First published 07/01/19 in The Times
It was 4pm outside the west stand of Bloomfield Road, an hour and a half before Blackpool’s FA Cup third-round tie against Arsenal kicked off. Blackpool Supporters’ Trust (BST) members had set up the portable table they gather round during the “Not a penny more”, boycott before every home game.
They had laid their BST flag on the cold, damp floor. They hawked scarves that read “Oyston Out”, in reference to their much-maligned, contemptuous owner. They handed leaflets to visiting Arsenal fans, some of whom had come to lend their support, but many of whom were oblivious to all but the vaguest details of what has befallen this proud club.
The few hundred or so who gathered chorused acerbic songs. They chuckled when the news that a protester had sat atop the Arsenal team coach outside their Preston hotel filtered through. The light was falling. There was a bitter chill in the air. And every now and then, a splat landed on the pavement courtesy of a seagull overhead.
There can be fleeting moments during these all too frequent protests that invigorate, heighten the senses: a rousing chorus; the billowing tangerine smoke and the smell of cordite released from a flare; a bright orange Ford Cortina roaring its engine, flags fluttering from its windows, sounding a supportive horn. Yet when the noise stills as kick-off approaches and the hubbub subsides, it is melancholy, overwhelmingly, that hangs in the air. And a question: how has it come to this? “It’s a real conflict for all of us,” Steve Rowland, the BST secretary, says. “We’d all love to be in there; this is the biggest game we’ve had for years, and we’re all outside. It’s very hard to have that taken away from you. It’s a real rift in a lot of people’s lives.”
The refusal of thousands of supporters to contribute another penny to the club until Owen Oyston has gone means that, most weeks, when kick-off arrives, the BST pack up their table, fold up their flag, and head home, or to the shops, or to do whatever any non-football supporter would do with their Saturday afternoon. It is the saddest moment of their week. “It hurts,” Christine Seddon, the Trust’s chairwoman, says. “Usually there isn’t this much attention. Normally there are just a few of us leafleting. But the BST have had a presence outside this ground for every home game, in all competitions, since August 2015. It’s symbolic. This is our club, and we love it, and this is the only thing we can do to save it.”
When the High Court’s judgment found, in November 2017, that the Oystons — Owen and his son Karl — had “illegitimately stripped” Blackpool of almost £27 million and used the club as their “personal cash machine” after the £100 million Premier League windfall that came as a result of promotion to the top flight in 2010, an end to the most vindictive ownership in English Football appeared nigh.
The Oystons were ordered to repay Valeri Belokon, a Latvian banker who invested £4.5 million in exchange for 20 per cent of the club’s shares but was found to have been “unfairly prejudiced”, more than £31 million. Yet since the first instalment of £10 million was paid, Oyston, 85, has defaulted on every payment, been served with a penal notice that has expired leaving him in contempt of court, and has effectively battened down the hatches in his penthouse suite above the west stand.
“He’s living out his days in his broken empire,” Jeremy Smith, a long-term supporter of the boycott, says. “Like Nero, fiddling, while Rome burns.” When Oyston’s conviction in 1996 for the rape of a 16-year-old girl is taken into consideration, the lack of action by the football authorities — whose passing of the buck or interpretation of their own rules has allowed this to continue for so long — appears all the more damning.
Last week the BST had contacted pubs from Fleetwood to Lytham, encouraging them to screen the game and facilitate fan-zones for disaffected supporters. However, for some, the urge to support their team remains too strong. Given that the Blackpool Gazette has stopped publishing match action photographs in which supporters are identifiable, for fear of reprisals, few of those who entered Bloomfield Road on Saturday were enamoured by the prospect of speaking to The Times.
Queueing at the turnstiles, however, were Nick Cuncliffe and his friend John Watson, who was born in the town, but now lives in China. “I used to have three season tickets,” Cuncliffe says, “me, my missus and daughter. Sometimes my mum would come along and it was a really nice family activity. Now we stay away. Oyston has decimated a generation of supporters. The only reason I’m here tonight is because my pal is here and it’s Arsenal.”
By the time we reached the Bloomfield Brewhouse, on Bloomfield Road, whatever big-game excitement there may have been had all but evaporated. Joe Willock, the teenage Arsenal striker, had just plundered the first of his two first-half goals. Alex Iwobi would add a third with four minutes of the 90 remaining.
Children of an age never to have set foot in Bloomfield Road sat in their tangerine strips, eyes glued to the screens. There were grumblings about the neglectful state of the pitch. Rowland pointed to a swathe of empty seats, where he once sat every other week. Only 3,737 fans filled the home end, a resounding success for boycotting supporters.
Everyone has a tale of how their connection to the club has been eroded. For Seddon, it was her mother being unable to watch the team she supported since the age of seven during the final years of her life. She passed away recently, aged 91. “If we’re talking about the FA Cup,” she says, “she went to Wembley on the back of her brother’s motorbike in 1953. We’ve got Tangerine blood in our veins.”
For two 15-year-olds, Ryan and Niall, it means a group of school friends gathering outside the ground rather than watching the mighty Arsenal in the flesh. “No one at school goes,” Ryan says. “It’s tempting to go in, but it’s not worth it for one game. It’ll just keep Oyston here for longer.”
“This just shouldn’t be happening, should it?” says Smith, 49, one of scores of supporters sued for defamation by the Oystons after he held up a doctored newspaper front page which read, “We are not thieves” at a televised match in 2014. Smith fought the case, though, and in 2016 won. “The town, now, should be in the stadium, for one of the biggest games in years,” he says. “It saddens me. I’ve got a 14-year-old lad at home who should be in there. I brought him up as a Blackpool fan. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Rowland, 65, pens a regular BST column in the Blackpool Gazette and on Friday wrote a “New Year fantasy” reimagined history of Blackpool. And indeed, it is chastening to consider what might have been under different owners during the past three decades — on the pitch, yes, but also as a positive force in a town with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country.
Rowland, who for decades made the 450-mile round trip from his home in Hertfordshire to games, returned to the town in retirement in 2013. “I had planned to write a novel too, but I never got around to it,” he says. “Perhaps I could write about the fall of the House of Oyston?
“It’ll happen one day.”