Rowan Roache reflects on highs and lows of five-year tenure with Blackpool following surprise release
It wasn’t long ago Rowan Roache was gracing the turf of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium for Blackpool in an FA Youth Cup semi-final.
Included in that youthful Gunners line-up in April 2018 were the likes of Emile Smith-Rowe, a World Cup winner with England Under-17s who is now on loan with Huddersfield Town in the Championship, and Bukayo Saka, who has made 20 appearances for Arsenal this season.
Elsewhere, one Tyreece John-Jules. Recognise the name? He’s the 18-year-old who scored Lincoln City’s winner against the Seasiders on Saturday.
Roache, meanwhile, now finds himself without a club, the Seasiders quietly announcing his departure - alongside Emil Jaaskelainen - with a brief 42-word statement on the official website last week.
The 19-year-old was Blackpool’s big young hope just a couple of years ago, with fans optimistic he would become the first player since Bright Osayi-Samuel to successfully make that step-up from youth team success to first-team glory.
He plundered 30 goals in just 30 games for the youth team during the 2016/17 campaign as they claimed the Lancashire FA Youth Cup as well as the North West Youth Alliance league title.
The following season he played a pivotal role in helping the youngsters reach the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup, an unprecedented achievement given the club’s lack of resources and investment under the despised ownership of the Oyston family.
The likes of Bradford City, Blackburn Rovers and Ipswich Town were seen off on their way to the final four, where the Seasiders’ run was ended by the Premier League giants Arsenal.
But Roache has since struggled to make the step-up, subsequently spending loan spells with the likes of Southport, FC United, Lancaster City and more recently Bamber Bridge.
It led to Roache being released early from his contract, spelling an end to his five-year tenure at Bloomfield Road.
Speaking to The Gazette, Roache reluctantly admitted leaving Blackpool might be the best thing for him.
“I wasn’t getting anything out of being there, it was just the odd reserve game here and there,” he said.
“That wasn’t ideal because I want to be playing every week. I wasn’t getting a sniff or anything like that so it was probably best for me to leave.
“It wasn’t a case of me being shoved out or anything like that. I didn’t want to leave but it’s the right thing for my career.
“I’ve had some of my best years ever at Blackpool, especially across my youth team days. The FA Youth Cup runs and winning the league were the standouts.
“It just didn’t work out when I wanted to step up to the first team.
“I never wanted to leave Blackpool though, I’ve always wanted to play for the first team because I came through the youth team.
“When you do that, that’s your main aim and that’s why you’re working every day. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.
“It’s manager’s, moments, injuries, it just didn’t happen in the end.”
Having signed a professional contract with the club in the summer of 2017, Roache was handed his league debut by Gary Bowyer in January 2018.
It came in a goalless draw against Bristol Rovers at Bloomfield Road, Roache replacing Nathan Delfouneso with nine minutes remaining - featuring in a side that also included Newcastle United’s former Pool loanee Sean Longstaff.
It turned out to be just one of five appearances he would end up making for the Seasiders, the other four coming in the EFL Trophy.
“It is disappointing how it ended up,” Roache added. “Gary Bowyer was the manager at the time and he gave me my debut in the league.
“That was definitely the highlight because it’s something everyone dreams of doing as a kid. I’ve got to thank Gary Bowyer for that.
“The semi-final at the Emirates and winning the league are definitely up there as well.”
Reflecting on why things didn’t turn out as well as he would have hoped after making his breakthrough, Roache added: “It was going okay at one point but then I came back the following season and unfortunately I fractured my metatarsal.
“I had an operation for that which set me back. By the time I got back Terry McPhillips was the manager as Gary had decided to leave.
“I just drifted away from that point. I thought I was leaving at the end of last season when I had a spell with Derby’s Under-23s, where I assumed I would stay there for the foreseeable future.
“But then all kind of things happened and Blackpool ended up taking the option in my contract and extending it for another year.
“Given what’s happened since I’m not really sure why they decided to do that, considering I’ve barely played.
“There wasn’t a plan. It was just a case of taking the option and see what happens. That’s how it appeared to me anyway.”
Roache, who has represented the Republic of Ireland from Under-16 level to Under-19s, is just one of several players that have impressed for Blackpool’s academy yet were unable to transfer their talent into the first team.
“Most fans want to see homegrown kids come through,” the 19-year-old said.
“Why has it not happened at Blackpool in recent years? I don’t know, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
“There’s been another couple of lads who have been in and around the first team as well but it’s not really happened for them either.
“I don’t know if it’s something to do with the manager at the time, or what’s been happening at the club for the last few years or if it’s just a desire to get results.
“But Blackpool have always been known for having a good youth team and challenging in the leagues and cups.
“They won the league a couple of years before I arrived and that’s the reason why I came, because I knew what a good setup it was.
“But obviously a couple of key members have since left and gone across the pond to Fleetwood.
“It’s tough at Blackpool because there is no Under-23 side, so when you do step up and train with the first team, if you don’t go out on loan then you’ve got nowhere else to play.
“I know they’ve rejoined the Central League recently but before that the only games you’d get would be bounce ones organised to get players time.
“If there was an Under-23 or proper reserve setup then there would be games every week or every other week and you can keep yourself match-fit. Without that, it’s tough.”
Given Roache arrived at Bloomfield Road in 2014 at the height of the anti-Oyston protests, he’s likely to have seen and experienced plenty.
But while being aware of the anger among the club’s weary fanbase at the time, Roache admits it was never something he got too involved with.
“I think it was Lee Clark in charge when I first arrived but then Neil McDonald took over the following season,” Roache recalls.
“At the time, when everyone was talking about the Oystons and the off-the-pitch stuff, I was only 15 so you don’t think about that stuff too much.
“You just crack on with your football because that’s what you’re there to do, so you’re not really thinking about what the owner is doing or what the club is like.
“You just focus on yourself and the team, whatever was happening above you is out of your control.
“Obviously we saw all sorts that went on and it’s only really when you step back and think about crazy events or crazy times that happened. But at the time you just roll with it and carry on
“Blackpool is a massive club, so nothing like that should be happening. But as you can see now, that won’t be happening anymore with the new owner.”
Rather than reflect on what might-have-been, Roache is keen to look forward and get his career back on track.
For him, that means getting signed to a new club, knuckling down and getting regular first-team football.
“I still back myself to play wherever someone puts faith in me to play,” Roache said.
“I believe I had the qualities to play for Blackpool when I was 17 or 18 when I was coming through under Gary Bowyer. But it didn’t work out for me.
“But if I find the right club and the right manager I’m sure I can prove Blackpool wrong. I want to be flying and for Blackpool to be thinking ‘we should have never let him go’.
“I want to go to the highest level possible, it won’t be a case of me being picky.
“Everyone knows getting a contract at any professional club is hard enough as it is, so it won’t be a case of me weighing up where I want to go.
“It will be me trying to get it done as quickly as possible and not wasting any more time. I feel I’ve wasted nearly half a season, so I feel I’ve wasted enough time as it is.
“It’s tough, it’s frustrating. I’m 19 now so I need to be playing regular football.
“I’ve gone from the youth team where I was playing every minute of every game to just being without a setup, being in limbo and not knowing what to do.
“It will be a matter of speaking to some other clubs and seeing what’s best. Hopefully I’ll have something sorted quite soon.”