This has been a long, hard-fought and bruising bout. In the tangerine corner, the man from Latvia who invested his money and faith in Blackpool FC, told us he’d take us to the Premier League in five years and accomplished it in four. In the naughty corner, the tag-team who appear to have taken us to the cleaners, joked about ‘Operation Conference’, sued fans and have overseen a decline at the club of staggering and cynical proportions. That there has been something of a revival of late counts for little with the majority of supporters who have already made their own judgment known, not once or twice but three years in a row now.
The High Court will shortly issue its own ruling regarding Mr Belokon’s claim of unfair prejudice.
While we all wait to hear what that will be – because it has such a profound bearing on what happens next at Blackpool FC – the ruling by the English Football League that Mr Belokon has failed its Owners and Directors Test (ODT) has done more than raise a few eyebrows and merits some commentary.
The stated intention of the ODT (it used to be called the ‘fit and proper persons test’) is to protect the image and integrity of the EFL and its competitions, the well-being of the clubs, and the interests of all of the stakeholders in those clubs, by preventing anyone who is subject to a 'disqualifying condition' being involved in or influencing the management or administration of a club in the league.
One of the grounds on which an individual may be ‘disqualified’ is if he or she is subject to an unspent conviction by a court of competent jurisdiction anywhere in the world that results in a sentence of at least 12 months’ imprisonment.
As Blackpool Supporters’ Trust understands it, Mr Belokon regards his conviction in absentia by the Court of Kyrgyzstan to 20 years in prison for ‘financial irregularities’ as baseless. A statement issued at the time claimed “The charges have been completely fabricated in apparent revenge for the decision rendered by the International Court of Arbitration ordering the Kyrgyz Government to pay to Valeri Belokon US$16.5 million as compensation for unlawful expropriation of his bank. The (Kyrgyz) judgment therefore is not recognized and is not enforced in the Republic of Latvia or the European Union.”
The EFL may feel it had no option in the circumstances – until there is clarity and resolution regarding the Kyrgyz judgment - other than to serve a disqualification on Mr Belokon and by extension on his representatives on the board of Blackpool FC, though many other authorities in the west would call into question both the independence and the competence of the Kyrgyz judiciary, just as there are those who question whether the EFL’s own ODT process is fit-for-purpose.
It should be remembered that, to his credit, Mr Belokon stood down as a director of Blackpool FC some time before the EFL ruling was released, as he believed it was in the best interests of the good name of the club.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the EFL allows the opportunity for an individual to challenge a disqualification, with specific appeal rights in respect of convictions imposed by courts in foreign jurisdictions.
The Trust is sometimes accused of putting all its eggs in one basket by relying on a favourable outcome in court for Valeri Belokon. This is not the case, but BST has to acknowledge that until the High Court action against the Oystons is settled, it is difficult for the football club to move forward in any meaningful way. It is not unreasonable to consider that one possible outcome is for the Latvians to take over the ownership of the club post judgment. Valeri Belokon made promises at the start of his involvement with Blackpool FC and always delivered on those promises. He has never let us down and remains interested and concerned about Blackpool FC and its fans. Whether that will translate into ownership remains to be seen. The reality is that we simply do not know how the situation will develop and to that end we can only watch and wait.
What we do know is that a large percentage of the fan base will not return while the Oystons are involved and for that reason, having a strong a credible Trust representing the majority of the supporters is essential moving forward. If we want our club to thrive, we need everyone pulling in the same direction and that is simply never going to happen under the current regime. No football club can survive when most of its fans are withholding their financial support and it is absurd to think that the owners can ride out the boycott indefinitely. This may be an inconvenient truth but it needs to be faced. Potential new owners, whether that be Mr Belokon or someone else, will be well aware of the current situation and the stand that so many Blackpool fans have taken. The supporters of Blackpool FC have shown themselves to be strong, principled and determined and it will be in the best interests of new owners to acknowledge this and ensure that in future we are respected and involved in the running of our community club.
Blackpool Supporters’ Trust holds its Annual General Meeting this Saturday 7th October at the Excelsior on Lytham Road, starting at 1pm. It is open to the general public, so if you are not yet a member of BST and want to see and hear at first-hand what the Trust stands for, come along and find out.
Saturday is also Non-League Football day, so everyone is encouraged to go to AFC Blackpool’s home game at 3pm vs Abbey Hulton United. Entry is free and there will be a bucket collection in support of Prostate Cancer Research.