A look back at Neil Critchley’s chaotic first 12 months in charge on first anniversary of his appointment as Blackpool boss
It’s fair to say Neil Critchley’s first 12 months in charge of Blackpool has been eventful.
Blackpool’s head coach has probably witnessed more ups and downs in his first year than most managers do during their careers.
Appointed on March 2, 2020, penning a three-and-a-half-year contract, Critchley replaced Simon Grayson, who had been axed after overseeing a dismal run of just one win in 12.
But it wasn’t just the nosedive in results that led to Grayson’s sacking. Owner Simon Sadler wanted a forward-thinking young coach that was data-driven, analytical, could develop and improve his players and set out a clear identity of how the Seasiders wanted to play.
Critchley, who came highly qualified and was working as Liverpool’s Under-23s coach at the time, fit the bill.
The 42-year-old didn’t have a great deal of time to prepare for his first outing as Blackpool boss, which was the small matter of a feisty Fylde coast encounter against Fleetwood Town.
What we witnessed at Highbury was highly encouraging though, as the Seasiders looked well-drilled, with each and every player knowing exactly what their role was - which hadn’t always been the case.
Fleetwood, who were battling for the play-offs at the time and were only a couple of points off the top two, couldn’t get to grips with Blackpool’s pressing in the first-half, with a couple of presentable chances going to waste.
Pool couldn’t capitalise though and Critchley’s reign began with a goalless draw against Joey Barton’s side. Nevertheless, the Blackpool faithful were encouraged by what they saw.
Four days later, 8,200 fans packed out Bloomfield Road for Critchley’s first game in charge in a midweek encounter under the lights.
Tranmere Rovers, who were in a rich vein of form at the time in their desperate bid to stave off relegation, were the opponents.
The Seasiders were punished for a poor first-half display, going down to a 2-1 defeat to Micky Mellon’s men in a game that remains the last time Bloomfield Road was open as normal to all supporters.
Blackpool’s players were still applauded off the pitch by the appreciative crowd, who were pleased with the intensity and urgency they saw in a much-improved second-half display. Pool were constantly banging on the door, but just couldn’t find a late equaliser their promising performance merited.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to grind out a result and Critchley’s home debut ended in disappointment, but the signs still looked good.
No-one could have foreseen what happened next.
Blackpool were preparing as normal for the visit of Sunderland the following Saturday, but a day before the game, with the harsh realities of the global pandemic now becoming clearer and clearer, the EFL season was suspended.
In the region of 4,300 Sunderland fans were expected to make the trip to Lancashire, which would have provided Sadler with a priceless financial boost.
Initially, the Sunderland fixture was one of three games postponed due to the coronavirus, with away games against Shrewsbury Town and Peterborough United also going to the wall.
As we now know, the remainder of the campaign was eventually scrapped, with the 2019/20 season eventually being decided by points-per-game. Blackpool finished 13th.
Critchley had only been in charge for 11 days when the Sunderland game was postponed. It meant the Tranmere defeat, Blackpool’s last game of the season and only Critchley’s second game as boss, turned out to be his last competitive outing for 173 days.
The Seasiders, like all clubs at this stage, were plunged into uncertainty. What would happen next? When would football return? Could clubs even survive?
Football was essentially shut down as the nation entered lockdown. Critchley could do little else other than keep in touch with his players over Zoom.
In June, Critchley had his first tough decisions to make as the club announced its retained list. The likes of Mark Howard, Jay Spearing and Armand Gnanduillet all departed, while Chris Maxwell and Ollie Turton were kept on and offered new deals.
Mike Garrity, who worked as Critchley’s assistant at Liverpool, was brought in as his number two. Colin Calderwood would later join midway through the season to offer more experience and know-how.
The first signing of the Critchley era also arrived later in June in the form of Keshi Anderson from Swindon Town. Marvin Ekpiteta, CJ Hamilton and Jerry Yates were other important acquisitions.
In total, 17 players were signed during the summer transfer window, while a mammoth 21 were also shipped out as Critchley looked to re-shape and rejuvenate the Blackpool squad in his image.
Given the huge turnaround in personnel, it was always going to be the case that Critchley and co would need time on the training ground to allow things to gel.
But pre-season began so well, it raised expectations among Blackpool’s excited fanbase. Southport, Port Vale and Barrow were all dispatched before the Seasiders played out a thrilling 3-3 draw against Premier League side Everton, having led 3-0 against a strong Toffees outfit after just 11 minutes.
The first defeat of the summer came against Blackburn Rovers, as a second string went down to a 3-1 reversal.
Blackpool’s sixth and final pre-season friendly came against the Premier League champions, as Critchley made his return to Merseyside to face Jurgen Klopp’s all conquering Reds.
The Seasiders were utterly superb in the first-half, taking a 2-0 lead against a Liverpool side that included Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah.
Critchley rang the changes at half-time and Pool ended up suffering a heavy 7-2 defeat, but Blackpool fans had seen enough in the opening period to realise they could well be onto something special this season.
But they soon came shuddering back down to earth with a bang.
The season began with a penalty shootout defeat to Stoke City in the first round of the Carabao Cup in a game Pool dominated.
It was the same story on the opening day of the league campaign, as the Seasiders slumped to a 1-0 loss against newly-promoted Plymouth Argyle.
In what soon became a recurring theme, Blackpool performed admirably and created a host of chances early in the season, but a mixture of poor finishing, questionable decision-making and bad fortune continued to go against them.
Pool bounced back from their opening day setback with a 2-0 win against Swindon Town, which - due to the pandemic - proved to be Critchley’s first victory in the Bloomfield Road hotseat six months after taking charge.
The Swindon encounter was also notable because it saw 1,000 Pool fans return to the ground for a successful pilot event, but the supporters haven’t been back since with all games being played behind closed doors. It’s really been a season like no other.
But after all the pre-season hype and expectation, Blackpool still found themselves languishing in the bottom four early on, having lost six of their opening nine games. Welcome to League One, eh?
The nadir came at Loftus Road, where Blackpool were shown two red cards before losing 1-0 to AFC Wimbledon in a game where they probably ought to have still gained a point.
This is where it all changed though. Critchley abandoned the 4-3-3 system that was loosely based on the same principles of Liverpool’s high intensity, high pressing methods that had been in use since the beginning of pre-season.
Gary Madine was brought into the fold to partner Jerry Yates in attack, Kenny Dougall was signed and put straight into midfield and 4-4-2 was the formation of choice from now on.
It wasn’t particularly pretty at first, but it worked. Blackpool grinded out results against struggling Burton Albion and Wigan Athletic to give themselves some breathing space before the likes of Peterborough United, Portsmouth and Hull City were all put to the sword as the fans - watching on iFollow from home - were finally given a glimpse of what their side was capable of.
In making the necessary adjustments to grind out results on a regular basis, Critchley showed he could adapt to League One.
While the Seasiders are still more than capable of playing scintillating football, what is perhaps more impressive is their ability to dig in, defend well and remain organised. It’s been back to basics a little bit, but that’s by no means a bad thing. When you’re playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, you have to find a way to win on a consistent basis.
The proof is in the pudding, as no other side has conceded fewer goals than Blackpool so far this season. Pool, Peterborough United and Sunderland all sit on 26 in their goals conceded column.
Blackpool’s defensive qualities have certainly been highlighted in recent weeks. Critchley’s side have kept five clean sheets in their last six, with each of those shutouts being accompanied by three points.
Ahead of tonight’s home clash against Critchley’s former side Crewe Alexandra, on what will be the first anniversary of his appointment, the Seasiders find themselves right in the mix, sitting 13th, just six points off the play-offs with as many as four games in hand to play on some sides in and around them.
Pool also enjoyed a strong run in the FA Cup, beating Eastbourne Borough and Harrogate Town before taking the scalp of Premier League side West Brom in the third round. The run ended in the fourth round with a narrow defeat to fellow top flight side Brighton.
While Blackpool’s recent form has been impressive, it’s not all been plain sailing. Their campaign has been disrupted massively over the last few months, with seven postponements in just 69 days - four due to weather conditions at Bloomfield Road and three owing to Covid-19 outbreaks among opposition squads.
It means the Seasiders will be playing catch-up between now and the end of the season, but at no point has Critchley - who is a pleasure to deal with for us media types and is as open and honest a coach I’ve come across - used Blackpool’s setbacks as an excuse.
The Seasiders have been decimated by Injuries, Covid-19 cases and suspensions at times, but unlike other clubs in this division, they’ve not moaned, they’ve not whinged, they’ve just got on with things and made the most of a bad situation.
They’re getting their just rewards right now and it’s all set up for an exciting end to the season. Given Blackpool’s horrendous start, Critchley deserves plaudits for turning it around.
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