Champagne football and defying the pressure as the unbeaten run goes on: Matt Scrafton’s verdict on Blackpool magnificent win against play-off rivals Gillingham
There’s a compelling argument to make that Blackpool are the best side in League One at the moment.
Whether it’s true or not is largely irrelevant, they are where they are in the league table and they’ll finish where they deserve to finish after 46 games.
But not only do they top the form table but, since those horrendous first nine games, where they lost six times, they’ve collected as many points as anybody else in the division.
The Seasiders have 56 points from their last 28 games, an average of two points a game. Repeat that for the entire season and you’re pretty much guaranteed to finish in the top two with 92 points.
Sunderland have picked up the same amount of points during that time period, albeit having played two games more.
We can dwell on those nightmare first nine games all we want but it won’t exactly achieve a great deal. We can’t change it and, if anything, Blackpool’s slow start probably turned out to be a good thing, because Neil Critchley’s side learned their lessons, took their medicine and came out of it a much better outfit.
They initially became a defensively-minded outfit that learned to grind out results before putting all the facets of their game together, which is what we’re now seeing.
Instead, we’re much better served focusing on what’s happened since, and that’s 16 victories in 28 games and just four more defeats.
Not many of those victories will have been as convincing and as pleasing on the eye as this one against a dangerous Gillingham side, who were hot on the tails of the Seasiders prior to kick-off.
Steve Evans’ men came into yesterday’s encounter in great form, having lost just once in their last nine games. It left them just two points below Blackpool in the table.
That made this game a pivotal one, as the Seasiders came up against a direct rival. But, given the free-flowing manner in which Blackpool performed, you wouldn’t have known there was added pressure on their shoulders.
The hosts, stretching their unbeaten run at Bloomfield Road to five months and 16 games in all competitions, were absolutely sublime.
Instead of trying to match Gillingham’s physical prowess, which involved an aerial bombardment of free-kicks, corners and long throws, the Seasiders opted to get the ball down on the deck and pass it around their befuddled opponents. And boy, did they manage that.
Blackpool’s build-up play was superb, with Kenny Dougall often dropping deep to collect the ball and launch attacks. Grant Ward buzzed around the place picking up first and second balls, Sullay Kaikai oozed class whenever he got in possession and Ellis Simms used his pace and power to hold it up and bring others into play.
This wasn’t a case of passing the ball around the back four in a slow and ponderous manner, like some sides are guilty of. This was incisive, pinpoint passing that saw them move from back to front in a manner of seconds, and the Gills quite simply couldn’t cope with it.
The visitors certainly had their moments and caused plenty of problems. They’re a tricky nut to crack at this level and you can see why they’ve done well this season despite boasting no real star names.
In Evans, they’ve got a manager who is as deeply unpopular as they come and for good reason too given his nasty antics on the touchline alongside his assistant Paul Raynor. But there’s no doubting what a good manager he is. Indeed, until Easter Monday, the Seasiders had never beaten one of Evans’ sides in a competitive outing.
But Evans had no answer to Blackpool’s brilliance and he admitted as much post-match, holding his hands up and conceding the Gills were well beaten by the better side.
Critchley’s men got off to the perfect start in taking the lead after just five minutes, although it’s fair to say it involved a great deal of luck.
A wayward clearance inadvertently landed at the feet of in-form Jerry Yates, who was in an offside position having closed down the goalkeeper just seconds before. But because it came off a Gills man, he was free to go one-on-one with the keeper.
Yates was the last man Gillingham will have wanted to gift the ball to and the 24-year-old made no mistake, slipping the ball past the onrushing Jack Bonham with the calmness and assurance of a man who knows he’s going to find the back of the net more often than not.
Gillingham had actually started fairly well prior to that and were causing problems with their man-mountain strikers Vadaine Oliver and John Akinde.
The latter was heavily involved as the away side got back on level terms just nine minutes later, turning his man too easily before cutting the ball back into the path of the dangerous Jordan Graham, who took a touch to settle himself before firing beyond Chris Maxwell.
At this point, after a frenetic start to proceedings, you’re thinking it’s ‘game on’ and it’s anyone’s to win. But Blackpool clearly had other ideas and simply steam-rollered their opponents.
Within six minutes, Yates had restored their lead with a lovely deft little flick from Luke Garbutt’s free-kick - scoring for the sixth time in four games and taking his tally for the season to 20 goals.
In doing so, Yates became the first Blackpool player to hit that target since Andy Morrell during the 2006/07 campaign - and we all know how that season finished.
Yates’ goals haul is even more extraordinary when you consider he failed to find the target in his opening 11 games.
Blackpool’s next two strikes were utterly brilliant team goals, as Kaikai got in the act with a bullet into the far corner before turning provider in the second-half for Elliot Embleton to net his first goal in tangerine, putting it on a plate for the Sunderland loanee to tap home. Both goals involved sharp, penetrative one and two-touch passing which left the Gills chasing shadows.
What was even more impressive than Blackpool’s clinical edge in front of goal was the manner in which they finished the game.
Instead of sitting back and seeing out the remaining time, which included 10 minutes of stoppage due to an injury to one of the linesmen, the Seasiders ploughed ahead in search of more goals. Remarkably, they almost looked hungrier to score at the end than they did at the beginning.
In the end Critchley’s men had to settle for a 4-1 thumping to extend their unbeaten run to 13 games. Not too shabby, eh?
Next up? It's another biggie as they travel to the side that sit directly below them in the league table in Lincoln City (providing the game goes ahead, of course).
It’s as good a time as any to play the Imps, given their dire run of form and the fact they’re in the midst of a Covid outbreak, which has forced them to lock down their training ground for the past week. It’s a brutal way to look at it, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world.
Blackpool now find themselves in a fabulous position, sitting four points clear of Charlton Athletic in seventh with a game in hand to play.
But, following Blackpool’s six-point haul over the Easter period, Critchley’s side needn’t even bother looking behind them at this minute, they’ll only be looking upwards.
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