As a supporters’ trust ourselves, BST has to feel some considerable sympathy for Exeter City, a football club owned by its supporters. Prior to last Saturday’s FA Cup First Round match at St James’ Park, Blackpool had last played Exeter City at Wembley in the 2017 League Two Play-Off Final. As Blackpool fans we wouldn’t have wanted the outcome of that game to be any different, but failure to gain promotion that season was obviously a bitter blow for a supporter-owned club where income from cup runs and cup victories is a hugely important part of their revenue.
On Saturday the Seasiders beat the Grecians yet again and while we wouldn’t have wanted that result to have gone the other way either, the ongoing boycott by Blackpool fans caused considerable collateral damage. Consider this: Exeter have just opened a new stand at their ground and were hoping for a cup draw that would bring a large away following to make it a memorable occasion with a good atmosphere and decent gate receipts. Instead, the official away attendance was just 113. To add insult to injury, the Devon club had to share 45% of the match-day revenue –raised mostly by their own fans – with Blackpool FC.
Those are the rules of FA and League Cup competition, the luck of the draw; and while it would be disingenuous to suggest that maybe Mr Oyston could gift back Blackpool’s 45% seeing as he is the reason why there were so few Blackpool fans at Exeter (and at Wembley in 2017), one can imagine Exeter hope they don’t have to play Blackpool again until our situation is resolved. That said, Exeter Supporters’ Trust remains fully supportive of our ethical boycott and understands why it is necessary.
The Exeter example is not unique, of course. The ethical boycott/not-a-penny-more initiative, now in its fourth season, has had a significant impact not just within Blackpool, where vastly reduced match-day attendances have contributed to the fall in visitor numbers to our town, but also via a ripple-effect onto other clubs and communities as Blackpool fans are also forgoing away games in numbers. Perhaps it is something that the EFL and the FA ought to give serious consideration to; and before anyone comes back with the predictable but facile argument that the boycotters are to blame for the situation, remember this: Owen Oyston failed the Premier League’s Owners & Directors Test in 2010 and the EPL instructed him to sell his shareholding but then omitted to follow through. Oyston fails the EFL’s Owners & Directors Test on exactly the same criteria but the EFL chooses to misinterpret its own statutes and responsibilities and does nothing. Blackpool is in the predicament it is in because it has an owner who has proved an unworthy custodian, who has illegitimately stripped this football club of assets and who has taken legal action against fans who called him on it.
It is a scandal that it was allowed to happen in the first place. It is a scandal that it took a civil action in the High Court by a disenfranchised minority shareholder to confirm the truth of what has been going on at Blackpool and still the football authorities do nothing to intervene to resolve the shambles. The EFL even confirmed their support for Sam Oyston when he was appointed as CEO of the club!
Last week, over 160 Blackpool fans congregated outside Bloomfield Rd on a Tuesday night to mark the first anniversary of last November’s High Court judgment in the legal action between Belokon and the Oystons, each fan holding up a page of Justice Marcus Smith’s damning forensic judgement of the Oystons. The slow and painful saga that is Blackpool FC under Oyston ownership is causing widespread unhappiness among the supporters and is a blight on the town of Blackpool. The football authorities are letting down a famous club and its community in their ongoing tacit support for an owner who fails their basic criteria of an ethical owner, who has frankly done little of good in the club and the community over his thirty years in charge and who has in recent times has been directly and indirectly culpable of causing incalculable harm.
The vigil on November 6th was a timely reminder of exactly what so many people are protesting about and how unacceptable the lack of action from the football authorities is. As one life-long supporter who was there that night so eloquently put it:
“The Oystons illegitimately stripped the club. How then can EFL say they are fit and proper people to run (it)? Which part of the word ‘illegitimate’ do they not get? I am an ordinary supporter whom the EFL and Oyston regard as an irrelevance even though as a supporter I am the lifeblood not only of Blackpool but of the game itself! I worked hard to earn a decent wage, scrimping and saving so as to purchase my annual season ticket. My ticket may not be much in the grand scheme of things but it meant I was contributing to the well-being of the club, present and future. Then came the realisation that, along with every other season ticket holder, my season ticket money was illegitimately stripped. In the grand scheme of things I may be an irrelevance, but like my fellow demonstrators I passionately love my club. They can never steal our love of Blackpool FC. We, the supporters, can never be defeated. This sombre demonstration has empowered us in our determination – not-a-penny-more until the Oystons are gone from our club, no matter how long it takes.”
The next time Shaun Harvey, CEO of the EFL, talks about “keeping our clubs in business for the benefit of the community and the fans” and “promoting the positive contribution made by our clubs” he might question how good a job is being done right on his doorstep here in Blackpool.