As the hours on match day ebb by, kick-off slowly drawing ever closer, terraced streets surrounding countless football stadiums across the country buzz with activity as supporters seek to reach their sacred place early enough to perform their weekly rituals; the fans’ pilgrimage incomplete until they have broken bread – or a pie crust – over a pint at their local, leafed through the match day programme, or nosed around their club shop.
On most weekends, the cobbled streets that lead to Charlton Athletic’s south London home, The Valley, are no different, albeit a little emptier in recent months.
However, on 15 October 2016, the street itself could scarcely be seen through the crowds as Floyd Road reverberated to the beat of a mettlesome march, those in attendance marked by two distinct colours; flashes of sky blue punctuating a sea of red. This march, though full of indignant, determined faces, was peaceful and unlike most match days expressed little distinction between fans of opposing teams. Far from being segregated, the blues and reds coalesced like watercolours.
In what was reported as a first in English football, together the fans of Charlton Athletic and the day’s opponents, Coventry City, united in opposition not of each other but of their oppressive owners, in a powerful joint protest. Bonded by the commonality of their struggles, fans of Charlton and Coventry married together their protestations to make a statement far greater than the sum of its parts.
As they marched they paraded signs, chanted in unison and sang for the removal of the owners of both clubs. The unmistakable targets: Charlton’s Belgian “regime” leader Roland Duchâtelet and Coventry’s “mysterious hedge fund” owners SISU.
The fact remains that the quandary Charlton and Coventry fans find themselves in is becoming increasingly familiar in the modern game. More and more clubs across the country are being acquired by owners with little to no concern for the approval of the fans, the ambitions they hold or the traditions they adhere to, leaving them torn between supporting their team and denouncing their owner’s sabotaging of their club.
Sad though it is – that it should take such troublesome circumstances to bring supporters of opposing teams together, in the face of such adversity – a great number of fans are finding their voices against oppressive ownership.
Charlton’s unenviable ownership issues can be traced back to January 2014 when multimillionaire businessman Roland Duchâtelet completed his takeover of the club. Lauded by some as a grand new era of opportunity in Charlton Athletic’s storied history, fans eagerly awaited the signs of evolution.
Languishing in 19th place in the Championship at the time, hopeful Addicks embraced the chaos and met the change in ownership with great optimism. Some predictably remained cautious, others invariably sceptical, but most saw their new owner as the symbol of a long-awaited revival.
Daydreamed scenes of Charlton joining the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City amongst the new elite of English football flooded into the minds of those who let themselves wonder. Their Belgian owner’s fortune paled in comparison to those that own the aforementioned clubs, but such details mattered little to the imaginations of some.
Duchâtelet’s first duty was to appoint a chief executive, and for this role the Belgian tycoon entrusted fellow compatriot and lawyer Katrien Meire. The appointment appeared progressive, as Meire joined an exclusive group of female CEOs at the head of English teams, but was still met by a wave of disapproval as she boasted no experience of running a football club. Nevertheless, Meire was their new owner’s choice of CEO and so, naturally, Meire would be the CEO Charlton fans would support. At least that’s how the relationship began.
Adding Charlton to a portfolio of clubs across Europe, Duchâtelet and Meire opted not to entice fans with promises of vast expenditure but instead spoke openly about the unique opportunities made available to the owner’s teams through his “network” of investments, and the type of progression this methodology would inevitably bring about.
By rotating players between his then six clubs – Charlton added to a portfolio of clubs including Standard Liège and Sint-Truidense V.V. in his native Belgium, AD Alcorcón in Spain’s second tier, fourth tier Germans FC Carl Zeiss Jena, and top tier Hungarians Újpest FC – the potential for overseas experience appeared limitless for the players under his ownership and this could only aid in their development.
While many appeared intrigued by the idea of forming part of an exclusive network, excited by the possibilities that lay ahead, the more pessimistic Charlton supporters believed Duchâtelet’s ideology to be nothing more than a money-saving measure. Why spend millions accruing players from other clubs when you can simply circulate players between the clubs you already own? Unfortunately for Addicks with any ambition, the pessimists weren’t wrong.
Barely a month had passed and already Duchâtelet had sanctioned the sale of two of the club’s most able players. With little to no thought given to the wishes of the club’s revered manager, and ex-playing legend, Chris Powell, both Yann Kermorgant and Dale Stephens were sold to Championship rivals, to be swiftly replaced by an influx of Liège players, fresh from the “network”.
At the Belgian owner’s behest, goalkeeper Yohann Thuram-Ulien, midfielders Astrit Ajdarević and Anıl Koç, along with Iranian striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, were added to Powell’s squad. Of the four new arrivals, only Ajdarević had any experience of English football having represented Liverpool’s academy before playing briefly for both Leicester City and Hereford United.
By mid-March these uninvited imports were no longer Powell’s problem, but only as he had been sacked by the new owner. Removed from his position as manager against their wishes, saddened Charlton fans believed they knew exactly why such drastic measures had been taken.
To the rest of the world the reason for Powell’s sacking appeared obvious: Charlton were the Championship’s basement club, knocked out of the FA Cup by lower league opposition. Clearly unsatisfactory on-field results had conspired to put an early end to Powell’s reign, right?
But Charlton’s fans had watched their manager attempt to act in the best interests of the club, and of the fans, in defying the owner’s wishes to incorporate his inadequate network players, repeatedly benching Duchâtelet’s bargain bin loanees in favour of continuing with Charlton’s old guard, and such blatant insubordination wasn’t to the owner’s liking.
When remarking on Powell’s departure in an official statement, the terminology used by Duchâtelet all but confirmed the Charlton fans’ suspicions: “We could not reach an agreement over the club’s football strategy going forward,” said the Belgian, “The situation put a strain on the working relationship between Chris and the board. Therefore I think it is best for all parties that we part ways.”
The following day, Duchâtelet installed fellow compatriot and ex-Liège boss José Riga as the new head coach of Charlton Athletic on a contract until the end of the season.
Inevitably, despite steering Charlton away from relegation to League One, Riga succumbed to a fate similar to Powell’s as he too found himself replaced by a Belgian, after just two months in charge, this time in the shape of Bob Peeters. But by January 2015 Peeters too had lost his job.
After Peeters came Guy Luzon, an Israeli manager recently dismissed by recurring characters Standard Liège, who managed to keep his job for an almost admirable nine months, only to be succeeded by the most obscure of all Duchâtelet’s appointments. In October 2015 Duchâtelet welcomed to the hot seat Belgian coach Karel Fraeye.
Having spent a short time assisting Riga at Charlton, Fraeye was well known to Duchâtelet and had continued to be utilised by him as a scout for his Spanish team Alcorcón, until the opportunity arose for him to take the Charlton reins for himself. Immediately resigning from his position as coach of Belgian third tier semi-professional outfit VW Hamme, having been offered the job, Fraeye set off on a return to south London to take his place as interim manager of the Addicks.
Pigs on the pitch
Only, Charlton fans were certain there was nothing “interim” about Fraeye’s employment, and when his eventual removal came after almost 12 woeful weeks in charge – having steered Charlton into the midsts of a 10-game winless streak whose low point was rubber stamped by a 5-0 loss away to Huddersfield – it became clear to see that the fans’ fears were correct.
Evidently, Fraeye’s appointment was an “interim” measure apropos of nothing remotely related to footballing matters. As Charlton blogger Kyle Andrews wrote, Fraeye was employed “not because of his ability as a head coach, but because of his acceptance of this regime … because of his ability to continue with a strategy that cares little for winning, and everything for increasing the bank balance of Roland Duchâtelet.” Only damage limitation had seen the convenient collaboration between Belgians ceased.
Since Powell’s unwanted removal as manager back in 2014, the first casualty of Duchâtelet’s disastrous reign, Charlton fans have been treated to something of a triannual groundhog day with the main attraction being the increasingly familiar narrative in which an unsuitable manager is fired only to then be replaced by an ever more obscure “network” manager days later, as the game of musical chairs that is their Belgian owner’s approach to effectual club management wears on.
As of November 2016 Duchâtelet has owned Charlton for two months shy of three years and Charlton Athletic have had no less than seven permanent managers in this time (counting Riga twice). For reference, the era in which seven different managers last presided over the south London club’s affairs, pre-Duchâtelet, began with Lennie Lawrence’s appointment in November 1982 and ended with the dismissal of Phil Parkinson in January 2011.
By the time José Riga had been reassigned to the Charlton cause, rehired as manager just 20 months after being sacked, Addicks fans had long surpassed the point of indifference and their displeasure with the Duchâtelet regime had transformed to a festering rage.
But Charlton fans weren’t only incensed by their owner’s actions. Though, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, it seemed as though those steering the Charlton ship towards the rocks were resolutely determined to ensure both their actions and their words collaborated in successfully alienating and disenfranchising the club’s faithful followers.
Speaking at the 2015 Web Summit technology conference in Dublin, Charlton chief executive Katrien Meire confidently outlined her vision of transforming Charlton into a “sustainable club” during her time in charge. A suitable and realistic enough goal, certainly. But her comments on the topic afforded fans an uncharacteristically candid view of the intentions of those in charge of their club and served only to further underline their greatest fears.
When remarking at length on the sense of ownership fans feel for the clubs they support, Meire said, with an enduring smile: “Fans don’t see themselves as customers, and so, whenever I now get very friendly emails from fans, they say ‘Get out of our club’ – so it’s not the shareholders’ club? I think it’s quite funny because they say they pay – obviously the ticketing system is one-third of our revenue stream – but they go to the restaurant with their family every week and they go to the cinema, but if they’re not satisfied with the product will they go and scream to the people in charge of it? No, they don’t.
“But they do it with a football club and that’s very weird because they feel a sense of ownership of a football club and that’s a really difficult balance, how you try to engage with fans and make them incorporate into some decisions of the club, but I think it’s – I mean, in the end the bill is paid by somebody else so he should have the final say.”
Meire made no mistake in eloquently communicating just how truly absurd a notion it is, in the view she shares with her employer Duchâtelet; the concept of a fan feeling as if they should retain any kind of possession over or tangible sense of kinship with the club they support.
Minutes later Meire also took the opportunity to give a brief insight into the type of future Charlton fans can look forward to, while speaking about the transparency of the club’s business plan: “[Charlton fans] will hopefully see the next stars of the Premier League which we will have play for Charlton in the first team and then probably sell on to the Premier League,” she said without reserve.
A heart-warming prospect for young fans of the Addicks. Charlton-supporting parents can eagerly anticipate being able to tell their children that their favourite players will likely only be around for long as it takes the owner to secure a healthy profit on them.
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Perhaps the most amusing, and certainly most ironic, aspect of Meire’s talk was the title it was given in marketing the conference: ‘Breaking out of the Second Tier’. Undoubtedly, under Duchâtelet’s reign, Charlton have successfully exited the second tier of English football – only doing so through its basement and tumbling into the nation’s third tier wasn’t quite how they had imagined it.
With Charlton’s present fortunes in flux, as their owners continued to turn their back on the club’s past in the name of securing a more convenient future, fans could no longer sit back and watch their club be dismantled before their very eyes. Charlton fans’ riposte was to fight oppression with procession.
Charlton fans are no strangers to protest. In the late 1980s, after administration and bankruptcy had seen the ownership of the club change hands without a firm grasp on the rights to their stadium, Charlton were left with no option other than to groundshare with their local rivals Crystal Palace.
With plans for a renovation of The Valley rebuffed by the London Greenwich council, Charlton fans united in protest of the decision to force upon them an undesirable groundshare. The fans believed they deserved a stadium of their own and would do anything to make it so.
When their objections fell on deaf ears, Charlton fans formed their own local political party, named The Valley Party, formed by candidates looking to run for seats in the Greenwich council. After winning an incredible 15,000 votes in the 1990 elections, The Valley Party successfully pressured Greenwich council into approving their plans for a renovation of The Valley and, in December 1992, after many renovations, the Addicks returned home.
Though both the object and intended outcome of the fans’ protests in the decades previous differed slightly from their more contemporary causes for concern, it appeared to most as though a similar plan of action would be required to deal with Duchâtelet.
Enter the many thousands of fans for whom the organisation and implementation of a swathe of peaceful protests and demonstrations, conducted with the aim of forcing Duchâtelet to sell up, has become a near full-time occupation.
Led in large part by the fans’ most vocal anti-Duchâtelet organisation, CARD – the Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet – Charlton fans have for some months remained hell-bent on removing their club’s Belgian owner from his position of power, making their opinions known through the use of a dedicated and professional opposition campaign.
CARD itself was born from an amalgamation of pre-existing protest groups; members of many organisations such as Anti Roland Demos, Spell It Out, Voice of the Valley, as well as representatives of the Charlton Life message board and Charlton Fans Protest Fund, eager to come together under one banner to most effectively collaborate as a united cause against the common enemy.
Since their formation in January 2016, CARD have organised a vast range of demonstrations and stunts in order to raise awareness for Charlton’s plight at both national and international level, in the process of attempting to make life as uncomfortable for Roland Duchâtelet as possible, all the while ensuring their protests remain peaceful and legal.
Having raised almost £35,000 (as of November 2016), CARD’s protest fund, consisting solely of donations from participating sponsors and aggrieved Addicks’ fans, financed the group’s many protests, some of which were directly aimed at restricting the cash flow to Charlton’s owners. Believing that by directly encroaching upon the Belgian’s profit margins their actions could potentially hurry Duchâtelet’s sale of the club, CARD set out to establish a boycott against the club’s streams of income.
To achieve this CARD began designing and distributing thousands of unofficial matchday programmes with the aim of diminishing the sales of Charlton’s own official programmes. Following the successes of such efforts, the group even created their own official protest jersey.
Charlton fans protest
In line with their oft-repeated slogan “support the team, not the regime”, CARD encouraged fans to buy their black and white shirt, styled after the colours worn in the team’s 1947 FA Cup final triumph, as an alternative to further lining Duchâtelet’s pockets by forking out on the club’s own pricey replica jerseys. Once sold, all profits from the protest shirts were split between the CARD protest fund and a local London charity.
Furthermore, CARD looked to reroute fans away from the club’s facilities in the hours before and after matches in favour of frequenting local restaurants, pubs and bars, aiding the economy of the local community rather than that of Duchâtelet’s own businesses.
Over the following months, CARD’s protest fund also aided the group in financing countless demonstrations, each seemingly more memorable than the last. In the protests before, during and after their fixture at home to Blackburn in January, CARD dispensed 7,000 leaflets, 1,000 beermats and 10,000 stickers, all branded with their logo, in addition to hundreds of black and white scarves.
In early February, a giant advertising billboard on Anchor & Hope Lane, near The Valley, featured a vintage photograph of a young Charlton supporter beside the words “here before you and long after you’re gone”, which reaffirmed CARD’s immovable stance within the community.
During their home game against Cardiff City, in the same month, CARD distributed 2,000 Pinocchio masks for supporters to adorn during the match; a not-so-subtle nod at their owner’s penchant for telling lies to their fans.
In the hours before their tie at home to Middlesbrough, in early March, along the streets surrounding their stadium, Charlton fans held a mock funeral procession. Every fan in attendance in suitably sombre black attire, Charlton supporters held aloft a red and white coffin said to be “containing the hopes and dreams of supporters under the Duchâtelet ownership” and marched towards their stadium, all the while audibly mourning the loss of their club to the Belgian’s selfish and negligent ways.
Following their joint protest in October, as the match between Charlton and Coventry got underway at The Valley, CARD sent out a tweet that read: “Will the owners of Charlton and Coventry change their ways? Pigs might fly!” Moments later, 5,000 small plastic pigs were thrown by fans directly onto the field of play, disrupting proceedings and ensuring the game was postponed for around five minutes, drawing the attention away from the pitch and firmly back, if just for a moment, to the fans’ continued protests. The pigs had, of course, been distributed by CARD before the match.
From the outside, some may personally disagree with the fans’ interference with the games themselves, but there is no doubting that the fans responsible feel their behaviour pales into insignificance when compared to the disruptive philosophies of their intolerable owners, and having their team’s matches momentarily postponed is a small price to pay for the publicity brought about by such actions and the potential for change as a consequence.
As for the rest of CARD’s endeavours, there is far less disparity among public opinion. Quite simply, few people would condemn the actions of a group devoted to delivering their club away from an owner whose modus operandi is to turn a profit, and return it to its people; to those whose livelihoods revolve around it, whose traditions belong to it, whose marriage to their club relents for better for worse, for richer for poorer.
Whether observed from the point of a mystified onlooker or a misty-eyed supporter, the lengths at which Charlton fans have campaigned to save their club are truly admirable.
For the sky blue half of the October 2016 joint protest, the story is despairingly similar to Charlton, though the dark cloud of uncertainty under which the club currently operates has been casting a cold shadow over the West Midlands for almost a decade.
Since London-based private equity firm SISU purchased Coventry City in 2007, the Sky Blues have clambered from one catastrophe to another. They have been relegated from the Championship, entered administration, lost the rights to play in their own stadium – the Ricoh Arena – and spent more than a year traversing a near-70-mile round trip to see their team play at Northampton’s Sixfields stadium. They have burnt through manager after manager, overseen extensive board member changes, severed ties with the local council, engaged in numerous legal disputes and, after such an ordeal, Coventry fans still aren’t deemed worthy of knowing exactly who owns their beloved club.
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As put by then-fund manager and ex-Coventry City board director, Onye Igwe, while in conversation with The Guardian in 2011: “The funds for Coventry City are from institutional investors, some European, some American, some from overseas and some high-net-worth individuals. They are professional investors and they want confidentiality, which is normal practice in private equity.”
With English Football League rules requiring clubs to make public the names of anybody “owning or controlling 10 percent or more of the interests in a club”, Coventry fans expected some answer to the repeatedly asked question, “Who exactly owns our club?” However, a subversive claim was made that no single individual controls more than 10 pecent of Coventry City Football Club and therefore nobody need be directly identified. With that the conversation was ended. Put bluntly, Coventry fans needn’t know who owns their club.
Though some transparency has, in the subsequent years, revealed that SISU chief Joy Seppala is certainly at the head of the organisation that owns Coventry City, exactly who the money does – or rather doesn’t – come from is still as unclear as ever.
This level of uncertainty underpins almost every facet of Coventry City’s ownership. Though Coventry did eventually return to the Ricoh Arena in September 2014, their current tenancy agreement with stadium owners, Coventry-based Rugby Union team Wasps RFC, is set to expire in 2018 and should SISU and Wasps fail to agree on a deal to extend their tenancy, there is no telling where Coventry fans may have to travel to see their team play.
Whether or not the club can even lay claim to its own training facilities is another matter of great concern for fans as the area upon which their current training ground is built has in recent months been included in a local council’s redevelopment plan to build new houses, a plan that the owners of the six-acre site, Otium Entertainment – the official name of the company that owns Coventry City – have reportedly agreed to. Yet details of an alternative site for a new Coventry City training ground are far from forthcoming.
For these reasons, among many, Coventry’s own CARD-equivalent protest group, the Fight The Jimmy Hill Way Alliance, lead the charge against SISU and what they believe to be the slow disintegration of their beloved football club.
Itself a conglomerate of preexisting protest groups including the Sky Blue Trust, the Preservation Sky Blue Group and Cov Fans Together, much like Charlton’s CARD, the protestations of the fan-lead Fight The Jimmy Hill Way Alliance clearly outline the group’s wishes. They want their club’s negligent and money-motivated owners to sell up, to hand control of Coventry City back to those for whom the word ‘fortune’ is more than just a buzzword that brings to mind something to be amassed at a football club’s expense, and they want it now.
After having conducted their own organised protests, in September 2016 the efforts of Coventry’s anti-SISU fan groups were buffed immeasurably by a petition started by the Coventry Telegraph in which the hedge fund owners were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to put the club up for sale.
Less than 48 hours after its creation the petition had received over 10,000 online signatures. At the time of writing, the petition’s total number of signatures stands far closer to 20,000.
Coventry fans have also seen their pursuits furthered greatly by one of the city’s key politicians, Jim Cunningham, Labour MP for Coventry South. In addition to his many public declarations of despair at the behaviour of owners SISU, Cunningham announced, during a debate in to the future of Coventry City at Westminster Hall in October 2016: “A football club should not be a way to make a quick buck for faceless unaccountable owners” and called into question the so-called “fit and proper owner’s test” potential football club buyers are made to pass in order to acquire their clubs, saying “the Football League and the FA must explain how the owners can pass the fit and proper persons test and proceed to run the club into the ground.”
No doubt Jim Cunningham’s comments echo the beliefs of the fans of many clubs in contemporary collapse, all of whom await with baited breath a convincing retort from the FA.
For others, witnessing such passionate protests from fans, and seeing their sentiments echoed by those in positions of relative power, lays waste to the school of thought that fans only come to call when their clubs are winning. Unfortunately, whether or not such actions are enough to see their club returned to owners of a suitable nature shall be revealed in due course.
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Though perhaps two of the most vocal protesters in recent years, sadly the diverging dialects of fans from south London and west Midlands are far from the only voices being heard, as their fight is shared throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.
Alongside them, Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool both fit an eerily similar profile, presenting yet more glaring examples of inadequate ownership on home soil. Two more famous British clubs, with a rich and storied heritage. Two more clubs whose fans find themselves embroiled in a tug of war with their parasitic proprietors.
When wealthy Indian poultry processors and pharmaceutical manufacturers Venky’s purchased a 99.9 percent stake in Blackburn Rovers in 2010, the club’s fans fluttered no eyelashes at the idea of becoming another Chelsea or Manchester City. Rather they dreamt of their newly found foreign investment returning them to a position similar to their success-laden circumstances circa 1995 when, as beneficiaries of investment from local businessman Jack Walker, Blackburn Rovers became Premier League champions .
Instead, after six years under Venky’s ownership, Blackburn are far from the English champions of old. They’re even a poor imitation of the stable mid-table Premier League club they were when purchased.
Today, Rovers find themselves gasping for air deep in the depths of the Championship’s lower half, inadequately armed with a squad whose ability to stave off another relegation is under great strain. As attendances and end-of-season points tallies continue in free fall, the only figures growing under the Venky’s are the number of managers that have come and gone through the revolving door at Ewood Park and the debts, which are now said to exceed £100 million, still steadily mounting.
A similar reaction given to a similar situation: in late 2016 a number of Blackburn-based protest groups sought to unite under one name, just as other club’s supports had before them. Collaborating as We Are Rovers, fans performed their most noteworthy protest on 29 October 2016, with the aim of bringing attention to their troubles before, during and after their home game against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Executed by thousands, like-minded supporters marched around the perimeter of their stadium before kick-off, chanting for the removal of Venky’s, before entering Ewood Park as late as the 18th minute and exiting as early as the 75th. To those unaware, the relevance of those particular numbers comes from the year of Blackburn Rovers’ foundation: 1875. Evidently, efforts are being made by fans to ensure that no such string of four digits can be so easily used to date the club’s destruction.
Since 1987, Blackburn’s Lancashire neighbours Blackpool have been under the ownership of the local Oyston family and to those further afield than their north English county their union may appear to be a happy one.
At the time of purchase, British businessman Owen Oyston bought himself a club firmly rooted in the third tier of English football and did so for just £1. Leaf forward a few hundred pages through the history of Blackpool and, in stopping on the chapter chronicling the year 2010-11, you would find yourself reading the memoirs of a club enjoying every moment of their debut season in the top tier, finessed by tales of the team winning over neutrals left, right and centre with a buccaneering brand of football that paid no heed to the size or stature of their comparatively herculean opponents.
But the good times weren’t to last for Blackpool fans who, in the years since, have witnessed possibly one of the most dramatic and despairingly spectacular falls from grace of all the clubs mentioned.
After a journey almost 25 years in the making saw the Tangerines climb from the third tier to the first, it took just six years for them to slide down as low as the fourth, where they lay dormant now. What’s more, such fluctuations have been made all the worse by the many controversies that littered the years both preceding and following their solitary sojourn in the promised land.
After Oyston was found guilty of the rape and indecent assault of a 16-year-old girl in 1996, his six year prison sentence saw the chairmanship of Blackpool handed to his wife Vicki. But, appearing far from suitable for the role, Vicki Oyston remained in control for just three years after which the reins were handed to her son Karl, who still stands as Blackpool chairman today.
Blackpool fans protest against Karl Oyston
Under Karl Oyston’s guidance Blackpool were able to rise to the top division of English football for the first time in their history and made a valiant effort to remain there. But following their relegation in 2011, Blackpool’s fortunes have plummeted faster than any could have imagined. In the years since their fall back to the Championship, Blackpool have nosedived further still; three relegations in six years leaving them stranded in League Two.
Having seen the club’s squad allowed to not only stagnate beyond the point of parity but also be dismantled almost entirely, an astonishing situation faced Blackpool fans when their club, just three weeks away from the opening fixture of the 2014-15 season, boasted just eight contracted players. In order to compete at all, the match day squads chosen for Blackpool’s pre-season friendlies required bolstering by a small army of trialists on every occasion.
Yet two years before such a scenario befell the Blackpool team, their owner Oyston had sanctioned a one-time payment of £11 million to a company owned by his father, for what he referred to as “tax purposes” though the team responsible for earning such fees, while playing in the Premier League, had been allowed to depart the club with such alarming speed that by the time Blackpool fans’ heads had stopped spinning it was the sight of a League Two table that stood before them.
Since 2014 collaborations between The Tangerine Knights and the Blackpool Supporters Trust have deployed various protests in response to Oyston’s actions. Similar to those performed by Charlton’s CARD and Coventry’s Fight The Jimmy Hill Way Alliance, these have seen supporters demonstrate in their thousands, passionately engulfing their town and stadium while spreading their message of disapproval.
They too have encouraged fans to boycott the club’s facilities, flown messages across the sky labelling Oyston a “club killer” and calling for his immediate removal, as well as famously bringing the final game of the 2014-15 season to an early end by entering, and subsequently refusing to leave, the field of play early in the second half.
Unfortunately for discontented Blackpool fans, their efforts seem to have had little effect on the seemingly masochistic Karl Oyston, who appears keen as ever to remain in charge. As his club’s dire need for investment goes on unabated, Oyston appears to be reserving his millions for belatedly financing unpaid player bonuses to the likes of Charlie Adam; the funding of numerous court cases; seeking libel damages against overly vocal objectors; and paying fines, such as the £40,000 sanction required to be paid by Oyston at the request of the FA, following the abusive text messages, sent to one particular dissenter, that landed the controversial owner a misconduct charge and six week sport-wide ban.
Watching through gritted teeth, all the while, are the fans of this once joyous club who are today, like an increasing number of others, torn between helplessly averting their gaze from the sideshow pitched up at their doorstep, and wishing to force it from town with pitchforks and torches.
Whichever side of the divide fans find themselves, both now appear further than ever from being able to anticipate their next match with anything more than a depleting sense of optimism and a growing sense of dread. All they can do now is ensure their desire to win back their club outlives the belligerence of their misguided owner.
It isn’t altogether uncommon to see a team gain entrance to the billionaire boys’ club mired in a decade-long mid-table malaise only to pop out the other end a few seasons later a now fully-fledged table-topping tour de force. But for every foreign investment success story, fans of a score of clubs burdened by a brutish brand of money-centric management remain at war with their clubs owners, cursing the football gods for the growing attraction of the world’s game in the eyes of the one percent and the resulting interference they bring with their interest.
To many in south London, the West Midlands, Lancashire and beyond, fan-led organisations such as CARD are the white blood cells in the football bloodstream, fighting off the disease that is those who wish to bleed dry their newly purchased clubs; happy to tarnish reputations, destroy traditions and ruin lives all in the name of commodification.
For some, their football ground is their escape. Their club is their institution, their religion. For so many to lose so much to those for whom a football club constitutes just another project or venture with which to expand a portfolio is unthinkable. Sadly, so too is the harsh reality of just how easily this could happen to your club.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp