Jimmy Armfield’s son related at his funeral three years ago how, during difficult times, his father had once written to him with advice. ‘Don’t give up,’ the former player, manager and broadcaster implored him. ‘Sometimes it’s just time for a change. Persevere.’
If only Armfield had lived to see how much this wisdom applies to his beloved Blackpool. The banner with the name of new owner Simon Sadler’s name on it, proclaiming ‘He’s one of our own,’ was not the only evidence of a re-galvanised club on Saturday.
There were the freshly painted stadium stanchions. The concrete pitch perimeter scrubbed clean of seagull deposits. And the seats of the old South Stand bearing one word. ‘Armfield’.
League One side Blackpool look to be a side on the up after five dark and depressing years
The title of a proposed new fans’ history of the club – ‘Out of the darkness comes the light’ perhaps best encapsulates what has happened since Sadler replaced the detested Oyston family, two years ago.
It’s been a long road, including attempts to win back fans lost to the Premier League, Fleetwood Town and even AFC Fylde during five dark years which culminated in fans boycotting this stadium.
‘The relationship with the club was severed for a lot of fans,’ says Andy Higgins, chair of the Blackpool Supporters Trust. ‘It’s almost a lost generation. We want to get them back and hope we can.’
The new owners’ respect for supporters helps. There are now regular virtual meetings between Sadler (a Hong Kong-based businessman who made his fortune in hedge funds), director Brett Gerrity and the Trust.
Blackpool’s well-maintained stadium, Bloomfield Road, is evidence of a re-galvanised club
So does a decent team. The arrival of a powerful Sunderland side still chasing automatic promotion was a test of whether Blackpool, 15 games unbeaten heading into the game, really were League One promotion candidates, too. Neil Critchley’s side passed that test.
It’s no surprise to other clubs that Blackpool are well embedded in the play-off positions with six games to play. A rival League One side’s manager observed privately last September that the sheer size of their squad – 39 players fielded in all competitions so far – made them challengers.
But Critchley, who arrived from Liverpool’s under-23 set-up on March last year, has needed a clear mind under severe early pressure to take things this far. Having brought in 17 players last summer, he proceeded to lose six games in nine. It perhaps helped that there no fans in the stadium at that time.
But he then displayed tactical flexibility. When playing two strikers up front brought wins at Burton and Wigan in October and early November – a pivotal period, in retrospect – he stuck with that system.
The Tangerines beat fellow third-tier promotion chasers Sunderland 1-0 on Saturday afternoon
It seems no coincidence the improvement also coincided with Colin Calderwood’s arrived as a second assistant to Critchley, in October. The former Northampton Town and Nottingham Forest boss brought the senior management experience that 42-year-old Critchley lacked. He adds what Critchley calls the ‘helicopter view.’
Critchley seems to be tough when it is necessary. He let loanee Ben Woodburn return to Liverpool when things did not work out, even though Woodburn contracting Covid-19 seemed to have contributed to his difficulties.
He also knows what talent looks like. When Carlo Ancelotti was asked about losing 27-year-old Luke Garbutt to Blackpool in June, he replied: ‘Who?’ But Sunderland know all about Garbutt – a wing back who bombed on to give Blackpool impressive width on Saturday.
It was Garbutt who delivered the treacherous low cross from the left which was deflected in off defender Bailey Wright to put Blackpool ahead, just before the hour.
And Blackpool legend Jimmy Armfield (centre) would be delighted at their strong progress
Everton loan striker Ellis Simms, who arrived in January, was also dangerous in a side who counter attack with pace, though it was resilience that saw Blackpool home. Central defenders Dan Ballard, taken on loan from Arsenal in October, and Icelandic Daniel Gretarsson, another of the autumn incomers, were both outstanding.
For Sunderland, three wins on the spin make automatic promotion an increasingly remote prospect. Callum McFadzean should have been dismissed for a cynical foul when already on a yellow card. Only veteran Grant Leadbitter impressed.
The overhaul of Blackpool’s squad has been so rapid that some fans are still familiarising with some of the players who might have enough to take them back to the Championship.
But the club, located in one of the poorest districts in England, has made itself known to Blackpool again. Attempts to re-build old bridges saw the Supporters’ Trust raise £25,000 to ensure children from poorer local families all received a gift in the midst of lockdown last Christmas – with Sadler matching the sum raised.
Higgins and the Trust are also renovating three floors of premises opposite the stadium to create a hub for all Blackpool supporters groups and the former players’ association. They will call it ‘The Armfield’. Jimmy would have liked that.