Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The evolution of Neil Critchley



About a year or so ago, I wrote a smart arsed piece of shite blogging about the questions I had for Neil Critchley. I 'hilariously' imagined meeting him at a cafe in the Cheshire Oaks retail centre, where I hit him with the sort of interrogation that suggested I knew an awful lot about stuff and things.

I am, after all, responsible for such football achievements as writing a blog where I imagined someone's nan on the phone to Nathan Delfouneso worrying about whether Teddy Howe was underfed or not and if he could benefit from a good portion of Jam Roly Poly.

My qualifications to question Critch, were, it seemed at the time, impeccable. 

In other words, I was convinced, this was red hot soccer analysis. 

In retrospect, that blog looks a bit silly cos who the fuck am I to question Neil 'he does what he wants' Critchley? In my defence, at the time, the impish, twinkly eyed tactical wizard seemed a little bit more like a lost garden gnome than the puckish promotion winner he would prove to be. I wasn't to know that, what at the time, manifested itself as a an incredible dedication to coaching the team to pass sideways and not much else would prove to be the foundations of something really special. We'd barely uttered the phrase 'masterclass' yet. 

I'm a football fan. For all the reason and sensible comment. I want to win. Ideally now.

(C'MON POOL! FOR FUCK'S SAKE GET INTO THEM!) 

We weren't winning. Critch wasn't really impressing me. It wasn't just that we weren't winning, it was that we weren't playing particularly inspiring football, we didn't seem to really understand what the division was about. We were making odd decisions. 

His early interviews were polite but his words seemed so carefully measured as to resemble bits of machine cut flat pack furniture. Put a few sentences like 'We'll be expecting a challenge' 'the lads have been great in training' and 'we've done a lot of things right' together and you've assembled yourself a football manager being interviewed. Glue it all together with some long pauses and pop in a few looks into the middle distance and it's a build-your-own Neil Critchley.  

At no point did I ever dislike Critch. It's just it was difficult to actively like the fella initially. He gave so little away. He was, at first, just a little bit, well, underwhelming. Him and Mike Garrity watched on impassively as we flapped and flopped our way through a run of defeats and comical mishaps. Full backs in the middle of defence! Bez! Ollie Super Seven Soccer Star Sarkic! Ipswich ripping us to bits in a matter of minutes! Gillingham flicking our ears and making us cry! (and so on) 

All of this was greeted with a kind of impassive calm that fostered a doubt. Surely we need someone to kick arses. Someone to snarl and growl and shake things up. Not someone to tell us after the game that we had good possession and the group is great. Possession isn't wins Neil! If the group is so fucking great, why do we keep losing? C'mon man! 

All the while though, it felt like, despite the somewhat timid manner, there was something else to this lad. I couldn't put my finger on it but the closest I could get to was the fact that no matter how badly it was going, and how bland the words seemed at times, every week, in the interview before the game, his eyes twinkled with a kind of excitement. His talking might not have lit any fires, but that twinkle was a spark of something. Always next week, always next Saturday. No matter what. 

Gradually, slowly, beautifully, we've seen that little glimmer infuse his whole personality. Gone is the little fella in a body warmer watching mutely as we get mown down by the big lads on the other team. He's vanished. Gone. Forever. Instead, there's a quietly burning wee man who will explode into life if anything goes against us. There's a diminutive figure who points and yells where to play the ball and the players actually listen to him and play it where he says. There's the little bloke who when we win seems to share the moment with everyone, the clenched fist to the crowd, the players hugged close to him, words for everyone, words you can see really mean something. The body warmer that used to give him the air of a bloke stood on the hard shoulder waiting for the AA now carries the aura of some kind of chainmail vest worn by a dwarven warrior. 

There's a stubbly chin and sense of going toe to toe with anyone. What initially came across as impassive, we now recognise as a self belief like no other. If it didn't work this week, we'll just make it work the next. What initially seemed to be intransigence and unwillingness to change has become an uncanny ability to not change when everyone else would and in turn, to swap it about when everyone else would change it and get results by doing so. Critchley is a master of showing a bit more patience than fans have, of giving a tactic or a player that little bit extra time. Fans see bravery as making sweeping changes (and he can and does do that) but sometimes, the boldest thing to do is hold your ground and trust in yourself. 

A fella who seemed at first, out of his depth, a kids coach failing to get through to men, has got serious respect from serious characters like Gary Madine and Richard Keogh. The cuddle he shared with Keogh after a victory was one of the most moving pieces of blokish mutual respect I've ever seen. Madine says he's taught him how to play football properly. Chris Maxwell clearly loves Critch like a good dog loves a good owner. I think Maxi would probably do anything Critch asked of him without questioning it for a second. 

Where once it seemed that he didn't really know what he wanted, now, we just assume that if his plan isn't instantly explicable, that there's some kind of impish tactical mastery going on that mere mortals like us don't understand. Where once he seemed tentative, he now talks passionately. The beauty is, that passion retains self control. To hear him speaking about Blackpool, about us, about the atmosphere, to see that he 'gets' how much it means to people, that he feels the same things we do makes him special. Managers can say 'the fans were great' and then trot off home, but Critch really says it. He says it over and again. He's impassioned. He tells the SKY cameras that we've got the best atmosphere in football and he means it. We get louder every time he does it because he's a good man. A carefully spoken man. A man not given to just running his mouth and saying whatever comes into his mind. What I first took to be a kind of caution or, dare I say it, dullness, now comes across as respect for the people he's addressing - he'll take the time to say exactly what he has to say, with precision. What at first were strange pauses, where he looked to be staring into the middle distance at nothing, now come across as moments of authority where he's looking beyond the immediate. He'll answer in his own time. 

He's talked about what the club is and what it means and now, he's put that in black and white - he's signed on the line. He's pledged to be here and to take us further. He's made us feel like there's no limit. He's given us a team that will never let us down, will leave nothing out there. A team that might not win every game but with a wave of noise behind them everywhere we go seem to feed on the belief we have. I've had some of the best feelings of my life this year. I've never really felt like the fans and the team and club have celebrated as one like this when we've won before. 

Football is fucking ridiculous. It's a stupid thing to get so het up about. Underneath it all I still don't really know who Neil Critchley is but I feel like he knows exactly what football is. He seems to keep it entirely in perspective, he seems to keep it all on an even keel. He brings a kind of measured, controlled intensity that shows no sign of wavering. He never seems fatigued or stressed. He just seems resolute. He seems to believe in absolutes and simplicity. You practice the right things, you work hard when it's time to train, you take care over the game plan and you give it your best. That's as much as I really know about him. 

The greats make things simple. When you read about Pep, it's the endless rondos in training that made Barcelona what it was. One exercise, repeated ad infinitum. Clough was a kaleidoscopic character, a complex and contradictory person but his coaching was really straightforward. Liverpool were build on a three word mantra - pass and move. 

Critchley may not become 'a great' but he has the manner of someone who is captivated by his mission. He seems at one with his purpose, at one with the club. There's no edge to him, just a steely determination to do the best job he possibly can. That's what is so deeply lovable about him. He's just there to do the level best he can. It's not an ego trip, it's just the basic understanding that a football club means a lot to the people who follow it and therefore you owe it to them to give of your best. 

I can't ever have King Billy usurped, his position on the throne is eternal, his dark mahogany, smooth as stout north east tones are the sound of the ultimate human being in my mind, but little Neil has a lot in common with him. He's a man with principles, a man who seems to be able to bring the best out of others, a man who seems to care about the people around him, a man who seems to be loved by the people around him. A man with dignity who believes others should share that dignity with him. A manager who never makes excuses or forgets what his job is and never forgets (where many others do) that football is only there because idiots turn up and cheer it on. A man who improves players and maybe even improves people. It's about context - Billy spun silk from the fewest of threads, Critch has turned base metal into gold. They're both magnificent. We needn't rank them above or below each other. 

In his recent interview, he spoke beautifully and my favourite phrase in it was when he mentioned that we'd had 'a bit of success' so far. That's Crich encapsulated - he exudes a modesty about his own achievements - some managers would still be living off that promotion in 2 years time. At the same time, he has a tremendous ambition - a play off win, is, to him, merely the start of things. 'A bit' of something. Few people can show such ambition without it making them look pretty ugly. 

Critch wears it bloody well. He shares the credit with everyone, he's keen to cite the players, the staff, the board and the people who it's all for - us - at every turn. A victory is never celebrated with the word 'I' - it's always explained with the use of 'we' - it's a collective we, not a royal one. He's got enough ego to believe in what he does, but enough humility to understand he's part of something bigger. For me, the question of what role Caderwood played in the turn around is a moot point - it was Critchley who took on board whatever advice Calderwood gave and Critchley who continues to listen to his entire team now Colin has gone. All he sees is the job - all he has around him is people who want him to succeed and he knows how to use them. 

Lads and lasses of tangerine persuasion... 

Five more years. (FIVE!) (5!) (F.I.V.E) 1.2.3.4.5! FIVE!!!!! 

I actually cannot believe it. 

ONWARD

utmp

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1 comment:

  1. Loved the bit " Billy spun silk from the fewest of threads, Critch has turned base metal into gold"

    I am ashamed to say I was not sure of Critch at first, but now I love him too bits

    ReplyDelete

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