Overcoming demons, seeing out the win and defending from the front: Matt Scrafton's verdict on Blackpool's priceless three points against MK Dons
Hearts were firmly lodged in the mouths of Blackpool’s anxious supporters last night when their side faced the daunting prospect of having to hold onto a 1-0 lead for the third game running.
We all know how the last two encounters turned out, Crewe Alexandra pegging them back in the 86th minute before AFC Wimbledon rubbed salt in the wound four days later, leaving it as late as the third minute of stoppage time to level.
Let’s make no bones about it, this was a big test of Blackpool’s resolve.
But on this occasion, they learned from their mistakes – from the Wimbledon draw in particular – and saw out the dying stages to claim an absolutely priceless three points in their quest to hunt down the top six.
Instead of sitting back and inviting pressure, the Seasiders took the opposite approach at Stadium:MK.
It helped that MK Dons are a possession-based side, so it was only natural that Blackpool would look to remain on the front foot, press high up the pitch, squeeze their opponents and stop Russell Martin’s men at source.
With Neil Critchley barking instructions from the sidelines – I’ve never seen him so vocal and animated, Kenny Dougall and CJ Hamilton both received rollickings late on – there wasn’t a chance whatsoever Blackpool would take a backwards step. Not on this occasion, anyway.
The approach paid off, as Blackpool held on for a third consecutive win on their travels, with all victories being accompanied by clean sheets – something the Seasiders hadn’t achieved since 2012.
While the two late setbacks against Crewe and Wimbledon were frustrating for all those involved, it’s important to remember that Blackpool have been magnificently defensively this season.
With just 28 goals being conceded in their 30 games, only Sunderland have a better record. Tuesday night’s shutout was Pool’s 13th of the season, four fewer than Hull City – who have kept the most clean sheets in League One this term – having played five games fewer.
Critchley’s side have demonstrated over and over again this season that they’re able to see out games. So, fingers crossed, the late goals conceded against Crewe and Wimbledon were just two frustrating, isolated anomalies.
James Husband played a leading role in Pool’s rearguard display. The 27-year-old had been written off as a centre-back in some quarters, but the defender has been outstanding whenever he’s played there in recent weeks.
It wasn’t just about Husband and the back four though, it was a team-wide effort with the Seasiders defending from the front. Jerry Yates, in particular, was tireless throughout with his pressing.
It was Yates’ first-half strike that proved to be the difference, as the striker showed impressive composure to net his 14th goal of the season.
Blackpool had looked lethargic early on and seemed, somewhat bizarrely, prepared to give MK time and space on the ball. Perhaps it was to lull the home side into a false sense of security?
This all changed when Sullay Kaikai closed down well, forcing a mistake out of centre-back Harry Darling near the edge of his own box.
The ball rolled nicely into the path of Yates, who could have quite easily snatched at the chance first time, but instead opted to round keeper Andrew Fisher before sliding the ball into the back of the empty net.
With momentum now on their side, Critchley’s men now began to press and harry with more intensity, which forced more and more mistakes out of the hosts who were insistent on playing it out from the back.
It was inevitable MK Dons would enjoy the lion’s share of possession, 71 per cent of it, in fact, but Pool were happy to keep them at arm’s length and allow them to have the ball in areas of the pitch where they couldn’t really hurt them.
For all of their neat, intricate football, the hosts could only muster two genuine chances on the Blackpool goal.
The first came after eight minutes and it really ought to have resulted in an early goal for Martin’s side, who had two bites at the cherry.
Not for the last time in the game, Husband made a sublime last-ditch block to deny Cameron Jerome. MK worked the ball back into the danger area, the ball falling nicely for Ethan Laird just six yards out from goal, but he somehow managed to blaze over Chris Maxwell’s crossbar.
MK were blunt in the second-half and well controlled by the well-drilled, organised Blackpool troops. But Jerome did get in behind on one occasion, lifting the ball over the onrushing Maxwell only to see his effort rebound off the underside of the crossbar.
It was a let-off, but these are the fine margins that can often be the difference between a vital result and a disappointing third straight draw.
Nerves were jangling late on when the Seasiders were faced with the challenge of seeing out a one-goal lead for the third time in just eight days, resulting in a collective sigh of relief greeting the full-time whistle.
The Seasiders now sit in prime position in the league table, just four points off faltering Portsmouth in sixth with three games in hand still to play. Right now, if anyone is going to launch a genuine challenge for the play-offs, it’s looking like it will be Blackpool.
With two games coming up at Bloomfield Road, where Blackpool are unbeaten since October, a run that stretches across 11 games in all competitions, there’s a good chance that points gap could be cut even further.
But that was also the hope prior to the back-to-back home games against Crewe and Wimbledon, so let’s hope for a better points return from their upcoming double header against Fleetwood Town and Burton Albion.
Up first, it’s just the small matter of a Fylde coast encounter and a reunion with Simon Grayson, David Dunn, Kyle Vassell and co...
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