The hubris and disrespect shown by the Oyston family towards Blackpool Football Club, its fans, Valeri Belokon and the wider football family was laid bare before a packed London courtroom on Monday as Judge Marcus Smith QC delivered his long-awaited judgment following sixteen days of compelling evidence over the summer.
The written judgment itself runs to 166 pages and provides the reader with a fascinating insight into the inner workings of Blackpool FC during the period of Valeri Belokon’s involvement. In particular it highlights the cynical way in which both Karl and Owen Oyston set about dismantling all that was achieved by Ian Holloway and his fabulous team on that glorious day in 2010.
It is clear from the report that the huge revenues Blackpool FC received between 2010 and 2015, in excess of £120M, ought to have provided the platform to create something truly special, making Blackpool the club we all felt it should be, with fantastic facilities shared amongst owners, players, fans and the wider Blackpool community. Instead there is little to show bar the sprinklers. How could that happen?
Over the last several seasons, Blackpool Supporters’ Trust has been hugely critical of the Oystons’ policy towards the running and financing of our football club, criticism that has not made the Trust popular in some quarters. BST has long maintained that it does not consider the current custodians of Blackpool FC to be fit and proper persons to hold that role.
Over the course of the trial, the highly respected Judge formed his own views of the Oystons’ stewardship of the club and as a consequence he delivered a set of findings which more than vindicate BST’s assessment of the owners and resulted in an award to Mr Belokon’s company of an eye-watering £31.27m, which with interest and costs will likely increase the sum to be paid by the Oystons to over £40m.
Rather than BST commenting on the findings (which you can read online in full at www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/vbfa-v-blackpoolfc.pdf), you are invited to review these key summarised extracts and to make up your own mind as to whether the Oystons are worthy custodians of a club with the rich history Blackpool FC enjoys (or of any football club for that matter):
1) Despite Owen Oyston’s attempts to argue otherwise, there was ‘a gentlemen’s agreement’ concluded between himself and Valeri Belokon, whereby the latter was to acquire a 50% share in Blackpool FC. This agreement was reneged on and denied to Mr Belokon when he asked for it to be formalised after promotion to the Premier League.
2) Within days of winning promotion to the Premiership, Owen Oyston’s objective was ‘to get funds without going through (Mr Belokon) and without tax’. Subsequently, substantial payments totalling over £26m were made to Oyston-controlled companies. The Judge ruled not only that such actions were improper, but they also had a detrimental effect on the football club whose money it rightly was.
3) The Oystons saw nothing objectionable in their ‘modus operandi’ even though it entirely ignored the specific and fundamental duties they owed to Blackpool FC to act properly, to promote the club’s success, to exercise reasonable care and skill and to avoid personal conflicts.
4) Valeri Belokon principally, but also the various fans who hold minority shares in the football club, suffered prejudice and discrimination (when compared with the Oystons and their companies) as a result of the significant paying away of monies that had no benefit to Blackpool FC and which detrimentally affected its value.
5) The Judge found that when the Oystons authorised Blackpool FC to fund Segesta’s purchase of the Travelodge and to make that infamous £11m payment to Zabaxe, these were in fact disguised payments to the Oystons. It should be remembered that a past Chairman of BST was faced with the threat legal action for defamation when he made the same claim back in 2014.
6) The Oystons used Premier League monies to unfairly enrich themselves and in the process prejudiced Blackpool FC and its members.
7) Valeri Belokon was excluded from crucial decisions in respect of the football club specifically because it was known he wouldn’t agree to the Oystons’ plan to use money received from the Premier League to fund non-football-related loans to themselves and their various companies, a practice best described as ‘the illegitimate stripping of Blackpool FC by the Oystons’ - which is as damning an indictment of the Oyston’s ownership as one could imagine.
It is instructive to note that in his clear and unambiguous condemnation of these aspects of the Oystons’ activities, the Judge criticised ‘fundamental breaches of the duties owed’ by these directors to their company, its share-holders and stakeholders. They are sentiments which echo very closely a passage in the report from the government’s Expert Working Group on Football Supporter Ownership and Engagement (November 2015) about codifying a new level of structured dialogue between representative groups of fans and senior club personnel, to:
‘bring clubs closer to complying with the core principles of the Companies Act – which while applying to all companies, does not apply to the vast majority of football clubs – which states that company boards should give due regard to the interests of its stakeholders, as well as its shareholders, and have due regard to the impact of the company’s operations on the community.’
All of the above illustrates the pressing need for changes in the rules governing the fitness of owners and directors and in the role that democratically-constituted supporters organisations play in how football clubs are run, both compelling reasons why BST is fully behind the Fans-Not-Numbers campaign.
In the wake of Monday’s historic ruling, it is possible that events will move fast over the next months. There is great euphoria at the possibility of a post-Oyston era but expectations have to be managed. Patience and fan unity are required. The ethical boycott remains firmly in place. It has to be patently clear to everyone, Oystons included, that their continued involvement in Blackpool FC would only imperil the club further. They have to go and allow our historic football club to mend itself, move forward and succeed as the club we all feel it should be, under new ownership.