Creating Change through Pressure, Protest and Scrutiny
– a presentation to the Supporters’ Summit by BST chairman, Steve Rowland.
We live in interesting times. Political events of the last few weeks have demonstrated that. Life as a roller-coaster is a metaphor we’re very fond of in Blackpool - for reasons that some of you will be aware, I’m sure.
I attended my first supporters’ summit back in 2014 when Blackpool Supporters’ Trust had only recently been formed. It feels like a lot longer than two years ago! This afternoon I’ll share with you something of our roller-coaster ride as we’ve looked for ways to try and bring about change at Blackpool through pressure, protest and scrutiny.
I sat inside this stadium on a sweltering May afternoon as the class of 2010 took us to the top division for the first time in 40 years. Along with getting married and my kids being born, it stands as one of the greatest days of my life. That holds true for thousands of other Blackpool fans as well. For a relatively small, relatively unfashionable club as we’d become by then, it was a remarkable achievement.
Five years after that Wembley triumph, disillusioned and angry Blackpool fans occupied the pitch at Bloomfield Road in protest against the owners of their club. We had just finished bottom of the Championship with the lowest ever points total. That game was abandoned …and we all knew that worse was to come.
So what has really been going on to cause the tangerine dream to turn into a nightmare?
When we got promoted to the Premier League it was a huge boost for Blackpool and the whole region. The owners promised that they were making a lasting commitment to the town and the community. They failed to deliver. They didn’t even strengthen the squad sufficiently to keep us in the top flight. Investing in a decent reserve goalkeeper would have been sufficient – but there was no Plan A, let alone a plan B. As Ian Holloway famously observed, Blackpool football club was a castle built on sand.
We got into the play-off final again the following season, and lost. More ambitious or committed owners would have invested to ensure an automatic return, as Burnley have just done. The parachute payments were there to assist. But investing to grow the business requires a plan – and by his own admission our chairman has never had one for the football club, which was just one component of a business empire.
When fans expressed their dissatisfaction at the way the club was being run they were effectively told they didn’t know what they were talking about – Blackpool being a cash rich club and the envy of the league, to paraphrase Karl Oyston. As managers came and went and players opted to go elsewhere rather than renew less-than-favourable contracts, all the talk was of a legacy squandered and this being no way to run a football club (a comment for which the pundit concerned was sued).
We started the 2014/15 season with a squad of only 8 registered first-team players and a bunch of trialists! We were bookies favourites to finish bottom and we didn’t disappoint! The recent 2015/16 has been no better. The club, our club, has become a “pitiful, toxic, shambolic mess”. With one of the most expensive squads in Division One we managed a second successive relegation. That’s top flight to bottom tier in 5 years! Who would have thought supporting a football club could be so difficult? And how does it happen that a cash-rich club plummets to the bottom of the league?
This somewhat paradoxical legacy is Owen Oyston’s. He took over Blackpool FC in May 1987. Allegedly he bought it for £1. Blackpool was a 3rd division club at the time, on the brink of bankruptcy, 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 nearly 30 years on, Blackpool is a 4th division club with gates of under 4,000!
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 it is rumoured that twice during that period the owner 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 Asset of Community Value - the first one in Blackpool. The significant change in our footballing fortunes came in 2006 with the arrival, as a 20% shareholder, of wealthy Latvian Valeri Belokon. The partnership looked promising. Belokon’s investment assisted with the renovation of the stadium and the purchase of key players who were instrumental in Blackpool's rise to the Premier League.
Since then, despite a financial legacy from that year in the Premier League of over £100 million, Belokon has fallen out with the Oystons, ostensibly over how monies from the Premier League were deployed. He 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 that season in the Premier League. The subsequent lack of vision, ambition and appropriate investment in the club by Owen Oyston and his son Karl has created this unacceptable paradox of a cash-rich club performing abysmally for several years in succession when it had been given such a priceless platform for sustainable success. The money wasn’t going where it was supposed to go.
Enter Blackpool Supporters’ Trust! Blackpool already had a supporters’ association, enshrined in the club charter as the only fans organisation that the chairman would dialogue with. Many of us were members of that association but found it ineffectual as a voice and an agent of change. We wanted something truly independent, democratic and representative of the fan base. Blackpool Supporters’ Trust was constituted in early 2014 as concern grew among fans at the way millions of pounds were coming into the club but were being diverted or loaned out to Oyston businesses within the Company rather than being invested in improving the team, the training facilities, the stadium. “Put football first” was our mantra.
It is quite understandable that fans were getting very frustrated and angry at what they perceived to be the poor custodianship of their club. Some went beyond the bounds of what is acceptable and ended up getting sued by the owners – a largely unnecessary response and huge own goal for the Oystons. In the Trust, we knew we had to work to bring pressure by all legitimate means, taking the moral high ground, and we set ourselves up to be open, democratic, transparent and accountable – all the things the football club was not. We soon had over 1,500 members voting for actions the Trust should take and we had a mandate from them to try and represent our concerns to the club, pressing for change, sound investment, a strategic plan, before matters got worse. The chairman said he would never talk with us (despite the fact we are the largest fans organisation there has ever been at Blackpool) because the club charter only recognised the supporters association. Matters on and off the field continued to get worse.
In terms of the pressure we could bring to bear, we decided that a priority was to get the message out about the toxic situation at the football club and its negative impact on the wider community – but not just that, we wanted to give some positive focus as well. This was in early 2015 and there was a general election coming up. We funded an independent candidate in Blackpool South and ran a campaign highlighting the issues. We hosted one of only three hustings in the constituency and every candidate attended apart from the Conservative. Every candidate pledged that they would work with the Supporters’ Trust to improve the right of fans if they won the seat. Our man didn’t overturn the secure Labour majority but he did poll nearly as many votes as the LibDem candidate and that established the Trust as a credible voice in local affairs.
We also got ourselves a regular and fairly hard-hitting weekly column in the local paper (which by this time was itself at loggerheads with the club). The Trust had something approaching 2,000 members at this stage but the weekly column gave us access to 30,000 readers and sympathy for the position of the supporters spread well beyond those just interested in football matters.
Given that the owners were refusing to hold any form of dialogue with us we decided to try and resolve the situation by tabling a ‘bid’ for the club. As a Trust we didn’t have any funds with which to purchase Blackpool FC so we positioned our bid as follows: “Mr Oyston, you have made millions out of the success of the club in recent years, millions which you have invested in associated businesses but which morally belongs to the football club. Give us the stadium, the training ground and enough cash-in-bank to run the team for a couple of years until we find new investors and you can walk away with the rest (some £16m in property and collateral).” They declined to negotiate and didn’t see the irony of the situation.
We knew that it was going to prove difficult to remove owners who really didn’t want to go without being offered something well over the odds for the football club so we realised that pursuing change through governance was vital. To that end, we engaged with our local MPs in Blackpool North and South and tried to get the local council to intervene. Both MPs (one Tory one Labour) are sympathetic to our cause and are trying to get an adjournment debate about what’s happening at the club tabled in the House of Commons. We addressed a full Blackpool Council meeting earlier this year and although the Labour Leader of the Council told us that football and politics don’t mix, the leading Conservative councillor has held talks with Owen Oyston and has called publicly for Karl Oyston to stand down as chairman.
We have persuaded both BBC and ITV to run stories about what is happening in our club and have negotiated them access to Valeri Belokon for his input. BBC north-west filmed an ‘Inside Out’ documentary about unrest at the club that was aired earlier this year. All publicity is better than none - but what we have discovered is these media people are more intent on sensationalising events than on giving a well-explained analysis of what’s going or presenting the aims and arguments of the Supporters’ Trust. We have concluded that we need to fund our own short film about the meltdown at Bloomfield Road and we have begun discussions with a documentary film maker.
As well as the agitprop aspects of the campaign we’re engaged in, we also feel it’s important to cater to the heart and soul of being a Blackpool supporter. The club’s own traditional ‘end-of-season’ dinner has not been held for a few years now because of fan unrest and poor results. The Trust has stepped in with alternatives. Last May we held a gala dinner at the Blackpool Hilton to honour the team of 2010. They all turned up. We were allowed the trophy back for the evening. It was a hugely emotional and well-supported night that raised £10,000 for Gary Parkinson (ex-Blackpool coach who is suffering with ‘locked-in’ syndrome) and gave a taste of what things could be like again if/when we get our club back. Next month we are organising a game to celebrate the career of Blackpool legend, Brett Ormerod. That game won’t be played at Bloomfield Road but at nearby AFC Fylde’s new stadium. It’s the only way fans would agree to attend.
Brett’s team will be wearing the Trust’s ‘alternative shirt’. As consumers unhappy with the service we’ve been getting from the owners of the club, we are engaged in an ethical boycott of what they have to offer in an attempt to hasten a change of heart or policy in the boardroom. The boycott is not binding on members, because they have the right to choose whether they take part in it or not, but ‘not a penny more’ has resulted in considerable loss of revenue for the owners in the last two years, the alternative shirt has outsold the official club replica kit, season ticket sales are a fraction of what they have been in past seasons and thousands of Blackpool fans will never set foot inside Bloomfield Road again until there is significant change at the top or the Oystons sell up and leave.
We have a website www.blackpoolsupporterstrust.com and a facebook page. We are active on social media and regularly post constructive critiques of what is happening at the club, trying to keep the debate factual and positive, to keep supporters informed and energised but also to appeal to those forces beyond the confines of the football world.
All of the above are beginning to have an impact. We are now in the initial stages of dialogue with Owen Oyston. He claims to recognise that the club is at a watershed. A cash-rich club with no fans will not be viable for very long. He accepted an invitation to attend our last general meeting – the first time he has met face to face with fans for 20 years. It was a highly charged meeting, filmed by the BBC and streamed live on the internet to those who couldn’t attend. Whether hearing what the fans had to say: “stop litigation, sack the chairman, invest in the football or just go!” will move him to act or not, we shall see. I suspect this dialogue would not have happened but for the pressure in its various forms that we have been applying over the last two years. Of course there is deep cynicism about the owner’s motives. Promises have been made before and not delivered on. Only positive change will bring the fans back.
Meanwhile we are also involved in dialogue with potential buyers of the club. Owen Oyston has always said Blackpool FC is not for sale but everything has its price and its moment.
We prefer to call them demonstrations, not protests – demonstrations of our passion for the club and our dissatisfaction with the current custodians. What is impressive about the situation at Blackpool is just how long the supporters have been speaking out in various ways and how creative they have been in their tactics.
We started with chanting at games, then came the proliferation of Oyston Out scarves (which have been seen at every league ground in the country and lots of other venues as well) and various media-attracting acts of fan ‘theatre’, many of them orchestrated by the Tangerine Knights. As criticism mounted in late 2014 Karl Oyston said “Judge us in May” and Judgement Day in May 2015 saw 3,000 march up Bloomfield Road to the stadium to give their verdict. Pictures and reportage went all over the world on the back of that day’s game being abandoned. By the way, the Supporters Trust didn’t call for and didn’t condone the encroachment on the pitch but we had every sympathy with the fans who chose to take that step.
The ethical boycott of home games has certainly taken its toll in the last two years and true attendance at Bloomfield Road has been a lot lower than published figures (because they include thousands of season ticket holders at every game even though those fans didn’t go through the turnstiles).
I mentioned the suing of fans. A few individuals did overstep the mark but suing them has created more ill-feeling amongst supporters than almost anything else the Oystons have done and the litigation is being extended to so-called pitch invaders, even though the police classed it as a peaceful protest and brought no charges. The club was fined £50,000 by the FA over the incident and many see the civil cases being brought against fans as an attempt by the owners to recoup that money. A fund-raising organisation justice4fans has been set up to help truly deserving cases of hardship resulting from litigation by the owners.
One year on from Judgement Day, with another relegation looming, we organised Judgement Day 2 but with a community twist – to demonstrate that it’s not just football fans who are hurting but the whole community. 4,000 people joined that demonstration, which closed the centre of the town down and then streamed along the promenade to the ground: football fans, community groups, business owners. There were more people outside the stadium than inside it on that last day of the season.
As we ramp up the protests it is important to ensure that their impact is positive. We always liaise with the police and the council to ensure the safety and legality of what we do and we’ve garnered a lot of good will for the way we’ve conducted the campaign to date. Legitimate protest has to be lawful protest or we would lose the moral high ground. It’s a difficult line to tread, harnessing people’s anger and frustration while steering them away from actions that we can’t condone. Usually, common sense prevails.
The biggest concern in all of this is the length of time it might take to achieve a positive result for our supporters. We feel like exiles in our own country! The club we love is being systematically wrecked before our eyes – whether through incompetence or cynical design is hard to tell. Not going to matches for months, possibly years on end is a daunting prospect. It wrecks traditional family Saturdays. It makes it hard to capture the imagination and loyalty of a new generation of young supporters. Occasional and well-planned protests like the two judgement day demonstrations keep the focus.
Blackpool clearly is not alone in this predicament. There are other clubs in crisis here today. We all need to work together, to share ideas, support and solidarity, united in pursuit of a better charter of governance for the game that will give a fairer deal to all supporters.
What we are learning is how important it is to be really on the ball the whole time, scrutinising what the owners are doing. One of our main stated aims is to “hold the club’s owners to account in the interests of the community” and we take that responsibility seriously.
That means being sceptical of everything, analysing the financial dealings of the club (from such data as are available), demanding greater transparency, establishing a network of informed and dedicated people, questioning decisions publicly (we’ve been promised new training facilities for a decade now…), making and logging formal requests for information, voicing legitimate concerns and calling for answers, building factual archives from which to challenge misinformation.
It’s really about being the moral compass for a social enterprise, which is what a football club is, trying to keep it honest to its original intended purpose on behalf of thousands of increasingly disenfranchised supporters. It is a commitment we will never waver from. We are on the path to becoming as competent and professional about it as the club’s own officials – some would say more so.
We do this also in anticipation of the day when supporters will have a much greater say in the direction and running of their football club, maybe even owning it collectively. It is, after all, our club. Without the supporters it would be nothing. And we want it back! Thank you for listening.