Matt Scrafton's column: What a night for the Blackpool fans to return
Tonight promises to be a special occasion.
While it was great to see Pool play in front of fans at the Kassam Stadium on Tuesday night for the first time since December’s game with Shrewsbury Town, I must confess I found the atmosphere to be a little tame.
Naturally, a lot of that was down to Blackpool’s display, which kept the returning Oxford United fans quiet – other than the odd moan and groan.
The confirmed attendance of 3,224 was also a little lower than expected as well, given 4,000 tickets were supposedly on sale.
Unsold tickets won’t be an issue for tonight when Blackpool host the second leg at Bloomfield Road.
The place will be absolutely rocking and it promises to be an emotional occasion for those fortunate enough to get a ticket.
Tonight is the first time Bloomfield Road will welcome supporters since a test event for the league game against Swindon Town back in September 2020.
Only 1,000 fans were allowed in on that occasion but they managed to make an atmosphere worthy of 10,000.
With 4,000 fans allowed in tonight and, given what’s at stake, it should eclipse that day by some margin.
Given only a select few were permitted to attend the game against Swindon, tonight – for many – will be the first time back inside the ground since the Tranmere game back in March 2020.
With the comfort of a three-goal lead from Tuesday night’s first leg, you’d like to think there’s a good chance Pool fans will be in a celebratory mood come the full-time whistle – but let’s take it one step at a time.
It will be interesting to see what Neil Critchley does in terms of tactics and personnel.
His decision to revert to a back four raised plenty of eyebrows given the Seasiders finished the season with four straight wins without conceding a goal, playing 3-5-2.
Some clubs opt to use the same system and approach for virtually every game.
It works for some of them but that isn’t the way Pool look at things.
Just because one system worked well for one game doesn’t mean it will necessarily be as effective for the next one.
Every game is different, after all. Different teams pose different threats and have different weaknesses.
While I expected Critchley to stick with three at the back, I did write seven days ago there could be a temptation to revert to four at the back given it was the formation that worked so well during Blackpool’s 2-0 win at the Kassam in March.
Whereas 4-2-3-1 was the system of choice on that occasion, Pool’s head coach was desperate to keep two strikers on the pitch for the first leg – so 4-4-2 it was.
Irrespective of what system Pool play – we can often get too bogged down in formations, tactics, team selection etc – the approach and the methodology remains the same.
Critchley has also proven this season that he and his coaching staff are the masters of nullifying the opposition’s strengths.
It’s often a fine balance between concentrating solely on yourselves and altering things slightly to stop the opposing team, but Critchley normally gets it absolutely right.
He’s been guilty of overthinking it on the odd occasion, but it’s been few and far between. Trust the process indeed.
How good has Ellis Simms been in the last few weeks, by the way?
The 20-year-old is another loanee, like Jordan Gabriel, Dan Ballard and Elliot Embleton, who has benefited massively from his time on the Fylde coast.
The Everton man looked a little raw early in his loan stint, but you knew the tools were always there and it was only a matter of time until things finally clicked into gear.
The striker’s brace in Tuesday’s match means he now has five goals in his last three games, taking his tally for the season to 10.
Hitting double figures is some achievement for the Oldham-born man given he only arrived at the club on January 20.
The significance of his double at the Kassam shouldn’t be underestimated either, given it was the first time Simms had played in front of supporters at professional level.
Some footballers can wilt under the pressure of playing in front of fans, while others rise to the occasion.
Simms, a quiet, shy and unassuming lad off the pitch, seemed to thrive under the pressure and he took his goals superbly.
Not only that, he bullied Oxford’s centre-halves and made some really intelligent runs off the ball into the channels, something the Seasiders had clearly worked on prior to the game.
If Simms enjoyed playing in front of supporters on Tuesday, he’ll have a field day tonight.
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