New owners, new team, new hope: Blackpool is winning back fans – Jimmy Armfield would be so proud

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Jimmy Armfield’s son told at his funeral three years ago how his father had once written to him with advice during troubled times. “Don’t give up,” pleaded the former player, manager and broadcaster. ‘Sometimes it is 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 new owner Simon Sadler’s name on it, which read “He’s one of ours,” wasn’t the only evidence of a re-galvanized club on Saturday.

There were the freshly painted stadium beams. The perimeter of the concrete pitch scrubbed clean of seagull deposits. And the seats of the old Zuidtribune in one word. ‘Armfield’.

League One side Blackpool seems to be moving in one direction after five dark and depressing years

The title of a proposed new fan history of the club – ‘Out of the Darkness Comes the Light’ perhaps best sums up what has happened since Sadler replaced the loathed Oyston family two years ago.

It’s been a long way, including efforts to win back fans lost to the Premier League, Fleetwood Town and even AFC Fylde over five dark years culminating in fans boycotting this stadium.

“The relationship with the club has been broken for many fans,” said Andy Higgins, chairman 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 from hedge funds), director Brett Gerrity and the Trust.

Blackpool's well-maintained Bloomfield Road stadium is testament to a re-galvanized club

Blackpool’s well-maintained Bloomfield Road stadium is testament to a re-galvanized club

A decent team too. The arrival of a powerful Sunderland squad still pursuing automatic promotion was a test of whether Blackpool, with 15 unbeaten appearances en route to the game, were real League One promotion candidates. Neil Critchley’s side passed that test.

It’s no surprise to other clubs that Blackpool is well embedded in the play-off positions with six games to play. The manager of a rival League One side noted privately last September that the sheer size of their squad – 39 players in all competitions so far – made them challengers.

But Critchley, who arrived from Liverpool under 23 line-up in March last year, needed a clear mind under heavy early pressure to make it this far. After bringing in 17 players last summer, he went on to lose six games in nine. Perhaps it helped that there were no fans in the stadium at the time.

But then he showed tactical flexibility. Playing two forwards at the front, he won at Burton and Wigan in October and early November – a crucial period in hindsight – he stuck with that system.

The Tangerines defeated Sunderland 1-0 on Saturday afternoon against fellow promotion pursuers of the third tier

The Tangerines defeated Sunderland 1-0 on Saturday afternoon against fellow promotion pursuers of the third tier

It seems no coincidence that the improvement also coincided with the arrival of Colin Calderwood as Critchley’s second assistant in October. The former Northampton Town and Nottingham Forest boss brought with him the senior management experience 42-year-old Critchley lacked. He adds what Critchley calls the ‘helicopter view’.

Critchley seems to be tough when needed. He let borrower Ben Woodburn return to Liverpool when things were not going well, even though Woodburn who signed Covid-19 seemed to have contributed to his troubles.

He also knows what talent looks like. When asked about 27-year-old Luke Garbutt’s loss to Blackpool in June, Carlo Ancelotti replied, “Who?” But Sunderland knows all about Garbutt – a fullback who bombed on Saturday to give Blackpool impressive width.

It was Garbutt who delivered the treacherous low cross from the left, which was deflected by defender Bailey Wright to give Blackpool the lead just before the hour.

And Blackpool legend Jimmy Armfield (center) would be pleased with their strong progress

And Blackpool legend Jimmy Armfield (center) would be pleased with their strong progress

Everton loan striker Ellis Simms, who arrived in January, was also dangerous in a squad that counterattacked with speed, although it was the resilience that saw Blackpool go home. Center-backs Dan Ballard, who was loaned out by Arsenal in October, and Icelandic Daniel Gretarsson, also one of the newcomers in the fall, were both excellent.

For Sunderland, three losses on the spin make automatic promotion an increasingly distant prospect. Callum McFadzean should have been sent off for a cynical foul when he was already on a yellow card. Only veteran Grant Leadbitter was impressed.

The overhaul of Blackpool’s roster has gone so quickly that some fans are still familiar with some of the players who may have enough to bring them back to the championship.

But the club, located in one of the poorest areas in England, has made itself known again to Blackpool. Efforts to rebuild old bridges led the Community Trust to raise £ 25,000 to ensure that children from poorer local families all received a gift in the middle of the lockdown last Christmas, with Sadler matching the amount raised. The Supporters Trust donated, with a total of £ 82,000.

Higgins and the Trust are also renovating three floors of buildings opposite the stadium to create a hub for all Blackpool supporter groups and the former players association. They will call it ‘The Armfield’. Jimmy would have liked that.