22nd May 2010. Wembley Stadium. After falling behind 1-0 and 2-1 to Cardiff City, Blackpool FC secured their return to the top flight of English football for the first time since 1971 with a 3-2 victory in the Championship Play Off final. There was an open top bus parade along the sea front to celebrate which was attended by around 100,000 people. It would be a memorable top flight season, including 2-1 victories both home and away over Liverpool and a 3-1 home win over Tottenham Hotspur, but ultimately it would only be a single season in the Premier League as it would end with a 19th place finish and relegation back to the Championship.
Since then it has all been downhill for the Seasiders, and despite winning promotion from League Two last year they still find themselves languishing in League One. They have one of the worst home attendance records in the country and are regularly outnumbered by travelling fans as the majority of supporters stay away in protest at their current owners the Oyston family. But what has caused the protests? What has happened in Blackpool? How have they fallen from parades attended by 100,000 people to home match attendances regularly under 4,000 (and a very generous 4,000 at that)?
Having lived on the Fylde coast for the best part of 3 years and becoming friends with a number of Blackpool supporters I have decided to look into what has lead to the decline of one of the most famous clubs in English football history.
The Oyston family took control of Blackpool FC in 1988 when Owen Oyston (above) bought the club for £1 to save them from going bankrupt. At the time he was viewed as a hero and a saviour for rescuing the club from the jaws of extinction and why wouldn’t he be? Nobody wants to see their club disappear. However in 1996 opinions soured as Owen, 62 at the time, was convicted of rape and indecent assault of a 16 year old girl and sentenced to a meagre 6 years in prison. These were the only convictions given out of 9 accusations, 4 of which were for rape, all coming from models from the same Manchester agency. During his absence his wife, Vicki Oyston, was placed in charge of the club.
Vicki’s tenure as chairperson didn’t last long, and after what she described as “an ugly ‘Oyston Out’ demonstration by fans at the stadium” she resigned from the role in 1999. Enter Karl Oyston (pictured above), Vicki and Owen’s son, who originally took over as managing director before taking the vacated chairman position and being given full control of the club by his father. Owen had said he would not seek to regain control upon his release from prison so Karl could run things his way.
Things seem to have gone about as well as can be expected for a lower league team under Karl. After relegation to Division 3 at the end of the 1999/00 season they bounced straight back to Division 2 following the 2000/01 season, and they remained in the third tier until 2007.
In 2006 a Latvian businessman by the name of Valeri Belokon (above) purchased a 20% stake in the club through his companies Belokon Holdings and VB Football Assets and would become club president. At the time of taking over he said Blackpool would be a Premier League team in 5 years. Remember this name as – spoiler alert – he will have a big part to play later on in the story.
The Seasiders were promoted to the Championship at the end of the 2006/07 season via the play offs after beating Yeovil 2-0 in the play off final. Their first season back in the second tier ended in near relegation but they managed to survive after a 1-1 draw with Watford on the last day of the season, and they secured a 16th place finish in the 2008/09 season.
In the summer of 2009 Belokon announced there would be a new transfer fund set up, into which he would be contributing a “considerable amount”. Blackpool signed 22 new players, including Scottish midfielder Charlie Adam for £500,000, a club record at the time. Under the management of the always charismatic Ian Holloway Blackpool won promotion to the Premier League, one year earlier than Belokon had predicted. Promotion earned the club an estimated £80 million. The Blackpool players were each due a bonus because of the promotion, reported to be around £400,000 each, but this wasn’t paid until around August 2010 – 3 months after promotion was secured. Charlie Adam took the club to court as he believed he was underpaid by around £20,000 and the court ruled in his favour.
Also in August 2010 Karl Oyston stepped down as chairman and director of the club, saying he had a different approach to other Premier League chairmen and had difficulties dealing with top flight players and their agents. He would remain as acting chief executive. It was later revealed that he had been made bankrupt, which would have prevented him acting as chairman due to Premiership rules. The bankruptcy order was annulled on 12 October, and Oyston returned as chairman and director in 2011.
As previously mentioned it was a short stay in the Premier League and they were back in the Championship for the 2011/12 season. They made the play off final again at the end of that season, however this time they would suffer a 2-1 defeat at the hands of West Ham.
In February of 2012 Karl Oyston was found guilty of dumping hundreds of tonnes of rubble from the construction of a new South Stand at Bloomfield Road in a local field. He and his construction companies were fined over £40,000. The stand itself is a source of controversy, as it was demolished in January 2003 but no building work occurred for over 5 years after that. The Jimmy Armfield Stand was finally completed and opened in March 2010.
2012/13 would see Blackpool finish 15th in the Championship. In 2013/14 they finished 20th, a mere 2 points above the relegation zone.
Fans had started protesting at games against the ownership, irked at a lack of investment following the £80 million windfall gained from promotion to the Premier League just 4 years earlier. The protests were more than understandable, as Oyston had given his father £11 million, other Oyston owned businesses a combined £26 million and bought land around the Bloomfield Road ground for £650,000 then sold it back to the club for £6,500,000 – ten times the price he originally bought it for – after a lease with hotel giants Travelodge had been agreed.
In April 2014 Oyston called for the police to look into death threats he and his family had received from fans. The threats came a few weeks after Karl had been pictured mocking an anti-Oyston banner by his son Sam which was then circulated on Twitter, originating from his sons account.
July 2014 saw a Channel 4 News investigation into the clubs finances reveal that, in the opinion of a forensic accountant, the club was “being run purely for the benefit of Mr Oyston”.
On Saturday 19th July 2014, 3 weeks before the start of the 2014/15 season, Blackpool FC had 8 professional players registered on their books. In an embarrassing move the team had to call off a pre-season freindly with non-league Alfreton Town as they simply did not have a team to field. Thursday 24th July saw Valeri Belokon issue an open letter to the Oyston family, which was published in the Daily Mail, urging the family to spend the final parachute payment they would get due to relegation from the Premier League and TV money from that season (reported to be around a combined £12,000,000) on football and football alone. I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t spent on football and football alone, but I’ll make an educated guess and say it wasn’t.
On 20th December 2014 the club, rock bottom of the Championship, fell to a 6-1 defeat at home to AFC Bournemouth. Unfortunately it wasn’t the result which made the major headlines the next day. It was revealed that between 14-17th November 2014 Karl Oyston had sent text messages to a fan calling him a retard, a fucktard, an intellectual cripple and a thick twat, as well as telling him to enjoy his special needs day out. The fan had got hold of Oyston’s phone number after it had appeared on social media. Oyston issued an apology statement via the club’s official website. Valeri Belokon called for Oyston to quit on the back of the scandal. He didn’t. Oyston was charged with misconduct by the FA 3 months later. In June 2015 an appeal against the charge was unsuccessful, and Oyston was hit with a 6 week ban from all footballing activities and a £40,000 fine.
In one of the other texts Oyston said he was on a “never-ending nightmare revenge mission” in response to the death threats he and his family had received, and the start of 2015 saw him and his father go ahead with the mission all guns blazing. On 7th January Owen and Karl Oyston sued fan David Ragozzino for £150,000 for making defamatory statements against them on an internet forum. 30th January saw another fan, Stephen Sharpe, agree to make a £5,000 contribution to the club’s Community Trust in lieu of damages and legal costs after posting defamatory messages about the Oystons on an internet forum in 2014. 31st January saw Karl turn up to a home game against Brighton & Hove Albion in a Land Rover with the number plate OY51 OUT in an attempt to antagonise protesters. In February 2015 the Oystons went after another fan, Paul Crashley, who owns the Back Henry Street website & forum, suing him for £150,000 for making defamatory statements in 2014. This case was thrown out by the court in December 2016. February 2015 saw another fan, Tim Fielding, chairman of the Blackpool Supporters Trust at the time, issue an apology, resign from his BST chair position and retract statements made about the Oystons after he too was sued for defamation.
On 24th March 2015 supporters group the Tangerine Knights issued an open letter to Owen Oyston, describing the clubs predicament as a “farcical situation” and asking for the club to be put up for sale. “…You must see past family and see that for the future of the club, radical changes must be made. This has to begin with a new chairman and or chief executive and the club being put up for sale.” Needless to say there was no new chairman, no new chief executive and the club wasn’t put up for sale.
In April 2015 another fan was targeted by the Oystons. Frank Knight, a 67 year old pensioner, was sued for £20,000 and this time the Oystons were successful. Knight issued an apology via Facebook and thankfully the £20,000 fine was crowd funded after an appeal was spearheaded by TV personalities Russell Brand and Rachel Riley, leading to over 1,000 contributions. Following this the Oystons issued a statement warning they would go after anyone else who made defamatory comments – “For the avoidance of doubt, the club, directors, management staff and players would far prefer not to take any defamation action against any individual or organisation, but must continue to take action where necessary to combat the false, misleading stories and lies that are being perpetuated.” These warnings were not heeded by all, and in April 2016 the Oystons successfully sued fan Stephen Reed for £30,000 for defamatory postings on the Back Henry Street website.
The end of the 2014/15 season saw Blackpool relegated from the Championship to League One as they finished bottom of the league, 20 points from safety.
The Oystons seemed to be having their way and there wasn’t anything the fans could do about it. But there was something Valeri Belokon could, and did do. In September 2015 Belokon began legal action against the Oystons amid concerns over the alleged transfer of millions of pounds away from the clubs accounts and into the accounts of other Oyston owned businesses. He issued a claim for unfair prejudice at London’s High Court. The action came via his company VB Football Assets but would be taken over by Baltic International Bank, one of his other companies.
2016 saw fans of the Seasiders start the Not a Penny More (NAPM) campaign, an ethical protest against the Oystons. The NAPM campaign meant fans would not and will not spend another penny on the club – on merchandise, tickets or in any other way – until the Oystons have absolutely nothing to do with Blackpool FC.
The 2015/16 season was a new low for the club, as they were relegated for the second season in a row and they found themselves in the fourth tier of English football for the first time in 15 years – a huge fall from the heady heights of the Premier League just 5 years earlier. They bounced back to League One for the 2017/18 season after winning another play off final at Wembley at the end of the 2016/17 season, this time beating Exeter City 2-0, however due to the NAPM campaign there were only just over 5,000 Blackpool fans in attendance.
A trial between the Oystons and Belokon started on 13th December 2016 regarding an investment made by Belokon towards the Jimmy Armfield Stand. On 14th December Karl Oyston admitted Belokon should have been reimbursed for a £6.6 million investment made towards the stand. On 23rd February 2017 the court ruled in favour of Belokon and the Oystons were ordered to pay Valeri approximately £3 million.
That was the beginning of the end for the Oystons. A trial would be held later in 2017 regarding the asset stripping of the club, and it went the way every football fan across the globe wanted it to go. On 6th November 2017 it was ruled that the Oystons had shown unfair prejudice against share holders and they were ordered to buy out Belokon’s 20% share in the club for £31 million. Payments, totaling £35 million were to be made as follows: £10 million by 31st December 2018, £10 million by 31st January 2018, £7.5 million by 30th March 2018 and £7.5 million by 31st May 2018.
Then came the news every Blackpool fan was waiting for – on 10th November 2017, 4 days after the ruling of the court, the Oystons put the club up for sale.
The saga is yet to reach its full happy ending. The Oystons still own Blackpool FC as a new buyer has not stepped forward. But things are definitely moving in the right direction. On Friday 2nd February 2018 Natalie Christopher was appointed chairman and director of the club, taking over from Karl Oyston. She is Karl’s sister but at least she’s not Karl. The Oystons made the first required payment of £10 million on 31st December 2017 but it was revealed this past Monday (5th February) that they did not make the £10 million payment required by 31st January and as such Belokon has been given permission by the High Court to pursue whatever legal methods he sees fit to pursue the remaining £25 million in full. He has come out and said that his planned methods will not pose any threat to the club itself.
The Oystons days are numbered, and not only will Blackpool FC be better when their tenure comes to an end – so will the entire Football League.