Judgement Day Too

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As you are no doubt aware, Blackpool fans have protests scheduled to co-incide with this saturdays’ game.  Jimmy’s article last week explained why we, at TNS are behind these protests, but we thought it was a good idea to capture the thoughts and feelings on their current situation.  We’re not trying to disuade anyone from what will hopefully be top day of celebration for Latics, but hoefully understanding what’s going on will mean that Blackpool fans get the respect and support they deserve on the day.  Here is Steve Rowland, Chairman of the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust, with his side of the story.

Here we are, at the end of another catastrophic season for Blackpool FC – very possibly a second successive relegation – certainly another Judgement Day, when our long-suffering supporters once again voice their anger and frustration at the continued poor custodianship of the club by the Oystons.

From Premier League to the verge of the bottom tier in five years is an appalling record in itself, though not unique – Portsmouth has already blazed that ignominious trail. What is special about Blackpool’s situation is the repeated claim by the owners that we are “a cash rich club” and “the money is there when it’s wanted”. It’s a paradox provocative enough to make the most reasonable of fans spit feathers.

So what’s really going on? A lot is made of the rapid falling down the leagues and the massive fall-out between owners and supporters, with the Oystons taking fans to court – but the vitriolic opposition to the ruling family that has surfaced in the last three years is nothing new, it’s just intensified since our year in the top flight.

Owen Oyston, allegedly a lifelong Seasider, took over Blackpool FC in May 1987 when it was on the brink of bankruptcy. The Tangerine Apocrypha states that he bought it for £1. Blackpool was a struggling 3rd division club at the time, with gates of around 4,000. Owen likes to say that he saved the club from going under and in one sense, of course, that is correct (although other options were available). He has been saving the club since 1987!

Nearly 30 years on…. Blackpool is a struggling 3rd division club with gates of around 4,000 and Owen Oyston is a multi-millionaire on the Sunday Times Rich List.

For the majority of those nearly 30 years, Blackpool has been in the bottom two divisions of the Football League, scrapping to get by; and twice during that period Owen has tried to relocate the club so he could sell Bloomfield Road (our football ground since 1899) for commercial redevelopment. We now have the stadium registered as an ACV – Asset of Community Value – the first one in Blackpool.

The only significant change in the footballing fortunes of the club came in 2006 with the arrival, as a 20% shareholder, of wealthy Latvian Valeri Belokon. His investment (some of it in the form of loans) assisted with the renovation of the stadium and enabled the purchase of key players who were instrumental in Blackpool’s rise to the Premier League in May 2010.

We were in the top flight for only one season (though shrewd investment in a good reserve goalkeeper in the January transfer window almost certainly would have ensured our survival). We almost got straight back the following year, losing the play-off final at Wembley much against the run of play on the day.

Since then, despite a financial legacy from that year in the Premier League of over £100 million, Belokon has been side-lined and is currently pursuing a High Court case against the Oystons under section 994 of the Companies Act; the perception is that not a great deal of the Premier League millions has gone into the footballing side of Oyston’s business empire; and that which has been invested in the football club has not been wisely placed – poor managerial appointments, an over-reliance on short-term contracts and loan players.

The paradigm changed as a result of our season in the Premier League. The majority of the 15,000+ fans who enjoyed that short rise to the top and temporarily put aside their reservations about the Oystons, have come to regard the subsequent lack of vision, ambition and appropriate investment in the club by Owen Oyston and his son Karl as the cynical squandering of a legacy. Positions have hardened and many a life-long Blackpool supporter will not step inside Bloomfield Road again until the Oystons are no longer part of Blackpool FC.

Owen has conceded: “The directors of Blackpool Football Club, and obviously I am included, have made some bad decisions, the consequences of which we are suffering from.” He also said: “I really believe that we can get back to winning ways and return to the top flight. For my part, I am dedicating my life to achieving the success that we all want.”

We’ve heard this sort of charm offensive before. Words are meaningless unless they are backed up by actions. If Owen Oyston really was the lifelong Blackpool supporter he claims to be, then as majority shareholder he would have taken decisive action after last May’s Judgement Day.

He should have stood down his son as chairman, appointed a Director of Football to ensure strategic direction, put in place a competent Chief Executive who has a proper understanding of how to run a professional football club and appointed a manager with both ambition and a proven track record, all of this backed up with some of the millions he claims are available if needed.

That he chose to make none of those tough decisions just confirms everyone’s deep-seated belief that the Oystons are all about maximising profit and minimising loss, are risk-averse but happy to be on the receiving end of good luck when it arises. It is widely perceived that the footballing side of the business – the club – has not benefitted from the success of 2010/11 as it ought to have done. There is not the merest hint that there is any ambition, a long-term plan, or the astute investment to back it up, to lift Blackpool out of this slide down the divisions towards non-league football. Maybe the undeclared goal, as rumoured, is to wind the club up and sell or build on the land.

Many supporters have joined an ethical boycott this season, not going in to home games, buying the ‘alternative’ shirt rather than the official replica kit, using one of the few sanctions available to customers who are not happy with the service they are getting. If it were anything other than a football club, we’d all just seek another service provider, but football clubs are not just businesses (though there is nothing wrong with investors making a reasonable return). They are social enterprises. If Blackpool FC goes to the wall, it is a community that suffers. It is we the fans who, over decades, have poured both our emotions and our hard-earned wages into watching the team, buying the shirts, scarves, TV sports packages. Our money funds this ‘industry’ and without the fans – the real heart and soul of any football club – there would be nothing worth.

The final home game against Wigan on Saturday may be the one to crown the visitors as champions and consign Blackpool to relegation. It is a very sad state of affairs when life-long Seasiders supporters start thinking that relegation might even be a good thing if it hastens a change of ownership at Bloomfield Road. We are organising another end of season protest – Judgement Day 2 – starting in central Blackpool at 10:30 and marching down the promenade to the stadium. We are calling on the Oystons to agree to sell the club to new owners, people who are prepared to invest with ambition and a respect for the proud history of Blackpool FC and its deeply hurting fans. Supporters from every football club are welcome to join the march and show solidarity. We may be opponents on the football field but off it we are all united as supporters wanting the best for football fans everywhere regardless of the colours they wear.


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