one always had the feeling that they could possibly step up another gear (or two, or three) if required.
On the back of yesterday’s performance, it’s hard to tell if they’ll be challengers come the end of the season. Some will look to write them off for failing to really put ‘Pool to the sword, while the counter-argument is that the hard work had been done and dusted within half an hour and there was little incentive to needlessly break a sweat in the sunny conditions. Forest did boast good width and impressed down both flanks, although partially helped by facing a makeshift left-back and a right-back who had little cover ahead of him in the opening 45 minutes.
It’s also worth giving Blackpool credit, as even a Forest side in cruise control offered the occasional threat which the visiting side had to work hard to repel. It was interesting to note that as soon as the second goal went in, Riga called over Peter Clarke to the touchline to issue his instructions, rather than captain McMahon. Was it a case of convenience with McMahon on the far side of the pitch, or an indication of Clarke’s leadership skills which may see him take over the armband as the season progresses?
4. Moving on
It was an opening day defeat, but the damage was kept to a minimum and Blackpool got through it relatively unscathed considering the circumstances…or did they? It was pleasing to see the team work as hard as they did to keep the score down, and this was obviously appreciated by the supportive fans who were at the City Ground, but what are the consequences of such an energy-sapping perfomance?
Blackpool only used one of their three permitted substitutions, with the late introduction of Dom Telford for the exhausted Zenjov, and one imagines that there will be some very tired legs in the aftermath of the 2-0 defeat. The Seasiders now face a punishing schedule in the next couple of weeks playing Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday; four games in the next 13 days.
Most of the XI that played in the season opener will be required in the majority of these games, and as things stand it’s unclear exactly when much-needed reinforcements will arrive and be correctly registered to play. The longer-term impact of yesterday’s efforts could result in a difficult couple of weeks for Blackpool and Riga may wonder if he should have taken advantage of his two remaining substitutions to rest legs, even if it had meant a slightly heavier defeat.
So, it was a day that could have been much, much worse, and some hope for the season can be seen if one looks hard enough. However, the size of the task and the internal battles that Riga and his team face have never been more visible. One down, 45 to go.