SINCE THEIR INCEPTION IN 1887, Blackpool Football Club have firmly rooted themselves in the deep sacred grounds of English footballing history. Forming after two local football sides came together to create a collective club to represent the town as a whole, Blackpool won two pieces of silverware in their first season of existence, the Fylde Cup and the Lancashire Senior Cup respectively.
This put the Seasiders on the map in Britain and, after their inclusion in the Lancashire League created in 1889, they began to draw in crowds of 2,000 at their initial home at Raikes Hall, an entertainment complex in the heart of the town centre.
Given the early success of their local footballing exploits, they turned to the Football League where, after amalgamating with local side South Shore, they moved into Bloomfield Road where they remain to this day. Without question the Seasiders are more fondly remembered for their FA Cup victory in what was dubbed ‘The Matthews Final’, despite the fact Stan Mortensen bagged himself a hat-trick in the match.
This is the club of Jimmy Hampson, Stan Mortensen, Jimmy Armfield, Alan Ball, Alan Suddick and Tony Green. This is the club that boasts a Ballon d’Or winner in the shape of Sir Stanley Matthews. It is sown into English footballing folklore; a colossus of an institution in the game, whose tangerine colours are now iconic throughout the world. So how, you ask, has it come to this?
Let us go back in time to the day the owner of Blackpool took his first step on the infamous path that has led the club to where it is today. On 22 May 1996, majority shareholder Owen Oyston was convicted of rape and indecent assault, and was sentenced to six years behind bars for what the judge described as “horrendous offences”. During his time in prison, he gave the reins to the self-titled ‘feminist’ Vicki Oyston, his wife who had stood by him throughout his rape conviction.
On his return, Owen set about implementing ambitious plans to turn Bloomfield Road into a ‘£1 billion super stadium’ fit with shops, restaurants and a hotel. This was all expected to begin during the demolition of the South Stand in 2003, yet three years later, nothing had changed – except for the demolition part, which left the club with a two-sided stadium and a temporary away stand. The term temporary can be loosely applied, as the infamous away stand was not disposed of until the club’s shock return to the top flight of English football in 2010.
This was, of course, until Latvian businessman Valērijs Belokoņs came along to the shores of the Fylde coast. The story goes that Valērijs was at the club to strike up a simple sponsorship deal and left with a healthy stake in the club the same day. This was one of the root causes of problems; not Valērijs’ investment, which ultimately led to the turnaround in fortunes at Bloomfield Road, but Owen and now Karl Oyston’s ability to convince those who ought not to be convinced that good things were coming.
Read | This is how it feels to be Luton Town
After these developments, in 2008 manager Simon Grayson hot-footed to Leeds midway through the season, leaving caretaker manager Tony Parkes and his assistant Steve Thompson to keep the Seasiders afloat in the Championship. Grayson had taken Blackpool up the season before after a convincing playoff victory over Yeovil, a feat that would not have been possible without the investment of Belokoņs.
They were successful, but in the summer they both tendered their resignations after humiliating contract offers were given to both men from chairman Karl Oyston. Matters became worse after Oyston spoke of “family reasons” for Parkes’ departure as the caretaker manager’s wife was receiving cancer treatment, forcing Parkes to come out publicly and give his side of the story.
Then, in what can only be described as one of the finest appointments of a manager in Football League history – and one of the flukiest – Blackpool confirmed Ian Holloway as the new man in the dugout for the 2009/10 season. The new South Stand was built after investment from Belokoņs and former loanee Charlie Adam was purchased on a permanent deal from Rangers after Belokoņs made a player pot available to Holloway before the season began.
In July 2009 words that have become infamous around the local area were spoken. Holloway vowed never to hold another training session in the “hell hole” facilities at Squires Gate where the club trained. To describe just how dilapidated the place was, it was literally a couple of portacabins, a rusty clubhouse with no hot water, and two pitches. It is a venue not even fit for non-league teams, let alone the second tier of English football. Chairman Karl Oyston pledged a new training complex, but to this very day it remains the same.
And then the impossible happened. Blackpool beat Cardiff in the Championship play-off final 3-2 at Wembley and booked themselves a place in the Premier League, with a £90 million promotion payment to boot. Glossing over the special story that everybody remembers – the free-flowing attacking Blackpool fearlessly going to the likes of Anfield and Old Trafford with their team full of reject free transfers and giving supporters the ride of their lives – one would be better served focusing on the incomprehensibly reckless effects behind the scenes that would turn the Tangerine dream into a nightmare.
Charlie Adam took the club to court over an unpaid promotion bonus, which the rest of the squad received three months later than scheduled. Holloway had to take his players to train on the beach before their vital home game against Manchester United because of the lack of indoor facilities after the training ground froze over, while the Bloomfield Road home dressing room boiler broke and was not fixed for two weeks. You would think these headlines would be the climax at any normal club, but Blackpool were just getting started on their freefall. Fans, while enjoying the dream on the pitch, were wise to the reckoning that was coming off it.
After their relegation to the Championship and the loss of a number of key players, the board failed to invest, with loans and free transfers being the only means for Holloway to get a squad together. Just weeks later, it came to light that Owen Oyston had paid himself an £11 million director’s salary after Blackpool’s promotion to the top flight, the largest salary for a director in all of English football by some margin. Holloway spent nothing in the January transfer window in the Premier League season as the Oystons forced him to make do with a loan and two free transfers, ultimately costing the Seasiders their status in the league.
Read | The fans finding their voices against oppressive ownership
Club accounts from that same year revealed the Oyston power force had taken £23 million out of club coffers and put it into their own personal businesses. Fans were outraged after seeing the club invest nothing into the playing staff during vital seasons in the club’s history. To put the tight-fisted ownership into perspective, just 18 months after pocketing £90 million, Blackpool offered Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler £100 a week to play for the Seasiders, which of course he declined. Holloway was long gone by this point with Michael Appleton taking the reins for all of a few months before running to Blackburn after just 11 games in charge.
After multiple managerial rejections, from Phil Parkinson to Billy Davies, Blackpool hired Paul Ince who had been watching the club closely as his son Tom had been a star man for the Tangerines in 2012/13. Ince kept the club stable towards the back end of that season before starting pre-season training with just 13 senior players in the squad. Blackpool lost a big chunk of the remaining Premier League squad with many being offered 50 percent pay cuts as their new contracts.
Ince began his new season hitting a Bournemouth fan with a water bottle and offering to fight an official in the tunnel at the same game, to which Blackpool fans were no longer even surprised. The Seasiders then received three red cards in six minutes at the end of a midweek 2-0 away loss to Yeovil, with eight players sent off in total before Christmas.
Striker Michael Chopra then voiced his opinion of training in an expletive-laden rant on social media in which he described how he turned up to training with just six players. Ince suffered the same frustrations as every manager before him in the transfer market, being forced to name two youth players on the bench after they had already played for the youth team that same morning in the middle of January.
He was dismissed a week before the transfer deadline after a 2-0 defeat away at Barnsley, in which his son Tom also made his final appearance for the club, after trying to offer out numerous Blackpool fans for a fight as he walked down the tunnel. It was later revealed that Karl Oyston had sacked Ince by text message, saying that the reason for his dismissal was that he had not handed in a list of transfer targets, to which Ince responded by accusing the chairman of lying.
Blackpool captain Barry Ferguson took charge of the team for the remainder of that season, bringing in a core of his friends from his time in Scotland to play with a club surviving relegation. That same season, Owen and Karl Oyston received around £600,000 in directors’ salaries, more than the club’s transfer outlay that season and more than any other directors in the football league. The 2013/14 season was when the fans finally put their anger into actions and began their still ongoing campaign to remove the Oyston family from Blackpool.
Karl Oyston enraged Blackpool supporters by posing next to a supporters’ protest banner claiming that his family were ‘cash cows’. This spilled over during the match that same night as fans attempted to storm the directors’ box mid-game in a home defeat to Derby. Just two weeks later the fans caused a temporary halt of their televised game against local rivals Burnley by throwing tennis balls onto the pitch in an attempt to take their frustrations to the wider audience on the television screens.
Read | Wimbledon FC and the story of a forgotten club that we should cherish
In that very same game, Blackpool assistant manager Bob Malcolm assaulted his own player Stephen Dobbie after an argument spilled over as he prepared to come on as a substitute, all of this occurring in front of the TV cameras to the shock of the wider world. Ferguson left that summer alongside 17 other players in yet another mass exodus.
In came Belgian manager José Riga, who had been at Bloomfield Road demolishing the Seasiders 3-0 with his Charlton side just weeks earlier in the final game of the previous season. The board saw this as an opportunity to sell a promise of the ‘Riga Revolution’ and many fans bought into it; that was until Riga’s backroom staff began work without official contracts, as they could not agree terms with the club. One of them, Bart De Roover, never did agree terms and worked unpaid for a number of months as a favour to his compatriot Riga.
The Seasiders were forced to cancel their Spanish pre-season training camp in La Manga as they only had eight players on the books. Their first friendly of the 2014/15 season against Penrith saw five trialists in the starting line-up with still just eight players officially registered. A mere 10 days before the season, the club still had no goalkeepers in the squad and come the first game of the season, they could only name four substitutes as they had forgotten to register new signings. It was later revealed that the same error meant that on the morning of the game there were only nine eligible players.
Riga’s tenure was a lost cause from the start, but at least he was someone the supporters felt a connection with as he challenged the ownership throughout his short tenure. Oyston then offered the Blackpool job to Burton Albion manager Gary Rowett whilst Riga was still in charge, yet he remained for over a month after that. He was replaced by Lee Clark as Blackpool made it four managers in 2014, the same amount of wins they had in that time.
Chairman Karl Oyston then hit the headlines after a text exchange with a fan in which he labelled the fan and his family “retards” in a childish outburst. In the same group of exchanges, he labelled himself a “never-ending nightmare revenge mission” in relation to his reign in charge of the club.
The end of 2014 came with Blackpool receiving more red cards than they had won games, while 2015 began with loanee Jacob Murphy posting on Snapchat before an away trip to Sheffield Wednesday, “We’re going to lose…again”. He was later sent back to Norwich City. Top youth prospects Dominic Telford and Mark Waddington were both offered £200-a-week contracts to stay with the club on professional terms; again, to little surprise, they rejected the approach.
Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back – if it was not already broken. Owen and Karl Oyston opened legal proceedings against a number of fans for defamation in retaliation to numerous social media and supporters’ forum posts online, one of which was from the Blackpool Supporters Trust chairman, a firmly anti-Oyston protester.
Read | Recapturing Blackburn Rovers, a club spiralling into the abyss
Manager Lee Clark was ordered by Karl Oyston to drop the two youth prospects for not signing contracts as well as goalkeeper Joe Lewis in order to avoid triggering a £40,000 appearances payment to his parent club Cardiff. Transfer deadline day yet again passed with no investment amidst swirling turmoil on and off the pitch.
Karl Oyston decided to turn up to the Seasiders’ next home game with a “0Y5TON 0UT” licence plate on his Range Rover in an attempt to incite fans as they walked in through the turnstiles. A week later, new club secretary Chris Hough had to fill in as a kit man after the youth team physio, who also worked in that role, left the club.
The club were relegated to League One with six games to spare, equalling the worst points total in Championship history at that time. There was still time for the chairman to sue a lifelong Blackpool fan and pensioner, who had a mammoth 30 Facebook ‘friends’, for comments made on his personal social network wall. Supporters later rallied and incredibly raised the £20,000 payment within a week to pay off the claim.
In preparation for the final game of that season, where supporters had been building up to a large-scale protest, the owners removed the statue of club legend Stan Mortensen from outside of the ground in what was covered up as a “safety measure”. The club’s final game at home against Huddersfield was abandoned after fans invaded the pitch midway through the game and refused to leave until the game was called off in protest, before some fans made their way up into the directors’ box in an attempt to attack Karl and Owen Oyston.
And this is where I end our tale. Today, Blackpool find themselves in League One with a fan boycott campaign meaning crowds have gone from officially 15,000 to 3,000 in the space of six years, though unofficially crowds appear to be much worse than that with just one stand open for most cup competition matches.
The Oyston family are embroiled in a bitter legal battle with former club director Valērijs Belokoņs who believes his 20 percent stake deserves a larger proportion of financial return compared to what the family have taken out of the club. Either way, the club is a basket case and the fans have felt there is no other way they can go other than to abandon their club until they can financially starve the owners of any reason to remain in charge.
This proud establishment in English football now sits abandoned after being left to rot by the worst owners in British professional football history