Simon Sadler and Ben Mansford address fans’ concern over Blackpool’s summer recruitment

After a tricky summer for Blackpool, it was important for Michael Appleton’s side to get off to a winning start against Reading on Saturday.

Monday, 1st August 2022, 7:00 am

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There’s still plenty of work to be done though - on and off the pitch - after what has been an eventful summer for the club.

After a two-week search, Appleton was unveiled as the new man, returning to the Bloomfield Road hotseat for a second time after an all too brief 65-day spell in 2012/13.

As a result of the upheaval, recruitment was delayed as Appleton settled into the role and assessed his options.

Since then, there’s been four new arrivals. Three on loan in Lewis Fiorini, Rhys Williams and Theo Corbeanu, while Dom Thompson has arrived on a permanent deal from Brentford.

Owner Simon Sadler, left, and chief executive Ben Mansford

But the club has also missed out on some targets, namely Colby Bishop, Ellis Simms and more recently Cameron Brannagan – ith all three scenarios playing out in public.

This has caused some concern among supporters who have claimed the Seasiders are under-cooked for the new season and are struggling to get deals over the line.

With that in mind, The Gazette sat down with owner Simon Sadler (SS) and chief executive Ben Mansford (BM) to address some of the issues raised over the last few weeks and months.

Here’s what they said:

Do you understand fans’ frustrations with summer recruitment?

BM: We have got a wonderful set of fans that want nothing more than this football club to continue progressing. We feel that. Without that I don’t think we would have achieved what we’ve achieved now. But the reality is, this club needs some capital investment and it also needs to work within a model that ensures this football club is here beyond all of us. Some of the transactions we would have really loved to have done is because we’re reaching for the very best players we think we can. We are running a really thorough medical process because when you’ve got one of the smaller budgets, you need a robustness about your player and your squad, especially in this league in this season because it’s split into two halves because of the break. There’s a variety of reasons why a small number of transactions we really wanted to do didn’t work, but I think it’s important we continue to run a thorough medical process and we continue to operate within a level Simon is comfortable with to ensure the club remains here. The last thing we want to do is not be able to invest in some of the projects we need to and see a Derby situation, for example. For me, we would have loved to have done some of the transactions we may have been linked with, but we didn’t do them for the right reasons for this football club.

SS: I’ve always described myself as the custodian and I think I’ve previously used the phrase “protect, nurture and cherish”. That’s what I see my role as, to make sure this football club survives, thrives and is around for multiple generations to come. I think the world of football is mad with some of the stuff that goes on with the way that clubs and owners go and blow their brains out throwing money around. We’ve clearly been linked with a player at Oxford United this week and we’ve seen certain salary numbers bandied around in the press, but I don’t know. What I do know is that two seasons ago there was a League One salary cap of £2.5m, which meant the average for the 25-man squad, when you take out all the fees and National Insurance etc, worked out as £1,800-a-week, so it’s just nonsense. That sort of behaviour within football is just not sustainable throughout the game, so it trickles down from the Premier League through to the Championship and even down into League One now. I’m the custodian, I’m not going to stretch myself or put this club in financial danger. It’s very clear the club needs investment, it’s also very important we do our utmost to progress on the field. When I read of disappointment in this window, I think expectations and reality are somewhat out of kilter because the simple fact is we came into the season with a full squad that had comfortably stayed up and then the old manager left, it takes two or three weeks to get the new guy in, he’s now bedded in, looking at the players, assessing the players, how he thinks the players that primarily played 4-4-2 are going to adapt to what looks to be a 4-3-3. So all of this takes time. Behind all of this, there is a robust recruitment process and that process is the same process that was there when Critch was here. The same process exists, but with a different head coach and with a slightly tweaked style of play, the inputs into the process are going to change slightly. We’re going to be looking for some slightly different characteristics for certain positions, so it’s not back to the drawing board, we’ve still got the same database of players but it just needs a fresh look. Things take time, but as I’ve said all along, I’m in this for years and years and years, I don’t worry about results day-to-day. I even read the Reading game was a must-win, it was a six-pointer. It’s the first game of the season! Great, we got the three points and we played some beautiful football for the first 20 minutes, where I thought we were outstanding. In the second-half you could see they were still gelling. But let’s look at what we have done, we’ve brought in Dominic Thompson, who incidentally Critch was also a big fan of so we were very pleased when he became available. We’ve brought in three excellent Premier League loans - one from Liverpool, one from Man City and one is from Wolves. Most would agree Man City and Liverpool are probably two of the three or four best clubs in Europe, certainly the best in England, and we’re getting some of their best young guys on loan. There’s nothing for me to be disappointed about. Has everything we’ve tried to do come off? No. Are we trying to push ourselves to do the best deals we can on the budget we’ve got? Yes, we are. Something like Ellis Simms, if it’s reported we’re in there for Ellis, then we’re up there fighting with clubs - whether people like it or not - that are much bigger than us. They’ve got a much bigger fanbase than us, they’ve got much bigger revenues, they’ve got more money. Ellis is going to play in front of 40,000 people, that’s what we’re up against. It’s not that we’ve got a small club mentality, it’s a realistic mentality. You can’t just go from small club to big club overnight, all of this will take a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of people working very, very hard to progress this football club.

Are you concerned about missing out on some of your targets?

BM: When you try and reach for some of the things we’ve tried to do, we’ll occasionally not get them. But it’s better to have a go than pick up players for the sake of picking up players. We’ve got to do the very best business for us and that may mean, as we’ve seen late in the last summer window, that we’ve got to do the right deals for us at the right time. This summer we’ve made some ambitious moves for some players that would have helped us and therefore other clubs are trying to sign them. The level of competition we’re up against is big, established Championship clubs along with the likes of Sunderland that are back in the league with 30/40,000 fans every week. It’s good we’re in the arm wrestle for those types of players and it’s good we’re getting an audience with them, it’s good we’re having a right go, so I’d echo what Simon is saying. I can assure everybody the whole recruitment process is at full tilt and everybody is working really, really hard, from Simon sparing us his time when he’s got a day job, through John (Stephenson), Michael (Appleton), his staff, the analysts, the academy staff pulling right through from Ciaran (Donnelly) and Paul Murray. The fans really need to know just how hard people at the football club are working because we understand the real importance of not just on the field, but the progression of the club commercially and financially of player trading.

What would you say to the fans concerned about being under-cooked for the start of the season?

SS: There’s a subtlety to it all. It’s not straight-forward, it’s not simple. The process is there but then you’ve got to keep tweaking it. We’ve handled the transition from Critch to Michael quite smoothly, but there’s always going to be a transition, there is change. The inputs into the system are going to change, as are the outputs. You’re looking at everything slightly differently and it just takes time. We want to make sure we get things right. I see we’re getting criticised for starting the season again without a right-back, well that’s actually completely incorrect because we’ve got two in Jordan Gabriel, who is very close to coming back, and Callum Connolly who funnily enough managed to score the only goal on Saturday and yet again proved himself to be really versatile. Now, are we lighter in that position than we otherwise wanted to be? Probably. But it’s not like all those years ago when we played Nottingham Forest on the first game of the season.

BM: We track what everyone else in the Championship is doing and when you look, most clubs have done one or two undisclosed fees but a huge amount - I would imagine 60 or 70 per cent of the business done - is loans. How many have made four signings? Very few, apart from Cardiff. We would have done three more things to take us up to seven, so I think there needs to be some context to how active we’ve been compared to our peer group. We always like to keep a slot open as well because there’s always some value that comes late in the window.

With £35-40m put aside for the training ground and the East Stand project, how much money is available for transfers?

SS: I’ve always said everyone needs to pull together and I’ll do my bit, but this ‘there’s no money’ came from something I said at a structured dialogue meeting where I said, while the capital investments are going on, there will be no big transfer fees. I could probably re-phrase that and say there’s unlikely to ever be any big transfer fees regardless of the capital investment because the simple fact of the matter is we’re Blackpool and we’ve got one of the smaller budgets. As we grow our revenue, the best thing we can do is to develop our own talent and as we do that and hopefully make some money, that can be ploughed back in and hopefully we can then pay a little bit more in wages and then we can maybe start to pay more transfer fees and we’ll get into this virtuous circle we’re hopefully getting into. But I’ve never, never put myself out to be an owner who is going to start splurging like other Championship owners do. Some of these clubs are owned by huge corporations, some of the clubs in the Premier League are owned by countries. I’m the bloke from Blackpool who stepped up to make sure this football club was around for multiple generations and I’m going to do my best to progress it on the pitch, but within sensible parameters.

How does the club ensure it remains competitive in the Championship?

BM: We’ve got more season ticket holders this time than what we had last year, commercially we’re a little bit in front, the home kit has been a huge success and we’re growing. We’ve got a new website, we’ve got a new app, Tangerine TV has been a positive progression, there’s the new Moretti Bar, so we’re growing. But there are a few things to bear in mind we’ve not talked about, and that’s Brexit has had an influence because we’re now looking in a smaller pond of players than we were already. The effects of Covid seem to be lessening, so we saw some clubs last summer knuckle down and thought ‘let’s just get through’. This summer there’s been a push in Championship wages, so Covid is starting to fade. But this club, at the moment, to have a wage bill to give us the opportunity to sign some of the talent we’ve been linked with, that still requires owner support. Simon is still putting in seven figures plus a year and the accounts have shown what Simon has had to put in over the last two or three years. That’s still needed on top of the capital investment for the two large projects. The fans need to be aware for us to operate on a wage bill that isn’t the lowest in the league, that still needs significant seven-figure support from Simon. We were savvy with our transfer fees last season, we spent the smallest in transfer fees in the Championship of the sides that got 60 points. Our wage bill was of a sensible proportion of wages to turnover compared to the rest of them, because some of them were 100 per cent wage to turnover. There’s some positivity to come out of the fan-led review, but I hope the fans see that rather than blowing £30m and £40m and end up like Derby, there might be a training ground and a new East Stand which can support the club for tens of years to come. This football club is continuing to move forward with a togetherness and it’s important everyone tries to do their bit. Maybe a grandparent is going to buy a junior Seasiders membership for £10 and that’s their way of putting into their club if they live in Blackpool. Someone else might be buying a shirt, someone else might be buying a season ticket, someone else’s company might take a box, the council are on the back of the shirt and then Simon is doing his bit. That togetherness is crucial and Simon has always said that.

What is your message to supporters?

SS: Let’s just take a step back, we’re three years in. We’re in the Championship after a global pandemic, we’ve got some big development plans and we’re taking players from the best clubs in the world and going toe-to-toe trying to get some phenomenal players in. If people actually think this summer has fallen down, maybe take a step back and think ‘maybe the last two years were phenomenal’. Last year, getting the likes of Dan Grimshaw, Shayne Lavery, Josh Bowler, Sonny Carey, Oliver Casey, Callum Connolly…picking up those, most of them on frees, was a phenomenal, phenomenal year and you’re not always going to have a phenomenal year. A lot of it is down to Brexit and post-Covid because there’s more competition. Right now, this year, it’s made more sense to utilise the loan market but we’ve still got all of those young players who are ours in the squad. The only one we’ve added this year is Dominic Thompson. Let’s look at the year before, there was nobody taking any risk to get players. When we were signing players, I think the only other clubs signing players were Mansfield Town and Bristol Rovers. There was hardly anybody. But we got on a Zoom call one day when Critch had his list and we went through it. It had Jerry Yates, CJ Hamilton, Marvin Ekpiteta and Keshi Anderson on it. So we’re looking at this list and I said ‘I don’t think I can do it, I just don’t know if football is going to come back’. This was two years ago when we didn’t know if football was going to play again, so how could I give these guys two and three-year contracts? Linton (Brown) was on the call as well and he just told me that if I’m not comfortable, then don’t do it. But I said ‘right, we’re going to go for this’. We got excellent players, we signed them up and put them on good contracts and it ended up being one of the most ridiculous and best things I ever did. I stuck my money and my neck on the line when no-one knew what was going to happen and got us a squad that got us promoted. Last year we managed to unearth some absolute gems. This year it’s just been more difficult, that’s just the way it’s going to go. If people think we’ve failed this year, it’s only in comparison to the previous two years. In absolute terms, I think we’ve done alright.