“We dominated,” Blackpool manager Neil McDonald said after this Fylde derby as his side played out a 0-0 draw with Fleetwood Town.
McDonald’s rotund midriff, it is safe to say, dominated the dinner suit he chose to wear for this encounter, but anything else – even factoring in opposing defender, Nathan Pond’s commanding performance – is a fallacy.
Neither manager got it right. Fleetwood’s Steven Pressley has a habit of drifting back to his favoured 4-3-3 formation like a nursery kid wanting to constantly play with the tanks. Boom. Boom. Boom.
4-4-2 with Stefan Scougall at the midfield helm had firmly steadied the Cod Army ship at the end of the tax year (2-0 vs. Peterborough), but Pressley seemingly knows more than the blinkered public (that loyal 2,134 Tuesday night crowd); he prefers to ignore the fluidity before him and cosset what must have been the seed of his footballing thesis.
Striding around, looking anxious, he appears at times unsure. Gone is the man that used to shepherd the ball at Ibrox, Tannadice and Tynecastle. On the radio he sounds fine, but visually he is jumpy, out of control or at least separated from his finer faculties.
This was a game that needed the brave. Blackpool are not the once buoyant maracas that terrorised the Premier League with an audacity made of oak but rather a floundering, ramshackle unit – a band still tuning its instruments as the audience reach for their coats.
There was a sense of fear when Leicester’s on-loan Jacob Blyth entered the fray in the 77th minute and a deepening paranoia over The Seasiders’ voodoo spell, but Fleetwood needed only dispense with the tricycle tactics in order to stamp their authority on this game.
Such a track was too easy of course – not in keeping with SP’s footballing algorithm. He is apt to dish out licences, hand players grand hypothetical headlines but with the load-bearing foundations kicked away.
Fleetwood, quite simply, have no midfield, no thoroughfare when operating under a 4-3-3 system. Jimmy Ryan, that normally unbreakable force in Fleetwood’s lineup, is running gingerly. He is no longer the master of all that he purveys, but a player cortisoned up due to a broken toe – thrown in because the cod becomes haddock without him.
This wasn’t an awful performance, but it was one the likes of former players, Jeff Hughes, Matty Blair, Mark Roberts and Steven Schumacher would have deemed unacceptable. What Fleetwood once had in grit, they now supposedly have in flair and guile (a higher level modus operandi). But badly directed, swagger becomes puff – a distended avalanche of cold air.
“We started the game really well and for the opening 30 minutes I thought we were very good. We lost our way a little bit after that,” Pressley conceded. “I didn’t think it was a great game of football to be perfectly honest. It was a game where there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of pressure on the players. In terms of the way we played it wasn’t our best performance.
“I also thought the effects of returning home at 5am on Wednesday morning [after the Millwall defeat] took its toll in the second half. I will say though that my players showed a mentality and a character when they were tired, and got what could prove to be an important point. The one thing that can’t be associated with us is a lack of energy.”
For the first time in a while, SP’s words did actually stack up. In them was an honest appraisal of what went down at Highbury Stadium on Saturday: anxiety, pressure, Millwall and a dogged effort to resist inertia. Nerves, it seems, are understandably starting to creep in.
Blackpool will claim that they had the greater poise, were able to soak up Fleetwood’s one-fanged attack, but in reality they stank the place out with their ailing matadors and slow-motion football.
The stocky striker Jack Redshaw looked capable, right-back Hayden White offered the odd Championship touch and their keeper Colin Doyle withstood the Cod Army’s modest efforts, but manager Neil McDonald ought to be tried for perjury such is the risible waywardness of his analysis.
“That was a really good performance…We put them on the back foot,” he further pronounced, like a drunken sailor finding himself next to Ben-Hur. Managers tend to lie more at this time of the season though – glue the broken wings of their charges and imagine a better scenario than exists.
If Blackpool survive this season and Fleetwood Town fall, then a Vauxhall Viva is officially better than a Honda Civic and George Formby is a more accomplished artist than Frank Sinatra.
Not that Frank has his voice at the moment. There is a croak and a creek to Fleetwood’s play. Some of the personnel have ability in abundance, but the cough medicine is evidently being withheld. Off-stage one can silently hear SP extolling the virtues of 4-3-3: ‘Stay out on the right, Bobby [Grant]. Scougs, left…you’ll be OK – let Jimmy and Amari’i feed you.’
Except, Scougs (Stefan Scougall) is the head chef, the creator extraordinaire. When SP sensibly went panning for gold in Sheffield, he came back with such a nugget and diminutive wonder. Now, however, he chooses to play him out of position. It is akin to driving a Lamborghini on the pavement.
For the final 20 minutes on Saturday, Fleetwood – before a near-capacity gate of 5,123 – went gung-ho; indulged in a 4-4-2 but with four recognised strikers (two of them out on the wings). This is what SP does. This is the random chaos at the centre of his mind. His theatre script, salvaged from an FTFC dustbin, reads as follows:
60mins (1) Scougall the fall guy. Bring Bally (David Ball) on and similarly play him out of position.
60mins (2) Take Bobby off and replace him with Ash Hunter who has pace and tenacity.
70mins (3) Sacrifice Sarcevic for Shola Ameobi. (Note to self: Keep Devante Cole wondering why on earth he transferred to our club.)
Bally, in the 70th minute, did migrate to his more accustomed role of striker alongside Ameobi – with Wes Burns and Hunter running the wings – but by then Blackpool believed they were something; Pressley allowing their egos to thrive. You show fear, you permit the enemy to grow. Blackpool, not exactly gifted with sublime footballing skills, were being sanctioned to pull moonies.
David Ball was clattered on Saturday as soon as he came on. He took some studs on what appeared to be his left shin (a rumoured half a dozen stitches testament to BFC’s brutality). This accounted for his uncharacteristic early touches – the ball ricocheting off him twice.
The inevitability of such an incident – a limited midfield roughing him up – was always on the cards. Skilled architects don’t belong there. They belong immediately behind the front man. SP believes otherwise. He thinks that Scougall and Ball are interchangeable; oddly tucking Bally inside, placing him in a more vulnerable position.
SP has stayed loyal to his preferred XI of late: Maxwell, McLaughlin, Pond, Jordan, Bell, Ryan, Jónsson, Sarcevic, Grant, Burns & Scougall. Whilst this can often instil consistency and familiarity it does also risk lessening the sharpness of players used to more game time.
Ash Hunter, in this regard, and David Ball looked off the pace. The tempo was seemingly too high. They no longer appear match fit. And given their importance, the flimsy number of minutes afforded them in recent games could rock the notion of super subs saving the day.
If the bookies are to be believed, then Fleetwood are safe. Ladbrokes currently have Blackpool at decimals odds of 1.08 for relegation (a mere £8 profit on a £100 bet), whereas Fleetwood stand at 7.0. Wigan, this coming Saturday, are expected to travel to Bloomfield Road and give Karl Oyston’s estranged team a thorough lesson in footballing wizardry.
If Fleetwood better Blackpool’s result on Monday, 2nd May when they visit Walsall then the orange slump will continue its shocking, Tango-esque implosion into League Two (barring a mathematical cataclysm).
Certainty in football is like spring beginning in the gardens on 20th March each year though. No one can guarantee that the daffodils won’t have already done their stuff. One big daffodil is Jon ‘The Beast’ Parkin – let go by Fleetwood Town in June 2014.
How that roaming tower built from pasties could be used right now given FTFC’s meagre goal output of 49 goals from 44 games. One senses that League One would have been like a kids’ sponge pit to the 6’ 4” Barnsley man.
The Cod Army battle on without their surprisingly gifted donjon, however. Dreamboat performances are rare but it is hoped that they do not have to take a backward step particularly given the recent official opening of their impressive £8m Poolfoot Farm training complex; the real home of the players, as chairman Andy Pilley likes to point out.
Around the corner from Poolfoot sits the Madhatters play centre. One sincerely wishes that Steven Pressley does not need to be housed there once this season ends.