Blackpool took a huge punt on appointing Liverpool youth-team coach Neil Critchley despite his lack of experience at senior level. It worked.
At first glance, you would be hard-pressed to find similarities between Blackpool’s managerial situation and that of Champions League winner Thomas Tuchel, but following the Tangerines’ promotion back to the Championship, the patterns soon begin to emerge.
While now the winning manager of the biggest club competition in world football, Tuchel began his coaching career in the shadows by taking charge of FC Augsburg’s B team for a year until his move to the first-team game with FC Mainz.
Norwich City sporting director Stuart Webber has a penchant for poaching managers from the B team game in Germany, appointing Huddersfield Town promotion hero David Wagner in 2015 before the Terriers replaced him with Jan Siewert in January 2019, Webber having long since left for Carrow Road. Within a matter of weeks the Canaries took Daniel Farke, another Borussia Dortmund second team alumnus, to England.
So how does this link to Blackpool? Manager Neil Critchley is rather unique in English football management in that rather than being a recent professional getting his first taste of the dugout after retiring, an old hand on the managerial roundabout or an assistant manager to a more senior figure getting his chance lower down the league ladder, he was plucked from stewardship of Liverpool’s youth team. He worked with the under-23s for three years before getting the call from Blackpool owner Simon Sadler in the summer of 2020.
That Critchley had not even applied for the job, that he had not even thought about taking it, speaks volumes as to where managers not belonging to first-team jobs in the English football pyramid see themselves, yet fewer than 12 months since this inspired appointment, many more may begin walking a similar path.
He may not have come from a B team; it is pretty difficult to do so given the lack of them in English football, Brentford’s wonderful system excluded (more on that later). But taking Critchley, whose Football League playing career consisted of a sole appearance, at that a 3-0 defeat for Crewe Alexandra away at Fulham, from youth-team football represents a change in thinking for a club whose positivity all round in recent years has been refreshing given what came before.
And it was optimism in hiring a man whose sole experiences of coaching in ‘senior’ football were standing in for Jurgen Klopp for a 5-0 defeat to Aston Villa in the League Cup before a 1-0 victory via an own goal against League One Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup. That those opportunities arose because the senior team was away at the Club World Cup and then on a mid-season break means using the term ‘senior’ coaching in the loosest sense.
But there is nothing loose about Critchley’s short and sweet time on the Fylde coastline thus far. Despite a sticky opening, losing five times in his first seven games at the helm, the appointment was already focused on the long-term, knowing what a great manager the Seasiders had on their books. In the end, half of their defeats would come in the first quarter of the season.
It should have been expected. In Critchley’s job at Liverpool, working first with the under-18s and then the 23s, results are often secondary to performance and individual improvement. Many would fear bringing that approach to their club, but for Blackpool it rocked.
One only needs to take a look at the key performers from the season to take heed of that. Jerry Yates, signed from Rotherham United, picked up where he left off with the Millers by failing to notch in any of his first 11 games before picking up a juicy 21 goals on his way to being third top scorer in the third tier.
Yates’s striker partner Ellis Simms – a loanee from Everton – had never played senior football before joining midway through the current campaign and ended on eight goals, with much thanks to the patience and guidance shown by a youth coach from the red side of Liverpool.
Play-off final hero Kenny Dougall had failed to impress himself on English football during his time with Barnsley but has been one of this season’s outstanding midfielders in League One and the confidence this gave the Australian no doubt helped him score the two goals to grab Blackpool a place on the highest rung of the EFL.
Likewise, goalkeeper Chris Maxwell made the switch from bitter rivals Preston and found himself second choice under Terry McPhilips and Simon Grayson before becoming one of the division’s standout keepers under Critchley, with no-one in English football keeping more clean sheets than the 30-year-old this term. Only Manchester City shot stopper Ederson was able to match his tally.
I could double the word count of this article detailing the improvements of almost every single player under Critchley’s tutelage, but that alone tells you just what an amazing job he has done.
Make no mistake, Blackpool deserved this promotion and they may well have gotten it with or without Critchley, but almost any League One club who had the bravery to hire the 42-year-old would have vastly improved their chances of promotion.
One of just 16 people in the world to hold UEFA’s Elite badge – although the certification was disbanded in 2013 after one season of intense learning under which 40 of the brightest English coaches were invited to take part – Critchley has helped take Blackpool back one step closer to the elite of English football.
What comes next for Blackpool is a summer like most other promoted clubs. Some of their key players and outstanding performers may well depart and will certainly be enquired after, while loanees will need replacing or bringing back and Championship experience will also be a requirement. But the Seasiders will be beside some of the best teams in the second tier, standing toe to toe thanks to having one of the greatest and brightest managers in the entirety of the EFL.
There are others who could soon be shown similar opportunities. Brentford have been making great use of their B Team in recent years, with promotion heroes Mads Roerslev and Marcus Forss making the first-team grade over the past couple of seasons, and B Team head coach Neil MacFarlane would make a great manager for any progressive League One or League Two club this summer.
Blackpool have shown that following the German model for managerial recruitment can work in England. Now they must hope that Championship clubs of a stronger standing only take heed with their own examples and leave Critchley at Bloomfield Road for the time being. One way or another, he is destined for the very top.