Sam Allardyce and the Albion squad take what will be a welcome break from Premier League action for the traditional FA Cup Third Road weekend at the beginning of the year. Obviously the absence of fans makes it a little different to normal, as will the need to decide the tie on the day with replays not possible due to the congested fixture list.
The Baggies travel to Lancashire to take on League One side, Blackpool, a first meeting between the sides for almost a decade when both clubs were in the Premier League. The Seasiders subsequently endured a drop to the fourth tier as the Oyston family’s ownership of the club came under increased scrutiny. In spite of the off-field disputes, they were promoted to League One via the play-offs in 2017 and the Oystons finally sold the club to locally-born investment manager, Simon Sadler, in the summer of 2019.
Current head coach, Neil Critchley, took over from Simon Grayson in March last year for his first management role having previously been the U23 coach at Liverpool. Having finished the curtailed 2019/20 campaign in mid-table, Blackpool struggled at the start of this season winning just one of their first ten games in all competitions, but ten wins in the subsequent seventeen fixtures has seen them move into a mid-table league position and, of course, progress to the third round of the FA Cup with comfortable away wins at Eastbourne Borough and Harrogate Town.
Having conceded 17 goals in their last four games at the Hawthorns, I’m guessing that Albion will be happy to be playing away this weekend. While the Baggies are still looking for their first win on the road this season, only Newcastle United have scored more than one goal against them away from home since the 2-0 defeat to Fulham at the beginning of November despite playing at Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, albeit that Albion’s ineffectiveness in attack means that just three points have been earned on the road all season.
This match is likely to be something different at least. Not only are Sam Allardyce’s team playing opposition from two divisions below, but we are all expecting significant changes in the starting line up. Big Sam has indicated that he will give opportunities to the squad members who he hasn’t seen too much of so far in his four games in charge.
The likes of Kyle Edwards, Kamil Grosicki, Rekeem Harper and Cédric Kipré could expect to get a chance while Charlie Austin could also be up for a start – he has been linked with a return to QPR but with Karlan Grant and Hal Robson-Kanu unavailable through injury, the options up front are limited. Cheikh Diaby is another possibility with the French youngster having been impressing for the PL2 side this season with five goals in his last five games.
Sam Field is another who will be keen to get his first team career back on track having now recovered from injury to play in the last PL2 fixture just before Christmas. Jake Livermore will be available having missed the last three games through suspension, as will Conor Gallagher despite picking up a fifth yellow card against Arsenal – cumulative yellow card suspensions are now competition-specific so he will serve a one game ban for the Wolves game next weekend.
Another player who will be keen to make an impact is new signing, Robert Snodgrass, whose transfer from West Ham United was completed on Friday. It’s not a signing that fills me with excitement, but then neither did Kevin Campbell back in 2005 and he certainly made a difference.
The 33-year-old (former) Scottish international is the first of a few that Allardyce is hoping to get in over the course of the month with a defensive midfielder, striker and defender apparently on the wish list, not that Snodgrass fits into any of those particularly!
The FA Cup should represent some light relief for Allardyce, although the last time he was involved in an FA Cup tie with Albion, it was anything but. He was a first team coach under Brian Talbot for the infamous 4-2 home defeat by Woking 30 years ago this week, a result that saw Talbot sacked along with Allardyce two days later.
I’d be surprised if defeat would have a similar impact this season with the FA Cup very much a secondary priority for Albion this season, but a win would be a confidence boost if nothing else.