Ian Crocker: The Voice of Scottish Football

When you think of Scottish football coverage, you think of Ian Crocker. The Weymouth-born Englishmen arrived in the Scottish game without any affinity for what it had to offer, and stands today as the voice that defines it. Renowned commentaries decades old still recited to him as he walks the streets of Glasgow, with the romanticism of tribal lines standing the test of time in a country that lives and breathes the game Crocker has adopted.

It was not always the Scottish game for Crocker. His humble, Dorset roots shaped the early stages of his career. In the age of Sports on 2, now BBC 5 Live, he would religiously take in the tones of Peter Jones’ commentary as much as he could.

“I used to go to non-league football at Weymouth and put my transistor radio on and have it blaring out to everyone in the crowd whether they liked it or not,” Crocker said.

This sort of hunger for living footballing commentary every waking second only continued to grow into the television sphere. The illustrious voices of Brian Moore, Jon Motson and Barry Davies accompanied each and every memory of Crocker’s footballing tutelage. And it was those influences that drew him into the career path that has served him so well.

“Growing up listening to all those guys was great because I literally wanted to get into newspaper journalism, but listening to them so often gave me the buzz to think ‘hey maybe I could go and do that’ without thinking I actually would,” Crocker said.

After the quiet lifestyle of Dorset, Crocker jumped straight into the hustle and bustle of London city life chasing his broadcasting dream. A move that he still offers disbelief towards to this day as to how he adapted so quickly. A job at his beloved West Ham as stadium announcer wet the palette to delve deeper into the realms of the world of football – a dive that took him to Capital radio.

“I met the guys at Capital and was privileged to work with a great team. The likes of Jonathan Pearce and Steve Wilson, who are both now with Match of the Day, helped me grow and improve,” Crocker said.

That appetite to grow brought with it a fearlessness to broaden his horizons, shown through the number of different roles Crocker has taken in his stride over the years. One of which was his successful role with BRMB radio in Birmingham as their lead commentator for local games, a role that spanned 20 years. His love for the area still shines through today.

“A great football patch and a great area. It was Big Ron Atkinson at Aston Villa and Barry Fry at Birmingham so there was never a dull moment,” Crocker said.

Big characters have surrounded Crocker as his experience grew, his ability to deal with them with ease was a huge asset in his success. Alongside Atkinson and Fry, his time in Scotland saw him grace the likes of Walter Smith and Martin O’Neill with his presence. And he pondered on the relationships he has had in the game and the trust that came with them.

“I’m lucky that I’ve been able to get on with a few managers. Commentators always try to get an early team shout off managers and some are quite happy to do it, some give you the trust, quiet a few don’t,” Crocker said.

“The best one to deal with was Walter (Smith), he was different class. When he was in charge of Rangers I used to ring him at 8:30am on a Sunday morning and he’d give me the team and we would just chat for half an hour about this, that and everything.”

Crocker was fortunate enough to have the trust of managers in the past like Walter Smith which would allow him to go about his work with a sense of relative ease. An ability to get a jumpstart on his competitors through these good relationships is something that may have stagnated over the years, but there is still those within the game who keep old customs.

“Quite a few in England still do it, out of all of them at the moment Steve Bruce at Newcastle is terrific. You can just ring him in the morning and he’ll give you the team and all the lines you need and little extras,” Crocker said.

“Alan Pardew was similar during his time at Reading, which is how I got to know him. He was more than happy to take calls from whoever was covering their game that day and treat everyone equally and that brings with it a sense of mutual respect.”

But it isn’t just pre-match build up that Crocker finds important in his work, he also found himself at the impending doom of post-match TV interviews. This part of the job, that Crocker does a lot less of these days, is something that he believes is the hardest to deal with. Raw emotion of a manager off the back of an important defeat or an important win can bring with it a variety of responses, you do not truly know what you are going to get.

“I always pick out Fergie (Alex Ferguson) as the best one to do purely because he always kept you on your toes and you had to be absolutely spot on with what you were asking, otherwise you knew he might just point it out to you,” Crocker said.

“Bobby Robson was the only manager I’ve only ever had to ask one question to in a post match interview. All I said was ‘what did you think of the game?’ a safe opening question. He actually went through every single point of the game. Whilst I was thinking of what my next question might be, he was answering it without needing to ask. He lasted about four minutes, he just kept going. If only it was always like that.”

And whilst these dealings have always been conveyed with whole-hearted respect and pleasure, managers had to ensure that the media were aware of their responsibilities. It was and is very much a two-way straight that the clubs and managers know what to expect from the media and likewise the media are to take the information with the knowledge of what is expected from them.

“I remember ringing David Moyes once for a team. Everton were playing West Ham in a league cup tie. He gave me the team but afterwards the way he said basically ‘keep that to yourself’ otherwise, you know, I could suffer a serious injury, I thought with the way he was talking,” Crocker said.

“They make it very clear, this is as far as it goes. It’s purely to help us get our stuff together before the game so we’re not rushing around. It’s an age old commentary thing to get an early shout of the team.”

These sorts of relations and the ability for the press to have a mutual partnership with managers to a close extent have waned in recent years. The move to a PR led game has brought with it more strict and measured dealings with the media from clubs through press officers. But Crocker is understanding of the everchanging landscape of the game.

“A lot of clubs used to be much more trusting of you and your dealings with their managers and players,” Crocker said.

“In football the stakes are so high now, everyone’s a bit paranoid to let their team out or to open up their ideas to the general public. There was an issue at Celtic where the team was getting leaked on social media and that certainly doesn’t help the cause.”

Within the game, particularly in Scotland, there is a microcosm on every action, every move a player or manager alike makes. It means so much to everyone involved and it is conveyed as such by moments of hot-headedness and general stupidity in flashes. One moment that stands out from Crocker’s career is his strong criticism of ex-Rangers player El Hadji-Diouf following his final whistle red card in an infamous Old Firm Scottish cup replay in 2011. I asked Crocker whether that are times he has to ‘hold his tongue’ in such heated moments.

“I’ve always thought as a commentator you should call it as it is. In all my years commentating I’ve never had a player come up to me, they’re honest, they know when they’ve had a bad game or done something they shouldn’t have,” Crocker said.

And as much as no player has questioned Crocker during his career, the same can’t be said for managers because of one individual.

“There’s only one manager I’ve had a fallout with and that was Gordan Strachan when he was at Celtic. We get on now after his stint with Scotland. Frankly, I would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t fallen out with him at some stage given the nature of the guy,” Crocker said.

Looking at the moments Crocker has been apart of, it is clear he has seen the very best and very worst of football. He was there to witness Martin O’Neill’s first Old Firm victory in the 6-2 win at Celtic Park, whilst also being able to see the 2002 Scottish Cup final with Peter Lovenkrands late winner for Rangers. But it is the humble floodlights of Fir Park that played host to what Crocker believes is the best game he has witnessed.

“Motherwell 6-6 Hibernian was extraordinary. It taught me one thing that you have to treat every game with the same respect. Never go to a game thinking this is going to be grim, because we were at Fir Park that night thinking it’s an end of season game,” Crocker said.

“Jutkiewicz scored a Van Basten-type screamer in stoppage time, you know we may never see a game like that again.”

Crocker can’t help but see the Old Firm matches he has covered as the pinnacle of his career. He has seen it all when it comes to Glasgow’s big two and every tussle brings with it a new sense of surprise and intrigue, the likes of which is unmatched by anything else football has to offer.

“Martin O’Neill’s first Old Firm game was just magic. Regardless of other factors on that day I still suspect Henrik Larsson would’ve taken control,” Crocker said.

“Kindly Celtic fans still quote my ‘that is sensational’ commentary line after Larsson’s fine solo goal to this day. 20 years later I think maybe I should come up with a new line.

“The 2002 cup final with Lovenkrands’ late winner was another moment. Being totally selfish as McCann put the cross in I said ‘is there going to be a twist in the tale,’ which I’ve probably said a million times before and nothing has happened, but this time he stuck it in and I got away with it.”

And whilst Crocker has seen some phenomenal games over the years, in all types of arenas, there is one man in particular who stands out to him when he thinks of the best footballer he has witnessed.

“Henrik Larsson. He gave you everything,” Crocker said.

“Funnily enough when people ask who’s the best player you’ve seen they expect Messi. However, in the few games I commentated on with him against Celtic, he didn’t play that well.”

Looking to the future, Crocker’s eyes are firmly set on the upcoming Euros with Scotland qualifying for the first time since 1998.

“I think we appreciate what we have, we love our game. We got a whopping audience for Serbia vs Scotland so the interest is there,” Crocker said.

“Why shouldn’t we go there with a sense of optimism? We are in a great place right now and Steve Clarke has the team well organised. It will be tough but hopefully some fans will be able to travel and make a real go of it.”

It is clear from the passion that Crocker shows, Scotland has well and truly become his adopted homeland that is deep in his heart. The Weymouth boy who had no affinity to the Scottish game, now leads it as its voice into the biggest tournament for Scottish football in a generation.

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Blackpool 2-0 Swindon – League One Review 19/09/20

Blackpool began their home campaign in League One with a routine 2-0 victory over Swindon Town at Bloomfield Road. A CJ Hamilton double gave the Seasiders the three points after early Swindon pressure gave way to a dominant Blackpool display. The game took place in front of 1000 Blackpool fans who had been allowed to attend after coronavirus restrictions were lifted giving the green light to their first attendance at Bloomfield Road in over 7 months.

The Seasiders display was assured and comfortable from defensive to attacking transition with Michael Nottingham and Marvin Ekpiteta both contributing with the most aerial duels won with 7 duels won in total, whilst Nottingham also contributed the most successful passes for Blackpool with 41 successful passes. It was abundantly clear that this Blackpool side relies on defensive stability from the outset, which leads on to a quicker transition into attack and allows Ethan Robson more creative freedom without having to cover gaps being left when the centre half decision making goes array.

Aerial duels won by Michael Nottingham and Marvin Ekpiteta
(via WhoScored.com)

Michael Nottingham seems to be a reflection player so far for Blackpool. Reflection player being someone who flatters to deceive on the face of a performance, yet when you look back statistically and at isolated incidents, he is really quite authoritative and commanding in the back line. Not in a communication sense as that is something that lacks in the centre half pairing, although this comes with game time together and knowing each other’s ticks.

Demetri Mitchell won the Man of the Match display with a highly effective wing back display that saw him lead the left hand side, shuttling his pressing play narrow which allowed him to anticipate loose touches from the central midfielders of Swindon, using his pace to counter attack after these interceptions to create a number of chances for the Seasiders. It is this leading by example that was apparent throughout the Blackpool side, feeding off scraps to quickly turnover possession in their favour. Ethan Robson is another who showed this side of this game.

Ethan Robson was another potential pick as the best player on the park for the Seasiders. Robson provided 4 tackles and 3 interceptions in the centre of the park which enabled Keshi Anderson and Grant Ward to both have more freedom in the attacking third, without the need to cover in the defensive third. This allowed Blackpool to hold a higher line throughout the park, pressing earlier to create opportunities for Swindon to turnover possession in dangerous areas, which they went on to do on a number of occasions.

Interceptions made by Demetri Mitchell and Ethan Robson
(Via WhoScored.com)

Whilst, Robson’s performance freed up the attacking midfield duo of Keshi Anderson and Grant Ward to keep within the final attacking third, Jerry Yates, particularly in the first half an hour of the game, consistently felt the need to drop deep into a false nine role, with 14 of his 20 touches coming in the midfield third. Yates worked tirelessly in a game where, from early on, it was clear that Swindon had doubled up on him with a permanent tight press that forced him deeper with his touches on every occasion.

It is positive though to see a striker in Jerry Yates that can do the ground work and intangibles so well that, even during a goalless match for himself, fans can appreciate the performance and work rate and the ideas behind his play. Confidence in his midfield teammates to feed the ball through the lines either in behind for him to chase, or for him to take on and drive at the 18 yard box, will come with time. The general feeling around this match is patience, Blackpool have a number of higher levels they can go to and that is a scary prospect for the rest of the league given the comfortable nature of the victory against Swindon.

Touches made by Jerry Yates (via WhoScored.com)

The only real potential negative out of today’s performance came in the form of Bez Lubala. It is early days for Lubala with this being his first start in a Blackpool shirt but he looked nervy and tentative on the ball, turning over possession frequently and persisting to run into crowded areas when approaching the final third. This was the real difference between CJ Hamilton and Bez Lubala today, the intelligence to know when and where to make a risky dribble. Lubala, evidently keen to impress, took too many risks in possession to the detriment of a Blackpool’s attacking phases of play.

Lubala’s stats tell the tale of his performance with 3 turnovers of possession and 4 fouls. He worked tirelessly but it was clear his performance was one of a desire to impress, that ended with a lack of intelligence in his play. That comes with time. It is important to keep this performance in relativity and it is evident that the talent is there with Bez Lubala and many players have this type of debut performance. He pressed throughout his appearance with a real intent but turned over possession on too many occasions to merit a starting place in the Seasiders’ next fixture away at Gillingham, with Sullay Kaikai and Dan Kemp both more relevant options. There is no time for sentiment in this side and it is clear that Neil Critchley holds his players to a significantly high standard, a standard which should realistically see Dan Kemp starting the fixture at Gillingham.

Fouls committed by Bez Lubala (via WhoScored.com)

The Dan Kemp starting idea is not unfounded. He looked really impressive in the latter stages against Swindon, albeit in a 15 minute cameo. With his 10 touches on the ball you can see he is always looking to drive at the 18 yard box from wide areas, however it is also clear that he is not forcing the play, passing the ball back into central midfield to transition where he feels the take on cannot be successful. This is something Bez Lubala will pick up over time. And talking of sub cameo’s even Gary Madine looked nimble and effective in the false 9 role.

Touches made by Dan Kemp (via WhoScored.com)

All in all this was the real beginning of what a Neil Critchley is looking to achieve at Blackpool. Fitness levels seemed a level above what Swindon could offer, with the Seasiders being able to manage the dying embers of the game with such ease that there was no real concern at all. An ability to know the right situations when to press and when to take risks in possession is something that became more apparent in this performance and if it is already so effective 2 games into the new League One season, then the levels this side could achieve know no bounds.

It is important that Blackpool maintain that concentration throughout the entire game as there were moments where they switched off allowing Swindon a couple of key chances that, if taken, could have changed the game. The standards being set by Neil Critchley are immense but it is vital to remember that these are League One players for a reason and as such, they will make mistakes trying to implement this style of play, they will have concentration lapses that inevitably are punished by the opposition at stages of the season. Trust and time are the key. There has to be a trust in what is being implemented and positive encouragement that enables the confidence levels to increase. This Blackpool side has all the makings of League One Champions, they just have to be allowed the time to get there.

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Plymouth vs Blackpool – League One Preview – 12/09/20

Blackpool will be opening their highly anticipated League One campaign away at newly promoted Plymouth Argyle. Argyle come into the season with high expectations themselves, with Ryan Lowe’s side coming off the back of an automatic promotion. The Seasiders on the other hand will be looking to build on their exploits in pre-season that has seen the side look strong and technical in attack, playing with an attacking philosophy that looks to feed the ball through the lines with pace.

This has all the feels of a mammoth season for Blackpool with a promotion not looking far from reality before a ball is kicked. It is vital that Neil Critchley’s side get off to a winning start to keep the momentum going and really put their mark on the League One table early doors. And whilst signings on the defensive front have slowed, impressive signs came from the first half against Liverpool to suggest that Marvin Ekpiteta and Michael Nottingham do have the capabilities to make the positions their own.

Having somewhat wrote off Nottingham after the penalty cup defeat to Stoke City, he came back as a commanding, determined and intelligent central defender against what could be seen as the best attacking trio in the world at Anfield. With the score ending 7-2 it is easy to think that Blackpool were completely outclassed at Anfield, however the real picture is that Blackpool’s starting XI won the first half 2-1 before multiple changes were made. The real worry for the Seasiders is the lack of real quality in depth and with a long season ahead, a few injuries could derail the season very quickly. There is certainly a fair way to go for a Blackpool to be completely secure with their transfer business, but the business that has been done is overwhelmed with quality.

Injury concerns

James Husband is a major doubt for the season opener which could mean that new signing Demetri Mitchell will make his Seasiders debut in Devon. Husband will be a big loss for the side, whilst I see his strengths on the defensive side of things and would look at playing him in centre half when fit, he also looked a real attacking threat in the first half at Anfield with a real drive and purpose to get the team up the park. The positive is that, in Demetri Mitchell, Neil Critchley has a replacement that can also offer that real attacking wide threat whilst also being composed on the defensive front and I don’t expect their to be any real concerns on that front in this fixture. However, Husband is a leader and with the centre half pairing not seeming to be the most vocal or naturally confident, Chris Maxwell will have an even bigger job on his hands organisation-wise.

Matty Virtue looks to be fit to start this fixture and I would put him in for a Grant Ward. Whilst I am a big fan of Ward, I feel he better suits fixtures where Blackpool will spend the majority of the game on the front foot. This fixture I believe will see a midfield battle and spells of the game where Plymouth are on the front foot and, especially without the drive of James Husband in the side, Virtue is vital in being able to offer that driving approach to push the side back up the pitch, particularly on the counter. The pace in this Blackpool side combined with a Virtue and Ethan Robson’s anticipation and energy, will see them be a lethal force on the counter attack and it is something I expect Blackpool to take advantage of.

Lineup

I fully expect Neil Critchley to go with the same side that starting the friendly against Liverpool, bar Demetri Mitchell in for James Husband if his injury sees him unavailable for this fixture. No one could bemoan the same selection happening although I personally would like to see Matty Virtue involved from the start.

The Seasiders will line up in a 4-3-3 as follows:

My Prediction: Plymouth 1-3 Blackpool (Yates Pen, Hamilton 2). MOTM: CJ Hamilton

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Liverpool vs Blackpool – Friendly Preview – 05/09/20

Blackpool will end their pre-season campaign at the home of the new Premier League Champions Liverpool. After the narrow League Cup defeat to Stoke, the Seasiders will be going to Anfield in a fearless mindset after taking the game to the Potters throughout the recent tie. Liverpool will be without a number of their main stars due to international duty but it is expected that they will be fielding their strongest available side with the likes of James Milner, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino still eligible for selection.

We cannot really judge the Blackpool side on this game but what it will do is give us an idea of the mentality of the players within this system. Neil Critchley demands a fearless directness to attacking phases of play, driving at the opposition regardless of quality, playing on the front foo and looking to dictate possession playing a high line. There is a chance the Seasiders could be on the end of a heavy defeat, however even a heavy defeat will serve its purpose in judgement. It is about the strength of the system, a belief in the system that can stand firm through both victories and defeats.

Neil Critchley will not panic and rearrange his formation easily and that inherent belief in the style of play is something we all have to get on board with as there will be undoubtedly difficul spells until the team really starts to gel in this lineup. In particular this game will be a major test for the backline that can arguably be seen as the weakest part of the starting eleven. Michael Nottingham and Marvin Ekpiteta clearly have confidence on the ball and taking risks based off of their anticipation will be vital if the Seasiders are to give a good account of themselves. If they are to build the foundations of a centre half partnership, they have to stick with what they know best, and if they are outclassed and concede 5 or 6 goals, that can’t change their mentality. They have to trust themselves and the system to have better days.

Another interesting aspect to look at will be how Blackpool distribute the ball in midfield. It is quite easy when you come up against a higher level of opposition to simply bypass the midfield, searching for longer more direct balls straight to the attacking options that have less likelihood of accuracy success. That does not breed confidence and technical ability in your side, it limits it. A game like this is where you have to be brave on the ball. Blackpool have to play through the lines, playing the ball out from the back into Ethan Robson under pressure allowing him to turn and feed the ball into the likes of Keshi Anderson. Robson may be intercepted on nearly every occasion that play is attempted against Liverpool, but the one time there is success will give the side much more to take forward than they would aimlessly bypassing the midfield area. They have to see the bigger picture.

Games like this bring out the best in players you did not expect to perform at that level. It brings an added dimension out of players because they know every mistake will be punished, whereas at League One level that is not necessarily the case. I expect to see the likes of Jerry Yates and Sullay Kaikai rise to the occasion. Kaikai is a player who can be guilty of disappearing in games at a lower level, he is somewhat of a luxury player in that he will rarely do the other side of the game that Critchley wants to see, the intangibles that enable the system to remain fluid and effective in the press. Blackpool cannot afford to have too many players of that mould or they would risk losing the balance of the system, however, if you get a player like that just right, it is a recipe for success.

With the start of the league season on the horizon, this will be the toughest test the Seasiders face this season. Liverpool will be looking to their star players to make a real dent in the confidence of the League One side but a trip to Anfield is a special occasion regardless. This pre-season has shown the club has the draw and the contacts to bring in the big games to Bloomfield Road and away from home, unfortunate though it may be that supporters can’t be part of the big day, it is encouraging for the future and will only continue in the following years.

This fixture may be a good opportunity for new signings Bez Lubala and Dan Kemp, arriving from Crawley and West Ham respectively, to get some game time under their belt before the Seasiders begin their EFL Trophy campaign against Barrow. Lubala and Kemp both look like they offer a real attacking threat with Lubala playing off the wide areas or straight through the middle, with Kemp more of an out and out winger or attacking midfielder. Lubala proved to be one of the most exciting talents in League Two last year, with the Seasiders already signing up many of the rest in the likes of Keshi Anderson, Jerry Yates and CJ Hamilton. He provided 13 goals in all competitions last year and, with Dan Kemp being regarded as one of West Ham’s most encouraging prospects, who spent last season on loan at Stevenage before COVID-19 cut the season short, they are sure to bolster an already brimming attacking lineup.

Demetri Mitchell’s permanent signing after his recent trial with the club offers Blackpool more of an attacking outlet in the full back positions, something that has been missing in recent weeks. Now, as I mentioned in my preview for the Stoke match, is the time to allow James Husband to play as a left centre half to give him a real test of his pure defensive capabilities. He does not quite have the pace and directness to prove a real threat in the full back birth, however, when it comes to his defensive capabilities, he is arguably the best the club has to offer. Although Husband has only really played left centre half in a back three, pre season is about experimentation and trying him in a back 4 alongside Marvin Ekpiteta seems a smart move to provide more of a balance and leadership in the defensive line.

A final interest for myself will be seeing if Chris Maxwell can continue his transition into more of a sweeper keeper role against the very highest level of opposition. At points during the Stoke match, he was that effective Blackpool gained an extra centre half. His speed off the line and urgency to move the ball forward, without compromising on accuracy, enabled the Seasiders to retain possession much more easily and keep them on the front foot. This fixture will be a much bigger ask and he may well make an error of judgement from time to time, but allowing him the platform to make those mistakes and improve from them in order to compliment the season is exactly why Neil Critchley took on this project.


The lineup I would play in this fixture would be as follows:

The lineup I expect Blackpool to play is as follows:

Score Prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Blackpool (Anderson) – Blackpool MOTM: Chris Maxwell

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Stoke 0-0 Blackpool (5-4 pens) – Carabao Cup Review – 29/08/20

Despite a promising performance at the Bet365 Stadium, Blackpool left Stoke empty-handed being knocked out the Carabao Cup by the Championship side on penalties. The Seasiders dominated most of the play and, despite a few defensive lapses mainly at the hands of Michael Nottingham, deserved to head into the second round of the competition.

CJ Hamilton was the clear standout for Blackpool with The Potters’ Bruno Martins Indi lost at sea against Hamilton’s pace and balance that left him for dead on many occasions throughout the match. It was evident from the outset that Blackpool were the better footballing side, quickly recycling possession from left to right to open up spaces for Keshi Anderson and Grant Ward which enabled both Kaikai and Hamilton to run in between a disheveled Stoke back line.

Particularly in the first half, today’s game was a case of a lack of quality in the final third when needed that cost Blackpool today as they created a variety of opportunities. Jerry Yates was fairly quiet up top for the Seasiders, trying to hold up the ball and bring others into play where possible, but he sometimes pondered on possession allowing Danny Batth and James Chester respectively to intercept.

The Tangerines pressed high and forced the ball forward quickly through the midfield lines, completely overrunning the likes of Nick Powell and Jordan Thompson who simply couldn’t handle the energy in the midfield. Ethan Robson proved to be exactly what it said on the tin, a quick recycler of possession who intercepted any whiff of a Stoke counter with ease, as well as proving to be a dangerous set-piece taker, particularly with a wide free kick that just missed the boot of Michael Nottingham with the goal gaping in front of him.

Defensive lapses

Pre-match I identified the lack of a centre half partner for Marvin Ekpiteta and Michael Nottingham’s performance proved he is not the man to give us a composed, professional performance. Whilst Ekpiteta did not particularly cover himself in glory, he tended to make up for his earlier errors, Nottingham on the other hand did not. He looked clumsy and lethargic in possession, his decision making was rash and at times it looked like he didn’t trust himself. It is evident that Nottingham appears out of his depth in this side because this system makes the attributes of the centre halves more apparent. They will face more pressure than they will in a normal system, they will need to be on the ball more than in a normal system and they will have to hold a higher line which would not be the case in a normal system. You saw how confident Blackpool were in their defensive line playing an offside trap once Jordan Thorniley replaced the ex-Crewe loanee.

There were a few occasions also where Oliver Turton and James Husband were caught out for pace over the top, with Turton’s real lack of physicality really apparent once Tyrese Campbell joined proceedings. Husband was solid with the play in front of him and in the air however and has all the attributes to become a real leader in a centre half position if Neil Critchley decides to give him that chance.

Sweeper Keeper

Chris Maxwell was, alongside CJ Hamilton, one of Blackpool’s best players on the park. His speed and anticipation to come out of goal to collect the ball when Stoke looked threatening in attack was simply superb and he did not put a foot wrong all day. He looked to release the ball as quickly as possible either to the centre halves or bypassing them and playing the ball straight into the heart of midfield, at points it was as if the Seasiders were playing with a third centre half and if this is what is to come from Maxwell then there is no doubt those sorts of performances will win games for Blackpool.

Promising signs

Having addressed the only real concerns in this Blackpool side in the form of a lack of numbers at the heart of defence, it’s time to look at just how good the Seasiders are looking right now. They looked like the Championship side today and had a well structured and professional approach that relied upon fitness, speed and technique in order to maintain the performance throughout. There is such much talent in the Blackpool front six that, if they all perform as they did today with more of a cutting edge, would dismantle any side in League One.

Keshi Anderson takes the ball well in midfield under pressure and dangerous on the turn, he has a great ability to drive forward and take the rest of his attacking counterparts with him. Grant Ward looks to be a much more technically adept and intelligent player than the one who played limited parts under the mentally limited management of Simon Grayson and even substitute Matty Virtue looked at home in this high energy system. Another positive for me personally is that Gary Madine looks to be heading out of Bloomfield Road given we put an attacking midfielder in the shape of Oliver Sarkic in a false 9 role replacing Jerry Yates, rather than putting out and out number 9 Madine on in his place. Madine has looked lazy, overweight and lacking any real technical prowess and given the fact he is one of the club’s highest earners, with the current restrictions, it would be a smart move for the club to part ways.

We have to look at the quality of opposition today and remember that this was an established Championship side with multi-million pound talent in their ranks and at various stages today Blackpool made Stoke look unorganised, idealess and sloppy in their play. This is a much harder contest than any that the Seasiders will face in the 2020/21 League One season and as such you have to have the side right up at the very top of the promotion battle predictions.

There is so much more yet to come from this side and yet the founding blocks are already streets ahead of Simon Grayson’s tenure and really it is showing Grayson up for the dinosaur that he is. This is a young side, coached by an exciting and modern coach and supported by a detailed and knowledgable scouting network and recruitment system that caters directly to the playing system that the club is looking to implement throughout the age groups.

Many fans including myself were looking at this season as somewhat of a settling period, allowing for the mistakes and misgivings of an inexperienced manager because we knew that the longer term picture was worth the wait, it seems early doors that we are simply skipping that period and going straight to the bigger picture. There is no doubt there will be mistakes and misgivings along the way but with such a long time remaining in the transfer window to correct problem areas, and with such a hungry and technically strong group of players, there is no reason why Blackpool Football Club cannot be a Championship side at the start of the 2021/22 season.

Blackpool Player Ratings (Out of 10)

Substitute Ratings: Virtue (7), Thorniley (6), Sarkic (6)

MOTM: CJ Hamilton & Chris Maxwell

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Stoke VS Blackpool – Carabao Cup Preview – 29/08/20

Blackpool’s first competitive outing of the new 2020/21 season begins with a trip to the Bet365 Stadium to face Championship opponents in the form of Stoke City. Michael O‘Neill’s side arrive at their home ground off the back of a mixed pre-season with a 5-1 victory over Shrewsbury ending their friendly campaign, new signings John Obi Mikel and Steven Fletcher both making appearances.

The Seasiders on the other hand have enjoyed a successful pre-season with a 3-3 draw at Bloomfield Road against Everton, Blackpool leading 3-0 after 12 minutes, the highlight in a friendly campaign that has seen a new style of play and a new set of players give supporters a real sense of anticipation for the upcoming season.

New signings and the defensive dilemma

Neil Critchley has transformed the Blackpool squad with early intent being shown to bring in key additions before the new EFL salary cap was introduced. When we take a look at who has arrived we can see a clear switch to a high pressing, quick transitional style of play that looks to get the ball from defence into playmakers quickly, breaking at pace to push in between opposition lines in transitional possession phases.

Centre back Marvin Ekpiteta from Leyton Orient has shown that he is capable of playing out from the back under pressure, breaking the lines to allow for the attacking trio of Kaikai, Yates and Hamilton to drive at defences before they have managed to reset following transition.

CJ Hamilton is another standout with his raw pace and fearless drive towards full backs unlocking space for other options to get into the final third. Ethan Robson looks an upgrade on what Jay Spearing tried to offer in the defensive midfield slot of the midfield three, despite his less imposing stature, he offers a hard tackling approach and looks to break up play at the earliest opportunity before recycling possession quickly. Robson also offers a great foil that enables Ekpiteta to advance forward in the knowledge that the ex-Sunderland man will offer cover if required.

Finally, the key acquisition of the window has come in the form of former Swindon loaned Jerry Yates. Armand Gnanduillet was a big loss for the Tangerines as he left for Turkey off the back of the highest goalscoring season of his career and although many belief he did not fit what Critchley is looking to implement this year, there is no doubt Blackpool would have had a gaping hole in their forward ranks that needed to be filled. Yates, who was brought in for a fee believed to be in the region of £250,000, looks to be the real all-round package. He brings pace, composure and a vision for the style of play that has been adopted on the Seaside, not to mention his engine brings high pressure throughout a 90 minute game.

Having briefly covered the highlights of the incomings there is still clearly problem areas for the side. Throughout pre-season the centre half pairing has switched and it is clear that Neil Critchley will be wanting to stick with the 4-3-3 system akin to his previous employers at Anfield. With such an emphasis on high pressing, fluid attacking that relies on high wing backs, it is vital that the centre halves are reliable defensively and can withstand an added responsibility when inevitably on occasion Blackpool will have less defensive reinforcements if they are caught on the counter.

 And whilst Ekpiteta bares the fruits of that solid foundation, Jordan Thorniley and in particular Michael Nottingham do not. Thorniley is somewhat of an unknown quantity, although he has flattered to deceive positionally during pre-season and failed to make a real impact on the starting XI when he came in last season.

Michael Nottingham arrived as a full back and has spent time on loan at Crewe but again has never made a real impact on the starting XI. He has proven to slow and clumsy during his first team appearances and seems to make irrational lapses of judgement that leave him out of position and unreliable in a centre half pairing that has to rely on discipline to provide a founding base in Critchley’s system.

It is abundantly clear that a second centre half is needed to partner Ekpiteta and whilst many will be wanting that to happen, I would be looking in-house to find the solution. That solution comes in the form of James Husband. After initially coming to the club as a full back and playing there, many including myself did not think he had all the attributes to be a success in that position. Husband tended to lack a yard of pace at full back and particularly even more so at wing back and did not pose much of an attacking threat when width was required. However, he did find success playing as a left sided centre half in a back three and looked a commanding presence and captain material, his anticipation and organisational skills would be a major benefit to a centre half pairing and I now believe the timing is right for that to be given a chance. The caveat to this is of course the lack of a first team left full back after Callum MacDonald was surprisingly loaned out to Tranmere, Demetri Mitchell appears to be Critchley’s answer and although I have question marks over his defensive reliance, having Husband alongside him to offer that cover whilst Mitchell utilises his raw pace and attacking intent seems a sensible way to go.

Looking to the future

Another key staple of the Critchley revolution is a reliance on youth players looking to express themselves and really put their mark down on the first team and, in the form of Cameron Antwi and Nathan Shaw, the shoots are starting to appear in a previously neglected youth system.

Nathan Shaw is a name that has been touted around as a potential first teamer for a while now. He has impressed on every single occasion the youth side and reserves have drawn a crowd, whether that be in the FA Youth Cup or in the reserve league. His versatility is something that is much more in demand now that more testing squad restrictions are in place and, although the vast amount of his career so far has been spent at left wing back, Critchley seems to fancy Shaw as a right inside forward. He has all the fundamentals to make a big success of his professional career, pace, technique and most importantly mindset. He is an intelligent player, it is rare to see a young player with such whereabouts of when to press, when to make the right run, when to anticipate an opponents next move, yet Nathan Shaw naturally possesses these qualities. The last player to stand out so vividly on a consistent basis in the youth setup was Bright Osayi-Samuel so the future looks extremely promising for Nathan Shaw.

Cameron Antwi is the name that is getting most supporters exciting this upcoming season. A man who I have to admit I was not well aware of until recently and he is exactly the type of footballer that made me fall in love with the game. He is so elegant in his movements in midfield, he makes the difficult look easy and carries himself like an experienced head in the side already. And whilst on Blackpool’s stream of a recent friendly he was lazily described as “strong and a physical unit”, Antwi offers so much more at such a young age. Recycling possession with ease under pressure and at pace in order to progress a new attack, aggressive in the press but smart in his anticipation in order to regain possession quickly in the midfield, vision to open up the half space behind midfield lines to directly progress Blackpool’s play into the forward areas. He is simply a joy to watch and everything your modern holding midfielder would want to be. His concentration can be suspect at times but for me that is a given for an inexperienced midfielder and, if he is given a favourable amount of game time this season, I have no doubt he will be a first team regular come the new year.

Final thoughts

This season is one that should be met with great excitement for Blackpool fans. This is the first season in my lifetime where the club has fought off league rivals for signings, got their key business done early, and inherited a structure from playing style right through to youth. We could not get much of a feel for what Neil Critchley was wanting to implement at the back end of last season before it abruptly ended so pre season has given us a real sense of what is to come. A fearless attacking intent with an emphasis on creative players expressing themselves, playing out from the back with efficiency to move from back to front quickly to catch the opposition unaware on transition, it sounds like a dream.

4-3-3 has to be the system to use going forward, it best suits the strengths of Blackpool’s creative outlets and allows for a balance to help out defensively where required. Matching up League one defences with a front 3 is bound to cause all kinds of issues for the oppositions and with the pace and directness of Kaikai and Hamilton in particular, it will force wide midfielders to drop back in order to protect the wide areas.


For me Blackpool’s strongest available lineup is as follows:

We will be looking at facing a matched up 4-3-3 from Stoke. New signings John Obi Mikel and Steven Fletcher may feature, although in early pre season it appears Michael O’Neill has looked to opt for pace in the form of Tyrese Campbell and Benik Afobe. They may potentially switch to a 3-5-2 like what occurred in the final pre season friendly against Shrewsbury, although 4-3-3 seems to best setup as a balanced system. Joe Allen missing out through injury is a big boost for the Seasiders.

The potential Stoke lineup may be as follows dependent on whether Ryan Shawcross is back to fitness and whether the aforementioned two new signings are given a go:

Blackpool will go into this tie quietly confident of causing an upset, if they can impose their direct pace and quick transitional play early on then they have every chance of defeating their Championship opponents. Stoke will look to be solid at the back and win the central midfield areas which will allow them to break up Blackpool’s attacking transitions before they begin.

My Prediction: Stoke 1-2 Blackpool (Hamilton, Yates) (Key Player: Ethan Robson)

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A Generation awaits new heroes – Scotland’s Euro 2020 hope

Well today’s the day. In a tournament that started out as completely inconsequential, with a nation progressively switched off by a team and football association of ineptitude, we stand one game away from history.

I was five months old when Scotland last played in a major tournament. I come from a unique supporting upbringing in the sense that I am English born and have lived in England all my life. My Dad from an early age, being a Scotsman, saw to that and ensured I would always don the navy blue jersey of Scotland on every occasion possible.

International football did not give me that sense of awe, that sense of passion like my other loves of Celtic and Blackpool did at a young age. The real connection you can feel to your football club is something that cannot easily be described, it just occurs. You can fight it as much as you want, once you are attached to a football club, your emotions balance on the result on Saturday at 3 o’clock. Scotland in the early 2000’s did not encapsulate that sense of belonging, they did not give me that spark that you really need to connect with a team when you’re so young.

That was until 2006. Aged eight I was in the real formative years of my life, you put an inch of inspiration in front of me and I would run with it for miles. I would sit in my living room in Blackpool and religiously watch each and every Scotland international. My Dad tended to work nights during the campaign and as such missed the majority of games live, so I would watch the games in the front room live then run straight to bed, excited to watch them all over again with my Dad when he got home in the morning before school.

And in a sentence that I doubt many have even whispered in their lives. Gary Caldwell sparked my love for international football. France were the superstars, the immaculately groomed Europeans that you saw reach the pinnacle of football with their respective clubs. Coming from a working class Northern town I was well averse to that underdog spirit but it paled in comparison to Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet vs Christian Dailly and Steven Pressley.

The atmosphere struck me even through the television. That raw passion of over 50,000 Scots crammed inside Hampden was infectious, it rubbed off on you and as the game continued and Scotland came into the game more and more, I was lost in the moment, in sheer admiration of the boys in blue. Then the goal game. I vividly remember screaming and running to the bottom of the stairs to shout up to my Mum, who was calmly packing washing away, “We’ve scored, we’ve scored, we’ve actually scored!”

That was the first time I used ‘we’ to describe Scotland and since that day I haven’t looked back. James McFadden brought me that similar joy in France; Barry Ferguson against Italy; Kenny Miller at Wembley and Leigh Griffiths against England also. The big moments have been few and far between, lost in the malaise and general feeling of frustration as we all watched smaller home nations make the step into the big world of major competition. Inquiry and inquiry about where Scotland were heading and what they were doing wrong.

And in true Scotland fashion just as you have lost all hope during the Alex McLeish reign, they go and draw you back in. We’re suckers for punishment but it’s because we care. This is more than football to many Scotland fans, this is a sense of identity, a sense of getting to display the best of the nation on the world stage. We have a squad there that is more than capable of qualifying for a major tournament so why shouldn’t we have that sense of real optimism, even if it leaves us languishing for answers yet again come Friday morning.

I’ve seen the very best of football in a personal sense whether it’s Blackpool getting promoted to the Premier League or Celtic winning an unbeaten domestic treble. I’ve also seen the worst when I boycotted Blackpool games for nearing five years as the Oyston regime destroyed the football club I loved. The one missing piece is seeing Scotland play in a major tournament.

That could change. And why shouldn’t we believe. In the world at the moment it’s hard not to feel a sense of impending dread and finding those moments to really cherish are rare. Today, Scotland have the chance to uplift the moods of millions of people. They have the chance to create history. They have the chance to become legends. They have the chance to become iconic figures in the eyes of a generation who have been programmed to see the words Scottish National Team and mediocrity.

There’s a generation waiting for a new set of heroes. And today could be the day those places are filled.

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