Neil Critchley’s surprise Blackpool departure to link up with Aston Villa feels like a bad break-up
It still feels like a bad break-up, doesn’t it?
It’s almost like you go through the various different stages of grief in instances like this.
Normally you’d start with anger, and I’d imagine most have experienced that particular emotion at some point over the last few days, but in this instance most supporters would have been thrown into a state of confusion when the news first broke of Neil Critchley’s sudden and surprise departure.
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It’s fair to say absolutely no-one saw this coming. One or two might have got word right at the last minute, but otherwise this bombshell news shocked people within the club as much as it did the fanbase.
Such was the sudden and late nature of the move, I gather members of staff within the club weren’t even notified until the day of his departure.
As reported elsewhere, it appears the players were left out of the loop just like everyone else and were informed very late in the day.
It certainly caught me by surprise, as I tanned myself by the pool in Portugal on my two year old son’s first ever holiday.
I left my laptop at home on this occasion and I had spent minimal time on my phone. But at the time of the announcement the little one was down for a nap and I happened to be scrolling through Twitter when I saw Aston Villa’s statement retweeted onto my feed.
I actually didn’t believe it at first. I was stunned. Surely it had to be one of those spoof accounts?
The enormity of it didn’t hit me until I found Blackpool’s statement on the official website just to check. But it soon sunk in. What the hell was going on?!
Here’s a manager (or head coach) who was loved and adored by his fanbase. A connection, and a truly genuine one, had been harnessed. Critchley was here for the long haul, wasn’t he?
I know a lot of fans are hurting right now and are questioning whether that connection was authentic, but trust me the rapport was real.
Critchley understood the club, he understood the community and he was mindful of what the supporters had previously been through.
That’s why he was so adamant on being refreshingly honest with the fanbase, something that isn’t always the case with some of the more traditional, longer-in-the-tooth number ones who sometimes spin things in their favour and attempt to look after their own reputations first and foremost.
Critchley isn’t like that at all and that’s why he was so upset when I questioned some of the comments he made after the dire derby defeat to Preston in April.
He claimed after the 1-0 reversal at Deepdale that Blackpool were arguably the better side in terms of general play. I dismissed this, suggesting it was disingenuous to suggest Blackpool deserved anything other than a defeat, having struggled to carve out any chances never mind a shot on target.
The comments surprised me because they were so far detached from what everyone else had seen and what he usually offers in instances where his side have performed poorly. Traditionally, if his side are poor, he’ll be the first to hold his hands up.
He had no issue with the criticism, because it was constructive, it comes with the job and I’d like to think he appreciated it came from a good place. We all want Blackpool to succeed after all.
But he seemed to take umbrage with some of the language I opted to use in the heat of the moment when emotion was still running high.
It was dealt with swiftly though and in a completely professional manner. There was no slanging match, he made his point and I explained my thinking. I told him I took no joy in writing my strong and to-the-point match verdict, but explained I have a job to do and must say exactly what I was thinking.
It was parked there and then and we continued to enjoy a positive relationship from that point onwards. It was the only time in his two and a bit years in the hotseat that anything resembling a cross word was said - and even that is probably overplaying the significance of what was a fairly ordinary conversation.
He was otherwise a complete joy to work with and the most honest boss I’ve dealt with in my six years in the job. He never shirked a question and would always provide plenty of copy, which as a written journalist is all I can ask for (even though he clearly hated addressing transfer speculation!).
So what on earth has happened? I’m surprised more hasn’t come out to be honest. Given the understandable reaction from the fanbase, I would have expected Critchley to have addressed the supporters and attempted to explain his exit.
However, as I understand it, Critchley has been away with his family during the past few days and has ironically struggled for phone signal. Not exactly the best time for that to happen!
I still think it would be wise for Critchley to make some sort of comment, even if it’s through the LMA rather than the official channels at Blackpool, as that time may have now passed.
I’m sure he’ll do a piece to camera with Villa in the coming days or week as he settles into his new role, but I’d suggest Blackpool fans deserve a more direct form of communication.
Fans of a tangerine persuasion don’t want to hear about how excited he is about his new job at this point, they want to know why he left.
Saying that, there will be some fans out there that might not want to hear what he has to say. In a bad break-up like this, different people react in different ways. Some titled lovers want an explanation as soon as possible, others go completely the other way and want to forget it even happened and cut all contact. It might seem a bit hyperbolic, but it’s true.
It was only a few months ago Critchley was telling me how he hoped to remain at Bloomfield Road for years to come as I brought up his two-year anniversary.
Yes things change and, as we all know, anything can happen in football. It’s an odd and unpredictable business. But Critchley leaving never seemed on the cards, especially to become a number two.
Had a Premier League side come calling and offered him the number one job, or even one of the promotion hopefuls at the top end of the Championship, I’m sure fans would have understood. Naturally, they still would have been disappointed but supporters are realistic, they know this sort of thing is the nature of the beast.
But still, Critchley had never previously been linked with a job, not publicly anyway (I believe there were whispers surrounding the vacancy at Swansea City before Russell Martin took the job, but that was about it).
So for him to up sticks so suddenly to become an assistant?! On the face of it, it makes no sense. Perhaps it never will. Only Critchley can explain his reasons.
I gather Critchley was never entirely comfortable with being the number one. That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy it, because he clearly did, but he’s said both privately and publicly he’s the sort of coach who prefers to do his work on the grass, developing talent and bringing out the best in the people he works with. Some of the other aspects of being the ‘manager’, or the figurehead of the club in some respect, he can take or leave.
I’m not suggesting that’s the only reason he’s left, by the way. But it could well be a factor.
He can now take himself out of the limelight a little and allow Steven Gerrard, his former Liverpool colleague, to take the brunt of it at Villa Park.
From recent reports it appears Critchley’s predecessor Michael Beale, the man who recently departed to take over at QPR to create the vacancy in the West Midlands, was very hands on and was almost considered a ‘second manager’ such was the part he played behind the scenes.
If that continues to be the case with Critchley, and I see no reason why it won’t be, then you can begin to see why the role would be so appealing. He’s moved to a massive club with an ambition to qualify for Europe, he’s working alongside someone he knows well in Gerrard, he’ll no doubt have been given a hefty pay rise and who knows, somewhere down the line if Gerrard does depart (Liverpool seems the obvious destination), Critchley could go with him or even take the number one job at Villa.
If we’re being cynical for a moment, I’m sure the pay rise will have helped persuade him too. I don’t for one minute believe he’s the type of person to be solely motivated by money, but it’s widely believed Beale was on big, big money as Gerrard’s number two, so I’m sure Critchley will have been well compensated to persuade him to leave the Fylde coast.
For someone who never made a living as a player, with his career being cut short, that sort of money could set him up for life. You’ve got to remember he’s a family man with a young son. These things all count.
When a sudden departure like this occurs, it’s only natural people begin to speculate and jump to conclusions. We all do it.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit I did similar. I thought to myself, is this because there’s not as much money available for new players as he might have liked?
But it’s my understanding this recent talk of penny-pinching has been overblown, however. Yes, owner Simon Sadler recently suggested in the Structured Dialogue Meeting that the club won’t be spending heavily on players because of the current infrastructure investments on the new training ground and East Stand.
“The club won’t be splashing out big transfer fees whilst there are these investments to make”, was the exact quote from Sadler.
But that’s not to say the club is now “skint”, as some have suggested, or won’t be spending fees at all though.
Remember it was only January, when the training ground plans were still being worked upon, that the club attempted to prise Cameron Brannagan from Oxford United. The Seasiders were unable to get their man, with Oxford reportedly holding out for over £1m, but Blackpool’s initial bids certainly weren’t for peanuts.
I also gather the recent reports surrounding Charlie Kirk have also been taken out of context. It’s not a case of Blackpool not being able to pay the reported £500,000 fee, it’s more to do with the club being sensible and asking themselves whether that fee represents true value for money.
I like Kirk and I think he’d be a useful addition, but let’s remember he only made nine appearances after signing on loan from Charlton Athletic in January.
He did well when he did appear and chipped in with some assists, but with the club looking for value for money and making the most of every pound they spend, would it represent a sensible signing when that money could perhaps be better used elsewhere?
If you’re spending half a million, I’d suggest you want someone of Brannagan’s ilk who will be starting virtually every week and wracking up 40 or 50 appearances over the course of a season.
And let’s not forget, Blackpool have made no secret of their model. When it comes to recruitment they will do things sensibly and invest their funds wisely. The Seasiders otherwise can’t compete with the West Brom’s and the Sheffield United’s of this world, they have to do things differently.
I don’t think it’s a huge secret either that Blackpool’s summer budget could well depend heavily on what money they receive for Josh Bowler, who is attracting strong interest from promoted sides Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest once again.
I was told in January it’s highly likely the winger would be departing in the summer and as far as I’m aware, that hasn’t changed.
So where does this all leave us? For a start, it leaves the club without the man that brought Championship football back to Bloomfield Road, the club’s most successful manager since Ian Holloway and the person who built the strongest connection with the fanbase since Billy Ayre.
We can all live in denial and pretend it’s not a big departure, but we have to be realistic. It’s a huge blow.
The fist pump wasn’t just a gimmick, it meant something. It meant everything to those fans in the North Stand and those who travelled the length and breadth of the country to watch their beloved Seasiders and I can assure you it meant everything to Critchley too. Football is a game of emotion and he truly got that.
But he’s gone now and the club must move on quickly, because the game stops for no-one.
I’d imagine the Seasiders will go down a similar route to their last appointment and look for a young up-and-coming coach who can continue and build upon the strong foundations put in place by Critchley, but that’s just speculation on my part at this early juncture.
I’m sure more will become clear in the coming days, as it’s likely the club will publish some sort of communication next week.
If I’m being brutally honest, I do have a smidgen of concern in how Blackpool go about replacing Critchley.
There’s no doubting he got the best out of his players, many of whom had never played in the Championship until now. The squad is good, although it undoubtedly needs improving in some key areas, but is it a mid-table second tier squad without Critchley and his superb organisation, off-the-ball work and ability to eek out every inch of a player’s ability? I honestly don’t know, but I guess we’re about to find out.