Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Season review 20-21


All seasons are keenly anticipated but this one more so than many. It wasn't just that the previous season had been rudely truncated by the appearance of some mad bat-borne* virus, it's that so had everything else as well. With Pool actually signing players before the last possible minute and their being fuck all else available to do for months other than go on the same walk you went on yesterday, the return of the game seemed a bit more special than normal. 

*other theories are available. 

My need for football was such, that I endured the migraine inducing YouTube stream of the first match against Southport like it was the premiere of an Oscar winning movie.  New men Yates and Anderson both scored, Pool looked well drilled, tidy and purposeful. Pre season continued in that vein, with Barrow and Port Vale dispatched, before the hype train was well and truly fuelled by a stunning early blitz against Everton which saw us 3 up in no time and making the opposition look shit. The second string played out a terrible game against Blackburn in torrential rain and lost, but then came Liverpool at Anfield and in the half that counts (the one before all the substitutes made the game meaningless) we were the better side and won 2-1. 

From pre season we learned several facts. Michael Nottingham is a brilliant central defender. Ethan Robson looks like the heir apparent to Charlie Adam and we're absolutely going to walk the league. We'll probably score at least 140 goals on the way. We are definitely Premier League quality already...

In proper football we go to Stoke in the League cup, fail to score and lose on penalties. We play Barrow in the tinpot cup and fail to score but win on penalties. In the league we're off to Plymouth and Pool play lovely football but can't walk the ball in the net so fail to score again and also fail to keep it out at the other end. Pre season hero Hamilton is culpable for the goal and, there's evidence that Michael Nottingham might not be the new Bobby Moore after all. There's some cheer soon, as 1000 fans attend the Swindon game (the 'Richie Wellens/Keshi Anderson/Jerry Yates' derby) and we score! Twice! CJ Hamilton redeems himself and is the man to score our first goals for 300 minutes. There's a new lad, called Bez Lubala who looks tasty. He's Sullay but he runs around like a lunatic as well! Everything is fine! Covid is on its way and we'll be back in the ground and knocking in 3 or 4 per game any time soon.  

Gillingham next. We'll knock this lot out of the park. Except we don't and we're unremittingly shite with only cameos for Kaikai and Madine giving us anything to enjoy. We look flimsy and naive and utterly unprepared for the shithouse tactics of league 1 experts. Things go from bad to worse as we concede silly goals to lose a tight game against Lincoln with Jimmy Husband (why is he at centre back?) being sent off. Ipswich then rip through us like we're damp newspaper. New signing Jordan Gabriel is particularly culpable. Another shit signing it seems... Ollie Turton is at centre half. Why? Jordan Thorniley has just played in the tinpot cup against Accy and looked fine. Why does Critch hate him so much? 

What we've learned by now is that Michael Nottingham is not a centre back and Jerry Yates is a non-scoring dud who has had to be exiled out wide to bring in Gary 'plan B' Madine who looks a bit at odds with the 433 but has at least has scored one, bundling in the ugliest goal you could imagine against Ipswich by falling over and scoring by accident. Most of our players are a bit shit and we don't seem to have a plan once things go against us. 

We then draw with Crewe in a game that seems to be a practical joke with Critch sending out the players with the orders 'pass it sideways or backwards if you can see the goal.' Next, we lose to Charlton thanks to Jimmy Husband's suicidal tackle (really Critch.. WHY IS HE AT CENTRE BACK!?) in the opening minutes and a performance that suggested we really don't know how to attack even when we really want to. We don't appear to want to. It's getting a bit frustrating. This isn't the sexy football we thought we were getting although we are quite good at going to the edge of the box and then passing all the way back to Chris Maxwell. 

We've got some skillful footballers but there's a sense that however you mix up Woodburn, Kemp, Bez and co, the outcome is the same. We look quite easy on the eye, but don't really get anywhere. 

Finally some joy comes in the form of a win over MK Dons, but Sullay's neatly taken goal is the only highlight of a horrible game. It's a thrill for people who draw graphs about football and use acronyms to explain them. You can imagine them nodding sagely over 'the terrific shape' of both sides, but it's one of the worst games I've ever seen as a spectacle. 3 points is 3 points though. We're surely off and running now.

Then we go away to Wimbledon and both Dan Ballard (unjustly) and Ethan Robson (no argument) get sent off and we lose again. Yates is that much of a dud that he doesn't even start and though the 9 men do put up a fight, you can't help feel that it's the fight that comes from backs against the wall desperation when the players take things into their own hands. 

By now we know we're an ill disciplined rabbled and maybe we'd be better just letting the players do this for themselves. This can't go on much longer... Surely if we were building something, the foundations would be evident by now? 

Burton Albion are shit, but we've been shit too mostly (apart from CJ, who looks pretty good in general) so this is a big game. Critch makes his first masterstroke here, abandoning the 433 which hasn't worked but seemed to be his calling card and switching to a common or garden 442. There's new signings as well, some Scottish fella who turns out to be an Aussie, who starts in centre midfield and the Viking, who signed a bit ago but had to get used to grass because he'd only ever played on glacial ice on the side of a volcano whilst wearing boots fashioned from polar bear skin before.  I really enjoy this game because whilst it's not the greatest performance ever, we actually make more than 2 or 3 chances and crucially, Jerry Yates turns out not to be shit after all and scores twice. Which is great, cos the lad has run around a lot but I was worried he was more Chris Long than Brett Ormerod.  

We've also got a new assistant manager. Critch seems a lovely fella but you can't imagine him or the jocular looking Mike Garrity stripping the paint off the dressing room wall. Colin Calderwood on the other hand looks like a man who has a quota of one smile a decade. The kind of fella who you would avoid in a pub if he had a pool cue in his hand. He'll make the paint bubble just by looking at it. 

We go on to beat Wigan, Eastbourne, Leeds U23s and then in the performance of the season so far, look absolutely fantastic against Peterborough. We dominate the game, but concede a late equaliser, then sneak it in the last minute with a Gary Goal that seems like it's in slow motion. That's more like it. Against Doncaster we continue where we left off, ripping them to bits for 45 minutes and looking like a team on fire. What the hell happened at half time, we can only guess, as Doncaster destroy us and we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

We erase that display quickly with a clinical dispatching of Harrogate Town and then an absolutely masterful display against Pompey at home where Keshi hits the winner and Ballard has a night that sets the tone for the rest of the season. Critch plays a blinder in this one, switching us back to the now long forgotten 433 which works a treat and features Ethan Robson at his best in a Pool shirt. It's a superb display as is the win against the Cods at Highbury, where he goes back to the 442 and brings back Madine who scores the winner, nodding home a deft free kick from Kaikai. We follow this up with a decent enough draw against Oxford and then another sensational win again Hull City where again, we concede late, but then snatch it at the death (this time CJ with the late killer blow) 

We've learned by now that we're not completely shit after all and that new signings like Dougall, Ballard and Grettarson have made a big difference. Madine has been like a new signing as well and this most un-Critchley-seeming player has been a different man to the indifferent figure we saw last year. He's given us a focal point to work from which has made all the difference, releasing Yates to play football instead of just jumping about not winning the ball. 

With some of the best teams in the division dispatched, it's a decent set of fixtures over Christmas, with plenty of potential points on offer as we look to make up for the slow start. Accy are going well and in a game more like trench warfare, stifle us. That's ok. We'll win the next two... We're abject against Shrewsbury and not much better against Bristol Rovers though. The Shrewsbury match is shit, it's freezing and we never defrost, CJ is out and the best I can do to pick an attacking threat in his absence is to note that Bez 'ran about' and Keshi 'ran into people.' It's as bad as we've played in ages. The Bristol game is entertaining and we do attack a bit more but we deserve to lose again. Maybe we aren't actually any good after all? The only thing that could make this worse is another fucking lockdown but Boris says that's not happening. West Brom are going to murder us in the cup. 

They don't. We're brilliant and Madine is at his best as he and Yates score. He gets even better in the penalty shoot out as he smacks one of the greatest spot kicks I've ever seen right down the middle as if daring the keeper to get in the way of it. What the fuck is this side? We can beat Premier League teams but barely lay a glove on Shrewsbury? 

A highly creditable (lockdown) draw against Hull City follows and then we lose to Brighton in the cup in a game which really sees the beginning of the injury crisis, signalled by the fact that Jordan Thorniley, a player who couldn't have been more frozen out if he'd been sent to Siberia in the middle of winter, gets a start. We go to Wigan with a comically light squad and in a Madine inspired masterclass, batter them 5-0. It's the last time we'll see Gary for a while though. Bez also vanishes from this point onwards, though by now we've worked out that whilst he tries pretty hard, he's more or less the definition of chaos and his game consists of shooting like a maniac wherever and whenever he can. It's quite endearing, but not very effective. 

We limp on to beat Northampton fairly easily, with the at first shaky looking but by now brilliant Marvin scoring one. Jerry bags as well, after a ridiculous throw out from Maxwell sets him away. It's one step forward and two steps back though as Ipswich hand us another footballing lesson in the next match and to be honest, we still can't work out if we're actually decent or not 

We've brought in a few kids on loan but at this point it seems neither a Sunderland reserve nor an untried Everton kid are likely to be the answer. Kemp and Woodburn have gone, as has the mysterious Ollie Sarkic who was a player who was probably quite good at something, but no one really knew what that something was. MJ Williams has been traded for Kevin Stewart who has inferior hair but is better at football. 

By now we now we're definitely a lot more solid than we were at the start of the season but we're still having real problems scoring against anyone who sets out to stop us. We've played pretty well in some games and pretty poorly in others. We're definitely on the up, but after the last loss, we're 16th. Midtable it is then. Upper mid table if we can keep improving. Not bad for a first season I guess. We'd have to go on some mad run to do any better... 

We beat Rochdale, but it's not the most convincing performance in the world, Sullay scoring after a cross from the world's least tricky right winger Matty Virtue. We are much, much more convincing as we beat Pompey again with Jerry scoring a lovely goal and Jimmy saving us with a diving chest off the line. We're off to the Valley next, where we step it up still further and absolutely slaughter Charlton. Virtue (now happily not on the right wing) scores a belter. That's 9 points from 9, we're up to 12th and having played less than most, it feels like it might just be on... We then draw twice at home to Crewe and Wimbledon, and it feels like we've blown the games in hand we've got a bit. We get back on track though, beating MK Dons again in another dismal game, enlivened only by yet another key goal for the sniper but once again, we follow it up with a draw in a game we need to win. Fleetwood are resolute and we just bounce off them for most of the game. 

The next match is a turning point. We draw it yet again and for the first half against Burton, we're awful. Critch however, switches it around at half time and we play as well as we have done all season. It's only a point, but somehow, this point feels different, coming on the back of 45 minutes of proper attacking incisive football inspired by a tactical switch. Up till now, Critch hasn't seemed overly proactive in games but in this one, he gets it spot on. It's a move and a moment that seems to inspire his self belief as much as it does the team. 

We head to fellow play off candidates Oxford and murder them. It's 2-0 but that doesn't do justice to how well we play. Oxford look decent, we look sensational and Kenny Dougall is impeccable, scoring and breaking up play, harrying, snapping and prompting. As if that's not enough, Peterborough are dispatched 3-1, 2 more for the now prolific Jerry Yates and a great display by Grant Ward. That's 5 halves of absolutely sensational football back to back. The only spectre at the feast is fatigue. The squad is on it's arse, with CJ, Madine, Stewart, Virtue, Ekpiteta, Anderson, Grettarson and more all out. We keep having to play random players at centre half and we're hoping against hope that Jerry stays fit as Ellis Simms is still a bit useless at being Gary Madine. 

Tiredness indeed shows as we draw with Plymouth. It takes us 6th but how long can we keep up this form when our play is based on high energy football and we've barely any choice but to field the same team, week after week? We've got a tricky little run as well... Why worry? Swindon are swept aside despite them preparing a pitch that resembles a sub-saharan town square as Ellis Simms starts to limber up for the business end of the season and again Grant Ward bosses midfield. Gillingham who are exactly the sort of side to knock us off form are simply outclassed by an irresistible Jerry with a brace, supported by goals from the reborn Kaikai and his new best mate Embleton. Dan Ballard is magnificent against the Gills' robust approach and is by know approaching cult status despite being a 20 year old loanee. This can't be the team that got taught such a footballing lesson at Priestfield can it? 

Lincoln away is a bit odd. We play as well as we have done in any game, but only get a draw being a bit dozy in front of goal and letting up in the last 20 minutes. Accrington earn a deserved draw with as good a display of defensive football as you'll see. It's so high tempo and in yer face, that you just have to admire it.  We go toe to toe with Sunderland and win which is surely a sign that we've got this but then in true 'Pool fashion, we lose twice, to Rochdale and Shrewsbury. On the one hand, we're pretty much cursed against both of those teams and we're still well short of players. On the other, the curious inability to perform against teams that play a certain way has resurfaced and as brilliant as we have been, we're poor in both games. 

Doubts have arisen but doubts are silenced as Sullay scores the goal of his Blackpool career to beat Sunderland, before getting carted off injured, never to be seen again. Chris Maxwell has an absolute blinder. He's made some incredible stops this year, but at the Stadium of Light he is simply inspired. From here on in, it's a cruise, dispatching Northampton as if swatting aside a fly, rolling Donny over without really seeming to need to try and beating Bristol Rovers despite picking the second string. We're there!

We don't just make the play offs, we absolutely storm into them, with players returning to fitness and Ellis Simms looking three times the player that he did even just a month earlier. Oxford it is... 

We serve up as clinical display of football as you could ask for in the first leg, Even Ollie Turton can't miss the first chance and Ellis Simms is simply sensational. The return at Bloomfield is glorious. Goals, fans and a festive atmosphere that warms the heart on an unseasonably cold evening. Every time Oxford do anything, we just slap them down and Jerry scoring in front of the fans puts a cap on a wonderful night. 

We don't need to worry about Wembley. We (almost) always win there after all... Ollie Turton conspires to give us a few doubts, but as we all know, Kenny Dougall first soothes the nerves, then serves up a joyous winner and the Pool are going up! The day is wonderful and the future is tangerine. Optimism, pride and release as ghosts of the past are vanquished and we witness the previously unthinkable prospect of an owner being cheered to the rafters, embraced by players and fans. Jerry is still dancing now and you'd expect Critch to be wearing a smile of quiet, impish satisfaction well into July. 

We did it! 

It seemed unlikely at first and to be honest, to all but the most serially optimistic, it's quite astonishing how we became so good. By the time Wembley came around, the team had got the aura of one that just 'got the job done' and yet, it's easy to forget how fragile we looked in the first few months and how uninspired we seemed in a fair few games beyond that. Even in March I was bemoaning our inability to pick locks and sweating over the lack of goals from midfield... 

The great joy this year has been seeing players gain in confidence and improve. The same I think is true of Critchley. He's learned fast. He's adapted. He's been big enough to accept that some things haven't worked and he's found answers. Sometimes that's been players he had who weren't in his plans initially (bringing in Madine alongside Yates and going to a bread and butter 442 or rehabilitating Jordan Thorniley for example) and sometimes it's been recruitment from outside (Ballard and Dougall in particular having an absolutely immense impact) - If the first batch of signings made in summer were a distinctly mixed bag, the signings after that have pretty much all been extremely effective. 

This bodes well. Unlike last year, Critch knows what he's got already and he therefore knows what he needs to add. We've performed to our best against just about every side with championship pretensions (bar Ipswich) and that's another good sign. Critchley might have taken some time to work out how to beat teams that come and sit 5 deep and kick you, but anyone who played a bit, he seemed more than a tactical match for. There are less teams who will sit off us in the style of AFC Wimbledon, Plymouth and Accrington (4 points from 18) and more in the mould of Sunderland, Hull and Peterborough (16 points from 18) who will try to beat us. 

That's next year though and tempting as it is to start writing at length about the sheer novelty of knowing that whatever happens, we'll go about it the right way, that we'll give the manager the support they need and that off the pitch, the progress will continue, that the club will continue to develop into one we can be even more proud of, at some point, you just have to stop.

Unless you're Jerry. In which case, you just keep going. 


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