In front of over 15,000 home fans, the Seasiders earned a point at home to Southend United courtesy of a 96th minute own goal. Here are my thoughts on the game.
1. Learning all over again
There was never any doubt that I would reawaken Measured Progress from its deep slumber to do a write up on the first home game post-Oyston, but what exactly I’d write about was less clear. Thinking about it in the week prior to the game, would I just casually slip back into normality and write only about the football? Or would I not cover what happens on the pitch at all and focus on the larger meaning of the occasion? Ultimately, I decided to let the day take its course and see how I felt afterwards.
What’s the verdict, then? Well, one helpful piece of knowledge when writing about a football match is being able to identify the players and as proceedings got underway, it quickly became clear I was lacking in this area. Like thousands of others, my last visit to Bloomfield Road was for the Huddersfield game in May 2015, and it’s been almost as long since an away game too. Having not derived any pleasure from early away games under Neil McDonald in August 2015 – Colchester and Sheffield United – my personal decision was to stay away completely until the situation was resolved.
Clearly there have been televised games in the interim, but such was my disinterest in the club I’d not even seen much of those either. Of Saturday’s starting XI, the only players I’d seen in tangerine before were Mark Howard and Nathan Delfouneso from their previous spell, or in the latter’s case several spells. Attempting to decipher a formation or team gameplan while simultaneously getting used to who the players are is far from simple, especially when just trying to enjoy the day and soak up the atmosphere as well.
2. Initial thoughts
So, all that said, there are some notable observations to be made, albeit with the major caveat of basing an opinion on just 90 minutes of football. Those of you who have seen more of this team than I will no doubt have differing thoughts, but disagreeing about these things is just one example of something we can now savour, having sacrificed that privilege for far too long.
Beginning with the keeper, Howard was much less assured than I remember from his loan stint back in the 2011/12 season. Admittedly not helped by the woeful playing surface and on one occasion a horror backpass from the disappointing Ollie Turton, Howard’s distribution could have been a lot better.
In a more positive light, the two centre backs demonstrated strong characteristics with Ben Heneghan’s aerial dominance impressive and Curtis Tilt looking confident on the ball. That said, Tilt will not want to watch the opening goal back too many times, having lost his man too easily from the corner. Conceding from a second corner shortly after half time was rather feeble too from a defensive perspective.
In more forward areas, it’s a bit of a mixed bag too. Everyone knows by this point what an enigma Delfouneso can be, but he had a decent day at the office and certainly second half had the beating of his man, even if the end product wasn’t quite there. On the other flank Liam Feeney’s lack of a natural left foot does him no favours, but he still showed flashes of quality every now and again. Up top, Armand Gnanduillet is a law unto himself. The goal he scored was well taken, but other than that he appears a frustrating player and you suspect this ‘Pool team will need an upgrade if they want to challenge at the top of League One, be it this season or next.
Where the team really seems to lack a presence, however, is in the middle of the pitch. Nobody looks to have the composure to really put their foot on the ball and boss a game, although yet again the pitch is hardly conducive to such an approach. Jay Spearing would want to be that man, but whether he can take on that talismanic role was not obvious to me based on this game alone. The other midfield options looked neat and tidy in spells but just like the rest of this team, we will learn more about them upon repeated viewings.
3. The buzz is back
Having mentioned my rather distant relationship with the club in recent times, one worry was that even if a return was made possible, that emotional bond might not be rekindled. Even up until Tuesday my excitement was still limited. I’d taken the decision not to go to Accrington as I wanted to hold out until this weekend, but when I saw footage of Spearing’s penalty hitting the back of the net in front of the travelling support, it was the first real fist pump and audible “Yes!” for quite some time.
By 1pm on Saturday, I was definitely ready, even if my emotions weren’t. The march from the tower was truly cathartic, greeting old friends along the route and loving every minute of it. Every club has its own unique selling points, but a sea of tangerine descending on Bloomfield Road via a windswept promenade against the backdrop of crashing waves is hard to rival.
Once inside the ground, the mood continued to be one of disbelief at finally achieving our communal goal and joy that the day was here and we were living it. Everyone inside Bloomfield Road seemed to bump into at least one long lost acquaintance or friend, with handshakes and hugs aplenty. Packed out home ends and a boisterous noisy atmosphere was just what the occasion deserved and truly signifies that Blackpool are indeed back. For those like me, wondering if the buzz might be gone forever, the last minute equaliser answered that question with a definitive ‘no’.
It was as if we’d never been away and I’m certainly not going to be puritanical enough to whinge about some taking their euphoria on to the playing area. We can all agree that it probably wasn’t wise, but we should be generous enough to chalk it up to the emotion of the day. It’s not something I expect we are likely to see repeated, and pitch invasions elsewhere this weekend should be a stark reminder how it could be much, much worse.
So for me, the buzz is back and clearly for many others too. Indeed, my 88 year old Grandad, a two-time FA Cup Final attendee (’48 and ’53) and long-time season ticket holder until declining health and mobility took its toll is eager to attend another match, having not been for at least five years. That he has a chance to visit Bloomfield Road again, when sadly so many never got that opportunity, is not to be underestimated. We are mighty again.
4. Where next?
Speaking with old friends in the pub after the game, everyone was all too aware that Saturday was just the beginning. The amount of work that needs to take place to get this club back to being anywhere near to its potential is vast. There is a long list of items that needs to be worked through, and that is the mammoth (not woolly!) task that faces the interim board and any new owners.
The football on the pitch being of the highest quality possible is the ultimate goal, but to deliver in that area in a sustainable way requires a whole host of peripheral issues to be addressed. There are the things that affect the playing squad in a more direct way, such as the training ground. Then there are things that indirectly affect it, such as coming up with ways to increase the revenue to allow for a larger playing budget. And then the more intangible stuff, like community outreach or how the stadium can be modified to get more use out of it commercially, but also the question of the East stand.
All of this will need prioritising, planning and budgets being allocated accordingly. Doing so while still trying to field a competitive team is no minor challenge and therefore will require patience and understanding, but most importantly of all our support. If the last 18 months have been a long grind, then the next 18 months should give us a chance to direct our energy in a more positive way.
We all know that the crowd will be much lower against Doncaster – likely in the 6,000-8,000 range – but Saturday highlighted the potential our club has if the stars align. I’m excited to write about what the future holds, and even if there are bumps along the road, with Blackpool we wouldn’t have it any other way.