'That' week sparks top six dreams
By Paddy Feeney
The date is October 29th, the final whistle has just blown at Turf Moor to finally end the misery of a poor derby day display by Blackpool. Message boards are set to go into overdrive as hundreds of fans start the post-mortem on what is undoubtedly one of the worst displays of Ian Holloway`s spell as Blackpool manager. Supporters criticise the manager, the formation, the players, anything they can think of to try and explain what went wrong.
ast forward seven days, and the mood is a whole lot lighter, the fans are a lot happier, and things are looking a whole lot better. A midweek mauling of Leeds on their own patch, followed by a solid display and result against in-form Millwall, and the Seasiders are back in the top six, and looking like the side that was predicted when they came down. Fans suddenly are a lot happier, delighted to point out where things went well, though some will never be satisfied.
The question that fans need to ponder is what Blackpool can realistically aim for this season. There were fans who said at the start of the season, somewhat naively, that Blackpool would automatically walk towards the top end of the table. Most of the squad that took them up was still intact, the spine of the side such as Ian Evatt, Keith Southern and Gary Taylor-Fletcher had been added to, with the likes of Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips adding experience to an already maturing side. Tom Ince and Matt Phillips brought youthful vigour and excitement to the side, adding squad depth and quality out wide, and Billy Clarke returned to first team action after his encouraging pre-season.
Others said Blackpool should be delighted with a top half finish. The lack of investment in quality, as player after player slipped through Pool`s grasp due to the inability to match other clubs for wages, despite the huge windfall courtesy of the Premiership parachute payments, leaving Holloway to work on free transfers and lower league grafters, such as Miguel Angel Llera and Bojan Djordjic. Rumours of player fallouts in the build-up to the opening game away at Hull, Neal Eardley`s supposed contract dispute, cannot have helped the preparation for what was already a difficult start to the season.
A bright start increased the sense of comfort that the optimistic Pool fans seemed to be approaching the season with. A wonder strike from Taylor-Fletcher earned Pool one of the tougher wins of the season at Hull, and a Kevin Phillips brace earned another three points in the first game at Bloomfield Road against former Preston manager Darren Ferguson`s Peterborough United. A remarkable comeback away at Brighton to become the first team to take something away from the South Coast club this season papered over the cracks that were beginning to appear, before the slump in October, when the pessimism started to fly back to the forefront.
roblems with Keith Southern`s and Gary Taylor-Fletcher`s contracts were eventually resolved after a long running dispute, Blackpool were uninspiring in defeats and somewhat fortunate in victory, Doncaster Rovers can count themselves very unlucky not to have left Bloomfield Road with 3 points, let alone the one they were denied by Tom Ince`s last gasp wonder strike.
But after recent performances that have taken the Seasiders back into the playoff spots in a very tightly contested Championship table, where as many as 12 teams can realistically say that they have genuine playoff ambitions, the good feeling has returned to Bloomfield Road, but where from here? Can Blackpool really challenge to go back to the Premiership at the first time of asking, or will they fall away due to their lack of squad strength, with the majority of players signed in the summer yet to get anywhere near first team action, such as Bob Harris, Paul Bignot, and the aforementioned Djordjic.
In my opinion, there is nothing that suggests that Blackpool cannot challenge for the top six, but it is important that the manager is backed in January. With Jonjo Shelvey and Callum McManaman both set to return to their clubs in January, likely to be replaced by the returning Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke in the squad, Blackpool should be safe in the forward department, especially with the addition of Lomana Lua-Lua, and the forthcoming return to fitness of Taylor-Fletcher. In midfield, the recent form of Ludovic Sylvestre has given Pool fans cause to look forward to the rest of the season, and when he eventually returns to full fitness, Elliot Grandin will look to return to his early season good form.
At the back, there could be issues. A long term injury to either Craig Cathcart or Alex Baptiste would stretch Pool to the limit. The main central defensive cover for either Cathcart or Evatt is Baptiste, bringing Neal Eardley in at right back, but the next in line for a defensive position is Matt Hill, who showed at West Ham he is not physical enough to hold down a central defensive spot, and not quick enough to play a prolonged period at full back. Depth is required. In goal, Ian Holloway`s faith in youngster Mark Halstead could be tested, as Mark Howard`s contract expires in January, and Matt Gilks is beginning to resemble one of his old banger racing cars, patched up to go again each week, with his knee and ankle injuries making themselves known already this season.
If Blackpool are to succeed, the quality of the arrivals is crucial. In the promotion season, the added quality of DJ Campbell, Stephen Dobbie, Seamus Coleman and Barry Bannan were crucial in the run in, as the additions in League One of Joe Hart and Chris Brandon were in the run in all those years ago. It hinges on whether Holloway can add similar talent to the squad during the run-in, as it is unlikely that the likes of Kevin Phillips and Barry Ferguson will be able to continue to play the level of football that they have been producing at the rate of games that they will be playing.