Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Not an interview with Critch (part 2)

Some years ago in the middle of a pandemic, I didn't interview Neil Critchley.

We didn't sit down for a (decaff) coffee at his favourite garden centre cafe somewhere on the outskirts of Warrington. He didn't greet me with a cheery 'how was the drive?' nor did he refer to roads by number alone, removing the usual prefix assuming a certain level of driving knowledge would allow you to differentiate your M's from your A's and B's - 'did you take the 56 or come down the 6?' 

None of this happened, though I'm convinced that the interview I didn't do was a turning point for the club.... (I did after all invent Gary Madine coming out of the sea which ultimately led to Roma's kit launch) ... what with Colin 'not Ian Brunskill' Calderwood appearing out of nowhere as if in response about 2 days later.

It's almost certainly a case of coincidence being mistaken for causality but if you're going to write nearly 400 episodes of a shit blog, then you've got to tell yourself that it's more than just shouting into the darkness cos if you don't make some meaning for what you do, no fucker else is going to. 

I still find Neil 'Critch' Critchley an enigma. He's a mystery wrapped up in a very mundane packaging. He's like a John Lewis delivery with no address label* I'd love to get into his head. I'd love to ask him what makes him tick. I'd love to ask him some more thought provoking questions than the usual ones he gets which generally amounts to: 

'A good/bad day at the office Neil. Your thoughts?' 
'What did you see in (insert name of ex Crewe player) that makes him a good fit for this squad?' 
'(Insert name of opposition) on Tuesday/Saturday Neil, how is the squad looking?' 

It must be boring as fuck being Critch in interviews. Being a lower league manager means you get to play at the press conference thing but with none of the scale and spectacle (and tricky questions) that comes with the big leagues. 

*I've never actually ordered anything from John Lewis - I imagine whatever it is they sell comes in a very sensible box though. 

To this end, I decided once again to not interview Critch. I didn't write to the clubs press officer, who didn't grant me permission and I didn't get in the car and drive back towards Cheshire and meet Critchley at a different location - a sports bar opposite a driving range that does paninis at lunchtime. 

I didn't shake Critch's hand as he strode over and said 'Nice to not see you again' and I didn't reply 'likewise Neil.' He wasn't wearing his body warmer over a light pink polo shirt and he didn't order a Kaliber. We didn't exchange small talk that amounted to me asking if he played golf here, to which he didn't reply 'No, I do find watching the repetitive practice kind of soothing though.' There didn't follow a short silence which I didn't break by not offering up the observation 'did you know Panino is actually the singular of the plural Panini' to which Critch never replied 'is that right' and I never responded with 'I think so, actually, I'm not 100% sure' 

Then, with the pleasantries not out of the way, we didn't start the interview. 

These are the questions I would have asked: 


Did you enjoy playing Neil? Do you think it's important for players to enjoy themselves? 

What did you learn from your first spell? What made you plump for a very different set up? Last time around wide players were crucial - Anderson, Kaikai and Bowler were all essential - why have you moved to a set up without out and out attacking wide men? 

What do you make of what seems to be a lack of real on pitch leadership? You've bemoaned the players' decision making at times and their inability to follow instructions - who are the real dressing room leaders and how do you go about transferring that on to the pitch? There's no Madine or Keogh types in the squad it seems. Players who will bang heads together on the pitch. Is that problematic? 

The most successful player this season was signed almost by accident. Did you think the squad you were taking over was better than it turned out to be? 

Again, returning to the first time around, a mark of the way you managed both the League One promotion and the relatively successful Championship season was tactical flexibility. This time round, it's been almost the opposite, with you sticking rigidly to a formation (with swapping a second 8 for a 10 being more or less the major change across the season.) - Was that an attempt to address the concern some had that we were successful but that it was difficult to recruit for a chameleonic side?  

Do the players get frustrated with setting up more or less the same way every week? After Wembley Jerry Yates hailed you as a 'tactical genius' on the pitch - but this year, it seems there's been a lot less innovation? It would be fascinating to know if there's any push back from the squad in playing the same way week in week out, especially when it's been going badly away from home?

On a similar note, there's been a real lack of impact from the bench this season. I think we've only won once from a position of not taking the lead in a game. I can only think of the second half vs Fleetwood and the early days of Dembele when he was a sub where there was a genuine impact from the bench. Is that down to 'like for like' changes or simply not having enough variety in the type of players we have? 

How do you deal with dissent? Do you listen to it? Do you adopt the Clough maxim of 'we have a conversation and then decide I'm right?' Do you just ignore it? 

The formation you've chosen relies on quality wing backs. We all know CJ brings searing pace but lacks the touch that would make him a real top level player if he had it. Why have you been so determined to make him first choice at RWB when we've got both Gabriel and Lyons - two players who most supporters rate highly who seem well suited to the role? Does his continual inclusion speak of a lack of pace in the squad? 

How much do we miss a quality target man? Jake Beesley has been injured more than not. Kouassi is sporadically unplayable but also then anonymous. You've been critical of us going long, but in the Championship, Grimshaw to Madine was the most hit pass by any keeper in the league - is there a reason you haven't sought a quality hold up player to supplement the squad? 

On paper, central midfield should be a strength. We've got numerous players who can play there, including some who held their own in the Championship. Why is it that baring a spell when Kenny Dougall was playing really well, we struggle to control the centre of the pitch? Is it the players or the shape? 

Similarly, last time round we had a ridiculous defence - it was a back 4 and you almost never played a 5 unless forced to. In fact, you were far more likely to play a midfield 5 than a defensive 5. Why do we never start with a 4 and perhaps even more tellingly, switch to a 4 mid game to release an extra player up to the pitch when we've got 3 players who were important elements (Gabriel, Husband and Ekpiteta) in last promotions campaigns' back 4 so it's not as if you'd be going with a totally unknown element is it? 

Kaddy is obviously a wonderful talent. Are you concerned that he's a marked man now? Do you look at the squad and see options for creativity if the other team are getting tight on him? How does leaving Apter at Tranmere and letting Dale go square with having cover for our main creative force? Do we have the players to interchange and play fluidly? Why don't we rotate attacking players more and ask more questions? 

You've brought in Ian Brunskill and Mike Garrity three times now (here, QPR and here again) - yet your management record is significantly better with an outsider on the staff. What do you see that they bring? 

Here's one that might be naive. I understand the short goal kicks business and the knocking about at the back is to invite and then break the press. That makes sense. Everyone more or less does that. What, for the life of me I can't understand is why we never take a quick throw. We always have the ball ready, then stop and wait for the right or left wing back to come and take a throw once the other team have reset. Why? 

Similarly, I don't grasp why we never leave a player out for corners. CJ, for example, is not good in the air, but he'd beat 99% of opposition players in a footrace. Why do we always do all 10 players back at every corner we defend? 

You're obviously steeped in youth coaching. You've spent the majority of your time in football preparing young players. No one has stepped up under your management to become even a semi regular player. We saw how Port Vale's youngsters (very raw players) did a job for them against us - why do you favour an experienced square peg sometimes to an inexperienced round one? 

How do you deal with players who don't give their all? Do you see it as a confidence issue, a sense of burnout, an attitude issue? Football is relentless and you can't take for granted that every player will put themselves and their career on the line for every tackle in every single game. How do you get that sort of commitment? 

Have you changed as a person following your experiences at Villa and QPR? Having such a rough year can't have been easy. You've worked mostly behind the scenes, then your time at Blackpool was spent firstly behind closed doors, then with a largely positive fan base backing you. To experience it turn twice on you in a short space of time can't have been enjoyable... Has it had an impact on the way you think about football? Do you spend the same amount of time on the details as once you did for example? Has it made you more pragmatic or more idealistic? 

What's the greatest football team you've ever seen? The one you dream of when you send your team onto the pitch? 

If you could only choose to tell a team one thing which was either 'Attack! score one more goal than them and we'll win' or 'keep it tight and we'll win more than we lose' which would you choose? 

How hard was it to make a transition from youth coach (focused on technique and compliance with a game plan above all) to being a manager (results are everything) - what's the biggest thing you've learned in the last 4 years? 

When you're coaching players, do you shape the players to the system or the system to the players? It feels a bit like you've taken two opposite approaches in your two spells. If I was taking over a football club tomorrow, which approach would you advise I take of those two? 

What's on the car stereo? 

With the questions out of the way, we don't shake hands again. I don't thank Critch for his time. He doesn't order a skimmed milk latte (double decaf) to takeaway and doesn't ask me if I want anything whilst he's getting his. He's a nice fella, so I resist saying 'some fucking substitutes that change things and a sense of urgency Neil for fucks sake' and just say 'no, thanks, I appreciate the offer though' and feel slightly guilty at giving him a hard time. 

With that, the interview that didn't happen isn't over.

After all it never got started did it? 


Then, in the real world, I read this and I felt sad. In the words of the music hall song, 'Things, ain't what they used to be' 

I didn't want Critch to go as he did and I didn't want him to come back when he did and I'm not enjoying the second coming as I made myself hope that I would. I've done my level best to put aside my doubts and try to believe but... 

Tuesday was as bad as we've been for a long time. There was no 'but they spend way more than us' get out clause. There was also no sense that 'it's just a blip' or 'it's early days' - it was the nadir of a series of rank bad performances against sides of a similar nature and Critchley doesn't seem to have the answer to stop them. If anything, we've got worse over time. Yes, we can beat a good side, but half this division aren't good sides and thus, it's going to be a struggle unless you have another way to play sometimes. 

The team look flat and languid. They look, with few exceptions, like they don't believe. This is a side where, Lyons aside, Critch has either signed or or given a significant contract extension to every single one of them. This isn't 'first season' stuff. He's been Blackpool manager for just about 3 years overall and whilst he can't be blamed directly for the shit show last year, he was picking up with a whole group of players who knew him and what he wanted and that's not a usual situation for a manager. 

It is, in my humble blogging wanker opinion, time for Critchley to start plotting the tactical masterclass to end all tactical masterclasses and to concoct a plan B,C,D and for good measure a plan E. Things really need a shake up and if he doesn't shake it up, then he'll need to be shaken up himself.

Such is football. 


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1 comment:

  1. A great blog as always. Another couple of questions would be (1) why do we play a right footer (Lyons) as Left wing back, as he gets the ball and has to knock it back to Hubby and (2) why lump a high ball from defence, missing out the midfield completely, to Lavery and Joseph? They have exactly zero chance of wining the ball.
    All fans near me in the South, including myself, are shouting for a player on the half way line when the opposition have corners. I am glad you also included that in your blog.


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