Sports journalist Ian Ridley interviewed Karl Oyston in 2010 for his book There’s A Golden Sky. Ridley was writing a wide-ranging assessment of the state of the nation’s favourite sport and how the ascendancy of the Premier League has changed football in this country for ever.
Chapter 1 of Ridley’s book is titled Up The Pool and focuses on Blackpool’s surprise arrival in the top flight. It is well worth reading if you get the chance. It is referenced here because it contains a couple of interesting quotes from ‘the powerful, parsimonious Karl Oyston’; (that is Ridley’s terse assessment of the Blackpool chairman). The most depressing quote? ‘With the money this season and with the parachute payments of £12 million a season for the next four years, even if we go straight back down, this could set up the club forever, if we do it right.’
The Oystons will have owned Blackpool FC for thirty years in 2018. For most of the first twenty of those years, they showed little sense of ambition for the club and little appetite to invest some of their multi-millions in transforming its fortunes. (Remember that even the money to start upgrading the stadium was largely derived from grants from the Football Foundation.) So it remained little Blackpool, competing for better or worse in the bottom two divisions of the league.
The transformation really began to happen with the arrival of Valeri Belokon as a shareholder in the club. His investment and his ambition catalysed the upturn at Blackpool FC. What actually got the club to the Premier League was a lot of good luck, an injection of funds from Belokon to procure a decent enough squad and the arrival of a manager who inspired them to pull off a minor miracle. That it occurred at all was hugely against the odds. It seemed to happen despite, not because of, anything the Oystons had done.
Getting to the Premier League certainly changed Blackpool FC for ever, to hark back to Ian Ridley’s book. It created a new level of expectation among long-suffering supporters. It showed what a potential and what an appetite there was for a successful football club on the Fylde coast. It offered an opportunity, as Karl Oyston recognised, to ‘set up the club forever’, to move away permanently from the barely-scraping-by little Blackpool of the ’80s and’90s and set up a sustainable, modern football club, a fitting legacy to the achievement of the 2009/10/11 squad.
In hindsight, the depressing truth is that was never going to happen under the current regime.
Ridley’s chapter on Blackpool also quotes the chairman as saying: ‘I am absolutely adamant we will not change the approach we have had for the last 11 years and what has got us here.’
Therein lies the problem.
As the last few seasons have demonstrated, the owners failed to ‘do it right’ because, despite the opportunities afforded by elevation to the top flight, the chairman never took the appropriate steps to consolidate and improve the structure and long-term standing of the football club.
Even when, after relegation from the Premier League, Holloway and the team nearly pulled off the miracle a second time, it didn’t seem to occur to Karl Oyston that he would need to change his approach - and that, if he didn’t, when the luck finally ran out, everything would fall apart. Consequently, everything fell apart.
It appears that once Karl Oyston had effectively side-lined Belokon in the boardroom in 2012 and that relationship had broken down, probably irretrievably, there were no checks and balances in place to counter the powerful parsimony of the chairman. It seems that bad decision after bad decision was made and changing the manager regularly barely papered over the cracks caused by poor policy-making. Karl Oyston rightly criticised those clubs whose reckless living-beyond-their-means brought them to the edge of extinction, but Blackpool FC also began to disintegrate thanks to a risk-averse and penny-pinching short-termism every bit as debilitating as the excess to be found at the other end of the spectrum. Blackpool FC may have no debts but it still finds itself in the bottom division a mere six years after being in the Premier League.
Put starkly, in all likelihood Karl Oyston is not ideal football club chairman material. By his own admission, he had no great love for the game and only stepped up to the role to relieve his mother of the burden. It is hard to believe, given the well-documented events of the last couple of years, that he has any feeling for what it is like to be a fan, or any particular affinity with supporters, the majority of whom he has alienated by his manner of running the club and subsequent resort to legal action against certain individuals. If, as has been rumoured, the chairman believes he is engaged in a civil war with the majority of fans and would rather see the club crash and burn than embrace mediation and change the way he does things, the storm will continue to beset Bloomfield Road for a while yet.
Even if the suing had never happened, the Oystons’ seeming unwillingness or inability to ‘do it right’ has lost them all credibility with the majority of supporters who are just waiting now for a change at the top, for someone who loves football, loves Blackpool FC and will back up that passion with appropriate investment. It requires the Oystons to do the honourable thing and be prepared to sell the club for a fair price. Under new ownership, the dream can be realised again. At the end of the storm there’s a golden sky…