Nine years ago, Blackpool Football Club enjoyed their lone season in the top flight of English football. They were the smallest club the Premier League had ever seen in the season they went up and seemed like a welcome visitor from a bygone age.
Their ramshackle stadium had a temporary stand, the squad was a blend of journeymen, misfits and chancers, and in Ian Holloway, they had a likeable and eminently quotable manager who was always good for a quick one-liner. They spent less than any promoted team before or since, played attacking football, shocked Liverpool at Anfield and were only relegated on the final day of the season, battling courageously away at Old Trafford but ultimately succumbing to a 4-2 defeat. For that glorious season, they were most fans’ second-favourite team.
Six seasons later, they’d been relegated twice more and landed in the bottom tier of English professional football.
Despite the promise of investment in a new stadium, new training ground and new players by the Oyston family, the club’s owners of more than 30 years, none of the above materialised. Promises made to fans and managers were broken. The squad that had taken them to the Premier League were slowly sold or otherwise left.
Loan signings with no attachment to the club were brought in to replace them. Season by season, the Premier League legacy was squandered, and the club was in the basement looking up. That left Blackpool fans with one question, which they repeated over and over: where did the money go?
There had long been whispers about what the Oystons actually did with money received by Blackpool. The official line was that it was transferred into an Oyston-held private company for safekeeping, and “always there if the club needed it”. From the outside, it appeared that Blackpool was being run efficiently on a shoestring budget.
It was this appearance that initially led Latvian Valeri Belokon to invest in the club; an investment which paid for Charlie Adam’s transfer fee, and therefore consequentially got the club into the Premier League to begin with. Belokon personally invested several million pounds into Blackpool in return for the title of president and a 20 percent share in the club.
As the Premier League parachute payments came in, Belokon expected to receive a dividend on his shares. It didn’t come. When Adam was sold to Liverpool, Belokon expected some form of return on his investment. It didn’t come. He asked the Oystons to put money into the club for transfers to help the club to return to the Premier League. They didn’t. Eventually, with the club in freefall and the fans staying away in protest at the ownership, Belokon felt he had nowhere left to turn – so he took the Oystons to court.
In November 2017, the High Court confirmed what many Blackpool fans had suspected for years: the Oystons had illegally stripped over £26m away from Blackpool, for the benefit of their own private companies, and therefore themselves as individuals.
To put it another way, the Oystons had not only been using the club as their own piggy bank, but they’d also been using it as their own slot machine. They’d put a little money in occasionally, and when it paid out, they scooped up all the winnings and took them as profit. When they didn’t win, they simply walked away and sat on the money they’d already won.
There’s nothing wrong with that strategy when you’re playing online slots, but online slot players generally aren’t betting with other people’s money. In the case of the Oystons, Belokon had paid for 20 percent of their stake, and they took 100 percent of the profits. Reaching the Premier League had been the ultimate jackpot, and the Oystons were cashing out.
You would have thought that being found guilty of illegitimately diverting funds away from the football club you own would be sufficient grounds for the English Football League to step in on the fans behalf, but it isn’t. It isn’t even the worst thing Owen Oyston, the club’s owner, has done in the eyes of the law.
Oyston was convicted of rape in 1996. Such a conviction would disqualify him from being the owner or director of a football club in the Premier League, and when the club was promoted in 2010, Oyston was told to dispose of his shares. He refused to comply. The matter should have been followed up, but a year later the club was gone from the Premier League and he was the EFL’s concern again. They, worryingly, have no such limitations.
To put it simply, the EFL have no issue with a man convicted of both rape and asset stripping being in charge of one of their football clubs.
Even during the time before the trial, when the Oystons were making a habit of suing fans who dared to suggest there may be something untoward about the way club finances were conducted, Owen’s son Karl, then the chairman of the club, was sitting on the board of the Football League. The EFL could see no conflict of interest.
By contrast, Belokon is not viewed as a fit and proper person to run the club because of a conviction for money laundering in Kyrgyzstan. He was tried in his absence, and the conviction isn’t recognised as valid by the European Union because of the circumstances of the trial, in which notice wasn’t provided to Belokon or his solicitors, and no opportunity was presented for him to defend himself. He denies all the charges.
This isn’t a good look for the EFL. Belokon wants to run the club, is owed £26m by the Oystons (who have shown no willingness or ability to pay the amount, with the matter continuing to drag through the courts), and is being prevented from acting as chairman by the EFL’s interpretation of a conviction that the EU doesn’t recognise. By contrast, Oyston is convicted of both rape and financial impropriety, has failed to discharge the sum he owes as a result of the November 2017 judgement, and yet they consider it acceptable to leave him in situ.
What’s happened to Blackpool Football Club is a crying shame for both the club and its fans. The fact that the EFL have aided and abetted it all through their lack of action is nothing short of a disgrace.