There is a story of quiet achievement going on in League One right now, and Tom Simmonds has come to praise the achiever Gary Bowyer, a quiet man who has proved himself to be something of a crisis manager extraordinaire over his career.
The name of Blackpool Football Club has occupied many column inches in the last few years, in an almost wholly negative way. In fairness to those who have written those words, much of that has come about as a result of the club’s spectacular fall from grace since being relegated from the Premier League in 2012 and narrow failure to return immediately in 2013 after losing to West Ham in the Championship play-off final. It has been a non-stop diet of bad news since, and the stand-off between the club’s fans and owners, the Oyston family, is the backdrop against which Bowyer inherited the job in summer 2016.
What Bowyer achieved last season was remarkable enough, getting Blackpool promoted back into League One at the first attempt after the turmoil of the preceding years. That he did it while fans were boycotting games in protest at the Oystons launching libel actions against dissenting fans. This took hold to the extent that only 3,882 were at Bloomfield Road for their play-off semi-final first leg win over Luton. This continued for the 2-1 final win over Exeter City in May, with only a small knot of Tangerines fans making the trip to Wembley.
Blackpool’s fine start to the season sees them currently sit ninth in League One after 14 games. Their 3-1 defeat to title favourites Wigan on Saturday, notwithstanding, Blackpool’s form so far this season is a marker of how far Bowyer has not only managed to both implement a siege mentality and convince his players that it is them against the world, but also to get them to relax and enjoy their football.
They were heavily backed to be relegated in pre-season, a situation thought to be made more inevitable by the loss of goalscoring midfielder Brad Potts to Barnsley over the summer and the injury to last season’s top scorer Mark Cullen. However, as their route to League One shows, this is not a team to give in to setbacks. They won a last day bunfight with Colchester and Wycombe to claim the final play-off spot and then progressed to Wembley by scoring the winner against Luton in the fourth minute of injury time in the second leg.
That spirit has continued this season too, perhaps best epitomised by their 3-3 draw with Doncaster in the third game of the season, in which they went behind 3 times but recovered each time by virtue of two belting long range goals from Newcastle loanee Sean Longstaff and Oliver Turton before Callum Cooke provided a good finish to a slick passing move that could not have been put together by an anxious team. A seven-match unbeaten run in the league through August and September is also a positive indicator. This run included a fine 3-1 win over heavily-fancied Oxford and a good 0-0 draw at Scunthorpe in which the Tangerines had the better chances.
One thing that has become apparent from looking at Blackpool’s goals this season is that they have a taste for scoring from long range. Eight of their 20 league goals so far this season have come from outside the box. Longstaff’s screamer to open the scoring in a 2-1 win over Oldham, Kyle Vassell and Cooke contributed belters in that win vs Oxford and two from skipper Jimmy Ryan and ex-Villa man Nathan Delfouneso which secured a 3-1 midweek away win at Plymouth are further examples of a fruitful shoot-on-sight policy.
Blackpool have recently added some midfield steel in the shape of former Liverpool and Bolton man Jay Spearing to balance this attacking largesse, and Bowyer will hope that his bad luck with injuries will be restricted to the loss of Cullen.
But, who is Gary Bowyer?
As a man who has studiously avoided drawing attention to himself throughout his career, the casual observer may well ask that question. He is the son of Nottingham Forest legend Ian Bowyer, who made 416 appearances for the Tricky Trees across two spells and who was a key part of the Forest side to win the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. Sadly for Bowyer Jr, his playing career was not to come close to that of his father, though emulating Bowyer Sr’s success would be demanding for any player.
Gary, a full-back, got his break in 1989, signing for the Hereford United side his father was managing at the time. His form was good enough in the 14 games he played for the Bulls to earn him a chance to create another piece of family history at the City Ground. Bowyer Jr was not to make a single first team appearance for Forest in his five years at the club, a period encompassing the end of Brian Clough’s reign and relegation from the Premier League by a wide margin in 1992-93.
The immediate renaissance under Frank Clark’s stewardship (immediate promotion in 1993-94 and a third-placed finish in the Premier League in 1994-95) meant that Bowyer was unable to dislodge the established names such as Stuart Pearce and Des Lyttle, from their positions. A move to Rotherham in 1995 saw him play the bulk of his professional games (38 across two seasons) before his career was cruelly curtailed by injury.
That prompted an early move into coaching, and Bowyer did the hard yards in non-league to begin learning his craft, starting as a coach at Ilkeston Town before taking his first job as a number one in leafy Surrey, at Carshalton Athletic, in 1998. His time at Colston Avenue stood him in good stead for what he was to face in the professional game over a decade later. He kept the Robins in the Ryman Premier League twice during a turbulent period when the club was in severe financial trouble and the ownership changed twice.
From there, Bowyer then moved into the professional game, firstly as a coach in Derby’s academy before he moved to Ewood Park to take charge of Blackburn’s Under 18 team in 2004. He moved up to become reserve team manager in 2008 and established himself as a Mr Reliable in the club’s infrastructure, much in the vein of Tony Parkes, Rovers’ serial caretaker manager whenever they needed somebody to take the team in-between managers.
Bowyer’s chance to do this came in 2013 when Venky’s, the notorious owners of Blackburn who have overseen a near perpetual downward spiral in the club’s fortunes since buying it in late 2010 gave him the caretaker reigns in March 2013 after sacking Steve Kean. While the initial move may have been made because the Venky’s saw Bowyer as an expendable fall guy, his solid record of three wins and three draws in the nine games he was given saw him given the job permanently for the 2013-14 season.
In his unshowy and undemonstrative way, Bowyer guided Rovers to a finish of eighth in the Championship. The goals of Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede and the clever midfield play of Tom Cairney and Ben Marshall were formidable weapons with which to work, of course, but given the context in which he was working, to get Rovers within two points of a play-off place was quite some achievement. The ninth-place finish he delivered in 2014-15 was also a solid showing, and is also an achievement for which his sacking in November 2015 showed little respect.
There will always be fans and football watchers who will question whether making things easier for owners like the Oystons and Venky’s by virtue of improving results in straitened circumstances sends the right message out in terms of what owners can get away with. That is not a question that was popularly asked of Sir Alex Ferguson when he was still delivering trophies to Old Trafford after the Glazers swamped Manchester United in debt to buy the club. The same question should not be asked of Bowyer. The fact is, football managers generally get jobs because there is something deeply wrong at a club which cannot be sorted out by the previous incumbent.
Bowyer, in his work at Blackburn and his feat in currently outperforming his old club in League One with Blackpool, has shown that he is extraordinarily adept at steering a straight course through unholy messes. He does not get much media attention, but I suspect that is how he likes it. He will have respect within the game for his work and I also suspect that is what this dignified, highly-skilled introvert will really prize.
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