Blackpool fans can be forgiven for feeling battle weary as the issues with the owners of our club continue. Whether you are a boycotter or an attendee, NAPM or selective as to how you support the team, this war of attrition is enough to make the strongest of supporters feel despairing.
A well-known saying states that it is always darkest just before dawn and there is good reason for Blackpool fans to believe that our particular dawn is about to break.
For many years, fans of Blackpool (as at most clubs) have believed that the owners are pretty much all powerful - that they are the majority owners of the club and therefore can do whatever they like. Blackpool FC is a business and as with any other enterprise, the owners can choose how they run it. Likewise, the fans are the customers of a football business and can also choose whether or not they should fund it. Most businesses have to work very hard to establish an identifiable brand, encourage loyalty to that brand and then maintain it. Owners of football clubs don't usually have that worry; the loyalty that comes from the core supporters of a football club is a given and only very extreme circumstances would see that loyalty diminish and the customers abandon the brand.
Unfortunately, at Blackpool FC we have experienced at first hand the most extreme circumstances, with owners who have squandered the many opportunities to progress the club, allowing it to disintegrate and fail whilst at the same time making use of football monies to prioritise their other, non-football related businesses. Examples of their negligence and arrogant disrespect of the supporters are legion and well documented. Is it any wonder that fans have voted with their feet? The question for Blackpool fans is this: is adherence to the ethical boycott or Not A Penny More actually making any difference? The Trust may not be able to give a guaranteed answer but an assessment of the available points to a reasonable conclusion.
The published accounts for the 2015/2016 season show a loss for the first time since Blackpool FC were in the Premier League. That should not come as a surprise to anyone. Even before the full force of the fans' boycott started to be felt, many people were already staying away and season tickets had been heavily subsidised in the form of a cheap 2 year deal. Sponsorship and corporate revenues were dwindling. It is not necessary to be an accountant to work out that the next set of accounts, for 2016/17, will be considerably worse.
The past twelve months have been catastrophic for the owners. Not only have they overseen the alienation of the vast majority of the fan base who have maintained a boycott for the whole season, so far resisting the temptation to return when results on the pitch have improved; they have also lost out in court. The cases they tried to bring against Jeremy Smith and fans' website Back Henry Street failed, leaving them responsible for all costs.
They lost the first case brought by Valeri Belokon against them which is likely to cost them something in the region of £3 million including costs. The bigger case in the summer is likely to involve far larger sums of money, possibly in the region of £25 or £30 million. These legal cases, coupled with the effects of the ethical boycott could create a financial storm which the owners will not be able to weather. The current lack of revenue and complete absence of any kind of good will represents a totally unsustainable business model.
The Oystons' decision to make substantial loans of Blackpool football club monies to their other businesses has not only fuelled the anger of unsatisfied supporters; it has also but left the owners in a dilemma as to how they can move the club forward when the money that should be ‘there when we need it’ clearly is not. Even their own auditors, A I Cherry, would only sign off the accounts on a qualified basis, stating that they were ‘unable to obtain sufficient evidence about the recoverability ....of the amounts owed by certain parties...’ These loans, totalling £28.6 million so far, have been made ‘unsecured, interest free and repayable on demand’. A further £5 million has been loaned out to Oyston connected entities - examples being Oyston Estates Ltd, Lancashire Magazine, Biomass boilers, even Zabaxe, the company which received £11 million during the Premier League season. No explanation has ever been forthcoming as to why football monies are being used for these purposes while the football club struggles to achieve anything except retrograde progress. It is easy to understand why the fans have decided not to continue funding such a regime.
Finally, the financial juggernaut heading straight for the Oystons in the shape of Valeri Belokon will be a game changer. Whilst no one knows the outcome of a case which is not due to be heard until June, there is already sufficient information available following the earlier case in December to make it clear that it is highly likely that Mr Belokon will be successful. There are those who ask what would happen if he only wants his money and then walks away? The Oystons could buy him out but is it likely that they will want to pay him something in the region of £30 million to acquire his shares when they already have enough shares to make whatever decisions they want without him? They would in effect be paying massively to keep something they already have. Given that there is so much money tied up in loans and ‘assets’, how will they find the funds required to pay Belokon as well as continue to subsidise a football club where the fans are in revolt, the income has dried up and the local community are making it clear that they are not welcome?
When people are caught up in a situation, it is not always possible to be dispassionate about the evidence before us but it pays to check out the real situation and make up our own minds rather than react emotionally to the general consensus which may be fuelled by fear of the unknown and a lack of facts.
Journalist Oliver Holt, writing about the troubles at fellow crisis club Leyton Orient, said: ‘There are people or companies like Francesco Becchetti dotted all around our leagues, people who use clubs like playthings, people who almost seem to take a perverse pleasure in their ruin. In some cases, what looks like frivolous sadism to fans is a mask for financial exploitation. The effect on the supporters is the same.’
For those fans who think that withholding revenue from the club is somehow disloyal to the team they have supported for so many years - think again. There is a much bigger picture here and we as fans need to have the courage to stand firm against the financial tyranny that is devastating our club. Our collective actions are having a powerful effect. It may still look dark out there, but listen hard and you can already hear the birds singing.