Blackpool still have work to do in the transfer market ahead of their Championship return, but where do they need to strengthen?
Sooner than you know it, the new season will be upon us.
Anticipation is growing ahead of Blackpool’s return to the Championship, their opening day trip to Bristol City now just 18 days away.
The last time the Seasiders lined up in the second tier of English football, the club - mired in off-the-field strife - only had nine registered players on their books on the morning of their first game of the 2014/15 campaign.
There will be no such chaos on this occasion, with the Seasiders already well stocked in the vast majority of positions.
Nevertheless, there’s still work to be done in the transfer market this summer - as head coach Neil Critchley conceded himself to The Gazette recently.Eight players have arrived so far, starting with Reece James and Richard Keogh becoming the latest recruit over the weekend.
In-between, Daniel Grimshaw, Shayne Lavery, Josh Bowler, Sonny Carey, Oliver Casey and Callum Connolly have all been added to the squad.
Clubs in the Championship are limited to squads of 25 senior players (aged 21 or over and not on loan). As it stands, the Seasiders have 26 on their books, making departures inevitable.
The likes of Teddy Howe, Oliver Sarkic and Joe Nuttall rarely featured in League One last season, if at all, so they’re likely to move on, even if it’s only on loan.
Given the prolonged absence of Bez Lubala due to what appears to be a fairly serious ‘club matter’, the chances of him lining up in tangerine this coming season are slim to none.
If those four players are taken out of the equation, that creates three further gaps for Critchley and the recruitment team to fill.
Of course, as a side note, it’s important to stress clubs aren’t forced to fill the 25-man quota, but chances are the vast majority will.
A further space in the squad could be freed up should it be confirmed Matty Virtue will remain sidelined for the first half of the campaign.The midfielder, who injured his ACL towards the back-end of last season, could always be left out of the squad until January, where the club are permitted to submit a renewed list following the closure of the winter transfer window.
If Pool do have space to bring in four, potentially five, new recruits, where should they be looking to strengthen?
It’s unlikely to be in goal, where Critchley already has number one and club captain Chris Maxwell, backup keeper Stuart Moore and new signing Daniel Grimshaw, who joined the club from Manchester City at the start of June.
It’s also unlikely to be at centre-back or left-back, unless there’s further departures.
Reece James, Pool’s first summer signing, is a versatile player capable of filling in across the board, a quality Critchley often looks for in players. But it appears he’s been identified for left-back and he lined up there in the club’s opening pre-season friendly at Southport.
He’ll battle it out with Luke Garbutt and James Husband, although the latter - as it currently stands - appears more likely to be filling in at centre-back.
This is where it gets interesting.
It’s no secret that Critchley likes to have two players for each position. Well, right now, the Seasiders have five specialist centre-backs in their squad, six if you count Husband (as is expected) and seven if you include Connolly.
Does this point towards three at the back? Perhaps further departures can be expected, maybe Jordan Thorniley? Or is Critchley just making sure he has depth in that area of the pitch, given last season’s issues and the fact Daniel Gretarsson is currently recovering from a shoulder injury? It could well be a combination of those factors.
Connolly, however, while not a specialist right-back, admitted to The Gazette that his boss likes him in that position. He can, however, also play in the centre of defence or even as a defensive midfielder.
Nevertheless, right-back has to be the number one priority at this moment in time for any new recruit.
Academy defender Jack Moore, only 17, started Pool’s friendly at Southport earlier this month. Teddy Howe, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, leaving Connolly as the only player capable of playing in that position, despite not being a natural fit - historically, at least.
There’s been plenty of speculation surrounding a permanent return for last season’s loanee Jordan Gabriel, but he’s currently part of Nottingham Forest’s pre-season plans.
Forest boss Chris Hughton has gone on record stating he wants to take a look at the full-back in training and has given him runouts in the club’s recent friendlies.
Even if the City Ground outfit relent and decide to let him go, that’s a decision that is unlikely to be made until much later in the window. Can the Seasiders afford to bide their time and wait?
Moving into central midfield, Critchley has plenty of experience and depth already in the form of Kevin Stewart, Kenny Dougall and Grant Ward. Sonny Carey, a summer signing from non-league side Kings Lynn Town, offers plenty of potential and promise, too.
Of course there’s Virtue to factor in as well, but that could well be an area of the pitch where Critchley might want to add another face, especially if it’s one that offers a bit more of a creative, attacking threat.
On the wings, CJ Hamilton, Demetri Mitchell and Keshi Anderson are capable of swapping and changing on both flanks, while Josh Bowler appears to be another fast, direct wide-man in a similar mould.
Again, I wouldn’t be surprised if another player in that position arrived but it’s not a necessity.
But if they do look to bring someone in, could that man be Elliot Embleton?
Pool clearly have interest in bringing the Sunderland midfielder to Bloomfield Road on a permanent basis following the 22-year-old’s loan spell last term.But, similarly to Gabriel, they’ll have to remain patient in their chase and bide their time. The Black Cats aren’t simply going to roll over and allow an academy product to leave for a nominal fee.
But, working in Pool’s favour, Embleton only has a year left on his contract at the Stadium of Light and Sunderland may have no option but to cash in on a player now that appears keen to return to the Fylde coast, rather than lose him for nothing this time next summer.
Aside from right-back, the striker’s role is arguably the position that is in most need of further strengthening.
Jerry Yates and Shayne Lavery are a similar type of player, hard workers that press from the front and take their chance when it comes in the 18-yard box. But will they be partnered together? We’ll have to wait and see, but I remain doubtful.
Behind that, there’s Gary Madine, but he underwent an operation on his groin after the play-off final and won’t be fit until the back-end of pre-season.
Aside from that, there’s only young Brad Holmes, who could well head out on loan to get some valuable game-time.
The ideal candidate to add something different into the mix in the forward department would of course be Ellis Simms, who brought dynamism, height, power and strength during his highly successful loan spell from Everton during the second half of last season.
But, like Madine, the 20-year-old also had surgery over the summer and is unlikely to be available until January. If that is indeed the case, that’s a big shame as Simms would have been the perfect fit.
The step-up to the Championship would also have offered the ideal next step in the striker’s development, too, having ended last season with five goals in his last four games to help fire Pool to promotion.
Hopefully Simms can make a faster-than-expected recovery from his op and declare himself available for another loan spell. If he did, you’d imagine Pool would be right at the front of the queue.
If not, the club will need to look elsewhere and identify another player with similar attributes. But that’s easier said than done.
All in all, the Seasiders are in a good position ahead of their opening day trip to Ashton Gate on Saturday, August 7. It’s just a case of adding the final touches.
This is my annual reminder that there’s no need to panic, either. Just because there’s work to be done doesn’t mean it has to be done right now, this very minute. That’s not how the real world works, unfortunately.
Recruitment is a constantly moving feast that requires patience, pre-planning and a clever strategy. Thankfully the club has that.
Besides, the transfer window doesn’t even close until August 31, so relax! We’re in good hands.
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