Blackpool Supporters’ Trust committee members staffing our ‘open office’ outside the West Stand talk to quite a few fans still attending games at Bloomfield Road on match days. Most are happy to stop and chat and exchange views on what’s happening on and off the field at Blackpool FC, the entity and passion that unites us all even though we may sometimes disagree about how you solve a problem like the Oystons!
Levels of understanding and levels of frustration vary of course, and people tend to focus on the effects rather than the cause of all our problems, but it might be instructive to summarise the main views represented by those still going through the turnstiles.
The first observation is that the majority of the 1,500 season-ticket holders are as unhappy with the Oystons as those who are actively boycotting the club. It is interesting to note that whenever opposition fans chant ‘Oyston Out’ as Luton did on Sunday and visiting supporters have done quite regularly this season, they are warmly applauded by those Blackpool fans inside the ground.
Next up is the often repeated ‘better the devil you know’ argument: the Oystons are not liked but another owner might turn out to be even worse! BST considers it extremely unlikely that anyone worse than the Oystons would be remotely interested in a club like Blackpool, given the principled stand so many supporters have taken in reaction to poor custodianship. We are not prepared to put up with it! Anybody interested in owning Blackpool FC would have to be as genuinely committed to the club as its passionate fans.
Then there are the defeatists, those who believe the Oystons are here to stay, like it or not, so why should supporters deprive themselves of the pleasure of watching Blackpool? The Trust’s answer to that is very straight-forward. Everyone has the right to watch the team if they so choose, but they can still let it be known that they are critical of the owners and they can further demonstrate their commitment to the principled running of our football club by aligning themselves with the Supporters’ Trust. It doesn’t have to be a radical step. Simply doing nothing changes nothing, but a united fan base can be a formidable and legitimate force for shaping the future of the club.
There is a small group of apologists who say the Oystons own the club. It’s their business to do what they like with. They take the risks and they can reap the benefits. It is very hard to counter such a blinkered view. If these people cannot see that football clubs are different from ordinary businesses, that they are social enterprises in which the fans have invested huge amounts of money, time and emotion, far in excess of what the Oystons have invested over 30 years, then they are deaf to both reason and conscience. They may be happy to be exploited in this way. The majority of us are not.
Many are of the view that money is the only thing that really matters to the Oystons. Some suggest that BST should put up some collateral and offer to buy a stake in the club. In response to that suggestion, the Trust would say it is in favour of supporters having a financial stake and a say in the running of Blackpool FC but we take Valeri Belokon’s experience as a salutary lesson. Investing in partnership with the current owners is neither an attractive nor a realistic proposition.
Some fans quite rightly object to being called mushrooms or getting taunted for going in to games. Passionate debate about the rights and wrongs of the situation is to be expected and reasoned arguments are healthy but the abuse of one group of fans by another just plays into the hands of those who seek to divide and rule. The level of frustration is well understood, given the shocking ways in which the Oystons have acted, but intimidation of supporters going into Bloomfield Road is not constructive and doesn’t help BST’s cause or the prospects of fan unity in facing down the common enemy.
Finally there are plenty who say that both sides have become polarised and intransigent and that Karl Oyston in particular appears to enjoy the aggravation. They say that diplomacy and negotiation are what’s required to build a bridge between the club and the fans.
To them, the message of the Trust is this. Remember why the club has descended to this unacceptable predicament in the first place – the lack of consolidation and investment when we reached the premier league, the lack of any plan to sustain and build on that unbelievable legacy, the refusal, quite simply, to ‘put football first’. BST believes the Oystons will never do things differently. If there was ever going to be a genuine change of tack, it would have happened by now. The meeting the Trust arranged at the Hilton – the first time Owen had met face-to-face with fans for 20 years – was the opportunity to offer the olive branch. There were several relatively minor things Owen might have brought to the table, such as suspending all litigation with immediate effect, reimbursing those sued, disbanding the FPG, reconstituting a democratic fans’ parliament that recognised BST as the voice of the fans.
If he was really serious about building bridges, he could have appointed a new Chairman with real powers, ring-fenced football-related monies and redirected them into much-needed infrastructure and team-building projects as both Belokon and BST had been pressing him to do. In reality, he brought absolutely nothing to the table other than the usual tales of how he saved the club thirty years ago and flannel about how he hoped we’d get back to the top flight one day.
Hence the ethical boycott, as disillusioned and angry fans have voted with their feet. So even though the team is still in with a chance of promotion via the play-off final, the majority of supporters are resolute in their protest and their call for the owners to do the honourable thing and put the club up for sale.
BST isn’t a one-dimensional ‘Oyston Out’ protest movement. It is a Supporters’ Trust acting in the best long-term interests of fans, club and community. But when so many fans – many more than are BST members – have vowed never to return to Bloomfield Road while the Oystons are in charge, the logical position to take is one of calling for the owners to go. That is what will bring the fans back. That is the reality we all need to face. If negotiation is the way forward, BST has made it clear on more than one occasion that the Trust is prepared to discuss the Oyston’s exit strategy with the board of the football club at any time.
Whatever happens in the next few months and whoever ends up owning the club after the Oystons, new owners will surely want to work with an official, credible and democratic fans’ organisation. Blackpool Supporters’ Trust is that organisation, the conscience of the football club. It is here for the many and the few (to expand on current political sloganeering) and must be ready to build bridges between different factions of the fan base as well as between supporters and the staff and board of the club, working together to forge a better future for Blackpool FC.