Beware the play-off Kings: Matt Scrafton's verdict on Blackpool guaranteeing top six finish with professional win against Doncaster Rovers
There was no roar that greeted the final whistle last night, no outpouring of jubilation.
On the face of it, that might appear a little strange given Blackpool had just booked their place in the play-offs with a game to spare.
But the message it sent out from Neil Critchley his staff and his players was loud and clear: it’s a good start, but the job is only half done. As Pool’s head coach said himself afterwards, Pool aren’t done just yet.
Of course, the jubilant scenes involving the supporters outside the main entrance told a different story and rightfully so, to finish in the top six is a wonderful achievement and is worthy of celebration. It’s just a shame those celebrations can’t be done properly with everyone involved.
To sit in third place with a game still to play is an astounding achievement given what the Seasiders have had to endure this season, be it injuries mounting up week after week, positive Covid cases, suspensions or having to play 23 games in 93 days – an average of a game every four days – following an unprecedented seven postponements in what has been a season like no other.
Playing one game without as many as eight key, first-team players, as Pool did on Tuesday night, would be too much for most sides to handle. But the Seasiders have virtually been doing it for the entirety of 2021. Instead of just coping, they’ve thrived. That’s the true mark of this side, for me at least.
After losing six of their first nine league games, finishing in the play-offs seemed like a fantasy. But it all changed on that solemn night at AFC Wimbledon back in October, when Pool lost 1-0 and ended the game with nine men.
Since then, Blackpool have been the best side in the division. It’s as simple as that.
After picking up seven points from those disastrous first nine fixtures, Critchley’s men have only lost a further six times in their following 36 games. During that time, they’ve claimed a staggering 70 points.
It’s automatic promotion form and no other side in the division can boast a better haul of points during that time period, not even title winners Hull City.
It does leave you with a nagging feeling of ‘what if’, but there’s no good dwelling on the past now, especially when the future looks so bright.
I’m backing Blackpool to get over the line and seal their return to the Championship, six years after their miserable relegation with a measly 26 points.
But even if the season doesn’t end in promotion, what a time it is to be a Blackpool fan right now. After all the pain, needless hurt and suffering, the supporters have a club to be proud of once again, a club that is in safe hands both on and off the pitch. Regardless of what happens between now and the end of May, the Seasiders are on the up in every sense of the word.
There’s no hiding from it, Lincoln City, Sunderland and the fourth side that finishes in the top six, which will be one of Portsmouth, Oxford United or Charlton Athletic, won’t want to face Pool in the semi-finals.
They’re the Kings when it comes to the play-offs. They’re five-time winners, the most successful side in English play-off history. They’ve not even been beaten in their last 10 semi-finals.
If Pool’s recent form should give them confidence, their play-off heritage should make the current crop of players feel 10 feet tall. Now it’s their turn to make themselves heroes.
The hero on so many occasions this season is fans’ favourite Jerry Yates, who has 22 goals to his name in all competitions.
But he played second fiddle to his strike partner Ellis Simms on Tuesday night, as the 20-year-old Everton loanee scored both goals to secure the points to guarantee Blackpool’s top six finish.
The pair of them combined superbly all night and it was Yates’ flick-on that set Simms free, where the striker slotted home to settle any jangling nerves.
After a tense, even first-half, the Seasiders sprung to life in the second period and really ought to have got the job done long before Simms scored his and his side’s second of the evening.
It was a similar effort to his first effort, surging into the space down the left channel before unleashing a low shot. Only this time keeper Louis Jones did well to save it, but the ball only rebounded to Simms who had the simple task of tapping home his seventh goal since arriving from Goodison Park during the January window.
Jones was in fine form for the visitors and was almost solely responsible for keeping the scoreline respectable.
At the other end, his counterpart Chris Maxwell was in fine form once again, making a flying save to claw the ball away from the top corner while the score remained 1-0. Big players produce at big moments and Maxwell has made important saves at important moments time and time again this season.
This result makes it 21 clean sheets for the season for Pool’s skipper, the most of any shot stopper in the third tier. The ‘Golden Glove’ awaits.
His boss managed the game well, recognising the pitch was a slippy one due to the earlier downpour of heavy rain and hail and taking off Jordan Gabriel, Kevin Stewart and James Husband after picking up yellows. With a fussy referee in charge, the last thing the Seasiders needed was a sending off leaving one of their key players suspended for the play-offs.
But, as he's done so often this season, Critchley made the right call. Trust the process, people.
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