Blackpool Supporters’ Trust has frequently gone on record as saying it wants the best for the club, the fans and the community. Trying to ensure that Blackpool FC is run ethically as a social enterprise - as much for the benefit of the fans and the town as the owners – is a major part of the remit of BST (as it would be for any supporters’ trust). Its social conscience is large but its powers are admittedly limited and there are those who question its presumption to represent ‘the fanbase’.
This week, then, some analysis of that fanbase: what it has been in the past, what it is now, how it is being impacted by the ‘toxic’ years and what it might be after the Oystons have gone and Blackpool becomes a normal club again. (Of course we will never be normal, we are the Seasiders!)
Following on from the real halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s when home gates at Bloomfield Road were often between 20,000 and 30,000 – too long ago for most of us to have been a part of - there was a steep decline in numbers through the turnstiles. From the 1970s until well into the new millennium the club had a loyal match day following of about 4,000, sometimes more, often considerably less. This change reflected the declining status of a club lacking investment, as the team bounced between the third and fourth divisions; it was also a consequence of a decline in the standard of the stadium, sections of which were falling into disrepair (and that is putting it kindly).
There may be a grim kernel of truth in Owen Oyston’s often repeated claim that he rescued Blackpool FC from extinction, but he hardly saved it or restored it in the manner of a Jack Walker for instance; and there are many who wish a more sensible option had been available in 1988 than to gift it to the man who kept it as his plaything, barely ticking over for a couple of decades. If only there had been a Supporters’ Trust in existence 30 years ago!
The uplift in Blackpool’s fortunes came with the football grants that allowed stadium rebuilding to commence and then really took off with the arrival of Mr Belokon as shareholder and investor in the stadium and the team. Match-day attendances doubled to average 8,000 in the Championship years and then doubled again to 16,000 for the Premier League campaign and the season following, only to decline sharply again as fan unrest with how the Oystons had dispositioned the Premier League windfall grew and as cynical tactics in the boardroom plunged the club down to the bottom of the league in successive seasons.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of looking at how Blackpool’s fanbase is composed, here for comparison purposes are some statistics matching Blackpool and Burnley. (The BST committee were hugely impressed by the community infrastructure of the latter when we visited Turf Moor last season on a fact-finding mission.) Blackpool’s population is 140,000, Burnley’s is 70,000; Bloomfield Road has a capacity of 16,000, Turf Moor holds 22,000; Blackpool’s average crowd last season was 3,500, Burnley’s was 21,000.
Remembering that there were several occasions when away fans outnumbered home fans at Bloomfield Road and that frequently the home numbers were inflated by hundreds of ‘freebies’, we can probably assume that the hard core of those attending games was about 2,000. A small percentage of those are staunch Oyston apologists (‘he owns the club so he can do whatever he wants with it!’); the majority would rather Oyston was gone and they join in the ‘Oyston Out’ chants but they are not going to let off-field issues stop them from watching and supporting the team, as is their right; quite a few of them are BST members. They don’t deserve to be called ‘scabs’ or ‘mushrooms’ but in turn they should not taunt the boycotting protesters, rather try and understand their frustration.
It is harder to quantify the number of fans who are staying away until such time as the Oystons are no longer at the club. Based partly on BST membership, the numbers that took to the streets for the three Judgement Days and ‘silent majority’ factoring, there are probably 5,000 more fans who would come back to Bloomfield Road immediately the regime changes, regardless of which division the Seasiders are playing in. That would give a combined unconditional hardcore fanbase of about 7,000, maybe slightly more.
If people are surprised that it might not be higher, then two things need to be taken into account. The first is that over the last five years even some long-term fans discovered other things to do with their Saturdays and that, combined with all the bad stuff that has gone on at Blackpool, means they will think twice about returning. The other is that a new generation of potential young Seasiders has had little opportunity to get to know and love their hometown team and they are growing up supporting Manchester or Merseyside (or even other Fylde coast) clubs.
After regime change it will take the best endeavours of the new owners working with fans’ organisations and the Community Trust to rebuild the fanbase. Reuniting it shouldn’t be a concern. It was composed of many factions before the dark days of Oyston and it will be composed of many factions in future. That is not an issue. It is family and families aren’t always harmonious, but what all factions have in common is a love of Blackpool FC and a desire to make Blackpool a club we can all feel proud of again. The real challenge will be to make it as big and as positive a force in the life of the town as it was in 2010 and as Turf Moor is for Burnley. That is BST’s vision. The first step towards achieving it has to be the departure of the Oyston family and if Owen really has the club’s best interests at heart, which many of us truly doubt, he needs to let go.