What are we to make of the announcement last Friday, just four days after that momentous High Court judgement in favour of Valeri Belokon, that the Oystons had put Blackpool FC up for sale? It was something they had long contended they would never do, even though it is an open secret that they were entertaining plans to sell the franchise of the club to a consortium in 2015.
The initial response was a tangible wave of euphoria sweeping through Blackpool, the Fylde coast and beyond, a sense of impending liberation. On the face of it, the fact that the football club has been put on the market so rapidly is beyond the wildest dreams of most supporters; and while it is broadly agreed that the future of Blackpool FC must be brighter without the Oystons, it is also true that many fans will be worried about the period of uncertainty which is bound to follow their decision to sell. Is it one more cynical tactic? No target price has been stated, though one expert witness in the High Court case placed a £5.5m valuation on the football club. Can a sensible market valuation for the club and the stadium complex be arrived at? And can a deal be concluded with an investor or investors sympathetic to the history or our club and the ambitions of its supporters?
Successive BST committees have worked very hard to establish the Trust as a strong and relevant group, capable of representing all Blackpool fans. To those new owners, whoever they may be, we suggest that our reputation and connection with the wider football world and the football authorities will be of great importance in the months ahead.
It needs to be remembered that the judgment made in London last week was in a private action brought by one businessman against his business partners and that the Oystons’ conduct was found to have been unfairly prejudicial towards Valeri Belokon and his shareholding. Of course the implication is clearly that the Oystons acted unfairly to the football club as well, in their ‘illegitimate stripping of Blackpool FC’, a judgement likely to prove damning to their reputation and finances. However, it was only Belokon’s shareholding and clout that brought about such a result. If there had been no minority shareholder with a significant investment in the club, then the Oystons would have been able to carry on diverting assets that ought to have been re-invested into progressing the football club - and no one would have been able to do anything about it. This legal action has brought into sharp focus the fact that football governance is currently simply not fit for purpose: for football fans who invest huge sums of money, time and emotion into our clubs, there is no such recourse to law when things go wrong. Who speaks for us?
Blackpool Supporters’ Trust, along with many other fan organisations, is determined to help bring about a change to this unacceptable state of affairs. We should not have to wait with trepidation to find out who our new owners will be and how they will run the club. Good ownership must not be a matter of ‘pot luck’.
There is an EFL board meeting this week and they will be reviewing the implications of last week’s High Court ruling. At the very least Judge Marcus Smith’s forensic judgement must call into question whether the Oystons have been fit and proper custodians of our football club. It should also impel the EFL to overhaul their totally inadequate rules concerning owners and directors. The situation at Blackpool is probably the worst case of poor stewardship of a football club and the damage to club and community that ensues when rogue owners are allowed to go unchecked. In light of what has happened at our club, BST will encourage the EFL to use Blackpool as a case study in their attempts to evaluate a more rigorous set of regulations and assessments for owners and directors. At least then something good might be created from a situation which has been so very bad.
As has been said, it is to be hoped that new owners will want to engage with the supporters in taking the club forward. Blackpool fans have proved themselves a force to be reckoned with and we have not fought so hard for so long just to sit back and be taken advantage of again. Our club has huge potential and will progress far more successfully if owners, fans and the community are all pulling in the same direction. How can this progressive alignment be achieved?
The Trust is in the process of finalising a supporters’ manifesto for our club. The draft manifesto has already been utilised as part of the Fans Not Numbers campaign and will hopefully be the model for all football clubs and football governance in the future. Putting fans at the heart of our club is fundamental for a progressive club. The draft manifesto itemises ways in which that could be achieved. Among them is a proposal for democratic fan representation on the board of directors, preferably based upon a percentage supporter shareholding in the club. Ideally, a Supporters’ Trust should own shares in its club; whether that be 10, 20 or a greater percentage is open for discussion and negotiation. To pave the way for such a possibility BST is also proposing a Blackpool FC ‘Pledge’ to line up funds for a number of purposes – to demonstrate to potential new owners/investors that there is a sizeable fan base waiting to return and recommit to an Oyston-free club; to help fund the ongoing campaign for regulatory reform of the game; and in readiness to finance a supporter shareholding in Blackpool FC.