Neil McDonald interview: Blackpool manager has ignored warnings in bid to lift 'toxic' club

Life Beyond the Premier League

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The Independent Football

On paper, the job of Blackpool manager looks like the proverbial poisoned chalice. This is a club described as “toxic” by previous manager Lee Clark, a club newly relegated from the Championship and divided by a bitter conflict between its owners and supporters – some of whom took their protests on to the pitch at the last home game of last season, causing its abandonment (and earning a suspended three-point deduction and prospective stadium ban in the event of a repeat).

Even Neil McDonald, the new manager, admits that when he sought advice about taking the post, he received “mixed” feedback. Some told him “don’t go there”, but others said the opposite, including Sam Allardyce, McDonald’s longstanding colleague. Allardyce was once sacked by Owen Oyston, owner of Blackpool and father of chairman Karl, but his message to McDonald – his erstwhile no2 at Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham – was “why not?”. 

McDonald, 49, explains: “I spoke to a few people who said, ‘It is a big football club. OK it hasn’t had the best of times over the last two or three years with problems off the pitch but you have to believe in your own ability that you can turn that round’. Lee [Clark] told me it was difficult off the pitch but if you win games or play well the crowd is buzzing.”

It was five years ago tomorrow that a buzzing Blackpool, under Ian Holloway, kicked off their solitary season in the Premier League with a 4-0 win at Wigan. McDonald is their fifth permanent manager since Holloway but the first since him to begin his reign by introducing himself in person to every single staff member at the club – the first step in his efforts to raise morale. “There’s a good atmosphere around the place and everybody is optimistic and that’s a change from when we first came in and it was doom and gloom,” he says.

The 49-year-old could have been forgiven for feeling gloomy on the day of the Independent’s visit, given the loss of two goalkeeping coaches just before the season began, but he insisted life inside the club was not as bleak as portrayed. “The pitch is rubbish? No it’s not – it has been relaid. The pitches at the training ground are rubbish? No they’re not. Struggling to bring players in? No we haven’t.”

Benefitting from footballers’ tunnel vision – “all they want to do is play” –  he has built a hungry young team; his 11 new faces may include Emmerson Boyce, the 35-year-old ex-Wigan defender, but seven of them are 24 or under, and his captain, defender David Ferguson, is just 21. They showed promise in an opening 2-2 draw at Colchester, when Mark Cullen, the new £180,000 striker, scored twice, but their inexperience told in Tuesday’s 3-0 League Cup loss at League Two side Northampton.

McDonald, the former Newcastle and Everton full-back, has achieved six previous promotions as player and coach and will look to draw on his experience at West Ham where as Allardyce’s assistant he helped transformed the mood of a club relegated under Avram Grant in 2011. Not surprisingly, he defends Allardyce’s record in turning “a place that was not full of confidence [with] older players who didn’t really want to be there into a vibrant new team. To say the four years we were there weren’t as good as they were is lazy and is not telling the truth about how we progressed the club.”

McDonald’s own previous experience as a No1 is confined to Carlisle United – where in 2006/07 he led the Cumbrians to eighth position in League One and attracted their highest average crowd since the mid-70s – and Swedish second division side Ostersunds. He saved the part-timers from relegation after being parachuted in for their final five games. “It was the first time I’ve had a sing-song with players bringing guitars on to the team bus,” he smiles.

At Blackpool, he might find the background noise less agreeable. Their first pre-season friendly at Lancaster City was abandoned after fans invaded the pitch. The Tangerine Knights supporters’ group (one of whose members was called “a retard” by Karl Oyston last term at the cost of a six-week FA ban) will protest outside the ground before McDonald’s first home game against Rochdale on Saturday. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust are in the process of replying to a list of questions sent by Owen Oyston in response to their offer to take over the club in a £23m leveraged buyout. While that goes on, there are many fans vowing to stay away. All McDonald can do in the meantime is try to get things right on the pitch. “I said to a couple of people who said they weren’t coming back, ‘Well, you’re going to miss a lot of good stuff. Keep an eye on it’. Hopefully they’ll change their mind.”

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