From Premier darlings... to Championship chumps

Blackpool fans with a banner reading 'love Blackpool hate Oyston'''.
Blackpool fans with a banner reading 'love Blackpool hate Oyston'''.
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For more than a decade STEVE CANAVAN was The Gazette’s man at Bloomfield Road – charting the club’s rise from the basement to the Premier League. Today, 62 years after the club’s finest hour, and as fans protest about how their beloved club is today being run, Steve looks at a dreadful – some would say shameful – demise.

Up until this season, it was sort of acceptable.

Protest by Blackpool FC supporters over the running of the club outside Bloomfield Road prior to the game against Brighton

Protest by Blackpool FC supporters over the running of the club outside Bloomfield Road prior to the game against Brighton

The Oyston family were disliked by many but the majority of fans who turned up to games could live with them.

Some even spoke in support of them.

Blackpool were, after all, a Championship club in a healthy financial position and the memories of a wonderful season in the Premier League were still vivid.

Yes, there was frustration that more money wasn’t being invested in the playing side of the club (but when hasn’t there been?) and that the training ground was still in the same embarrassing, dilapidated state as when Matthews and Mortensen played in tangerine (ditto).

This is as bad as its ever been in the history of the football club.

Glenn Bowley

But that is the nature of the industry – supporters always want more.

Most, however, could 
accept the way Pool were motoring along.

This is a club, lest we forget, that from late 1970s onwards had spent 29 seasons in the bottom two leagues. In 1983 the club finished 21st in English football’s lowest tier. And what about the football under Nigel Worthington at the end of the 90s?

It was grim stuff, played at a Bloomfield Road stadium that was a laughing stock, one of worst in the country.

The infamous 'OY51 OUT' number plate.

The infamous 'OY51 OUT' number plate.

So the fact that 12 months ago Pool were a Championship side, playing in a ground which had been totally revamped for the better in the last decade ... well, most fans could take that.

Then this season began. And it has been a complete car crash.

Bottom of the table by a mile. A pathetically low points total. Chaos on and off the pitch.

“You could accept something like this happening a decade ago because there was no money in the club. But there is now,” says Joe Atherton, a fan for 25 years.

“There have been no improvements on the pitch, to training facilities, in squad recruitment ... everything seems to be done on the cheap.

“There was an excuse for that five or six years ago, because we were in League One and running a football club isn’t cheap business. But we are now a rich club.

“People aren’t asking Karl Oyston to go crazy. I’m realistic, and you could even argue that we were punching above our weight by being in the Championship.

“But with the sort of money we have in the bank, we should not be about to finish bottom with potentially a record low points total.”

This season’s travails began before a ball had been kicked, with the appointment of Jose Riga.

It seemed, initially, to be a half-decent move.

The previous season, with Paul Ince and then Barry Ferguson in charge, had been poor. After a good start, Pool went 18 games without a victory and only secured safety in the final away game.

So Riga was a new start, cause for optimism. Erm, afraid not.

He may have been saluted as the man who stood up to the Oystons (and he sort of did – but not for any heroic ‘I’m with the fans’ reason, more because he was sulking at not getting his own way) but any employer who has a disagreement with their boss still has a duty, while employed, to do the job to the best of their ability.

Riga didn’t. He did not want to be at Blackpool and let the club slide massively.

Having only eight players (and no goalkeeper) three weeks before the start of a new campaign is indefensible. Having no pre-season? Suicidal.

It was clear then that the season would be a disaster.

Oyston, as bloody-minded as his Belgian manager, has to share at least as much of the blame for these early problems, more given the fact he interviewed and appointed Riga.

The chairman should have sacked him earlier but didn’t, hoping Riga would blink first and walk away.

By the time Riga finally departed, the damage had been done and Lee Clark, though he has largely conducted himself well in difficult cirumstances, was out of his depth, not experienced or strong enough as a manager to salvage the situation.

The result is that on-the-pitch it has been a truly shocking, dismal season of football - but that’s nothing compared to what’s happened off it.

John Robb, musician and writer, cannot understand what the Oyston family are trying to achieve.

“I would say the Oystons are now notorious for being the worst club owners in the country, what kind of achievmenet is that?” says Robb.

“Even when the club was in the Premier League and most peope didn’t want to think about it – and that’s not surprising because that year was amazing – but even then most of us knew the club wasn’t being run correctly.

“And now this season is so unreal it is like a cartoon.

“All it would have taken is a meeting with the fans six months ago and for the Oystons to say, ‘ok, hands up, we’ve messed up’. If they’d have done that, put money in, we might have stayed up.

“But they didn’t and now it’s like a war.”

Oyston has gone from being an unpopular but generally palatable figure to being detested, and he has only himself to blame.

At the start of the season the chairman said: “I never understand the angst among fans and I don’t think it ever helps.

“By the time this season starts, we will have a full squad and hopefully a good team, rather than a team that will struggle.

“It is about getting things right.”

Today those words seems a little, well, stupid.

Now, fair enough, football is unpredictable and sometimes, even if they prepare well and think things are rosy, clubs will have woeful seasons and get relegated. It happens.

As a supporter you’re unhappy and disappointed, but you can accept it.

But what you can’t accept is when the chairman – and a man who when Pool won promotion to the Premier League five years ago said it would change the club for the better “forever” – acts in such a deplorable way while the ship is sinking.

I’ve known Karl for a long time. I was football writer for this paper for more than a decade and had a decent working relationship with him.

He was frustrating and annoying at times and while I didn’t agree with everything he did, or how he did it, I could understand and respect his viewpoint.

I can respect nothing about the way he has run the club in the last six-to-eight months.

As the situation has deteriorated on the pitch this season, and the protests and unhappiness increased on it, Oyston appears, to an outsider, to have lost the plot.

Since becoming embroiled in a text exchange in which he labelled a supporter a “retard”, events have taken a strange and sinister turn.

The old Karl Oyston would never have been concerned with what anyone wrote or said about him. In fact he positively welcomed a bit of abuse. I often got the impression that his dream scenario was a whole stadium on its feet singing obscene chants about him.

He never, ever let criticism get under his skin.

So to see him mobilising lawyers to sue fans who have written derogatory things on the internet is surreal. It is not like him and can only mean one thing – that the pressure, admirably maintained by the fans throughout the course of the season, has got to him.

Glenn Bowley, chairman of the Blackpool Supporters Association for the last decade, can’t understand it either.

“This is as bad as its ever been in the history of the football club,” said Bowley.

“And there is no reason for it to be like this. Maybe 20 years ago when we didn’t have a bean. But we’ve won the lottery now, and yet we are decaying as a football club.

“Karl always says ‘I’m head of the company so the buck stops with me’. Karl Oyston is the reason we have been relegated.”

The PR at the club doesn’t help the chairman. It isn’t just bad, it is non-existent.

Take the Stan Mortensen statue. So simple. Just release a statement saying it has been removed for a few days for maintenance, or because there is a protest planned, whatever, but say something – don’t let further anger and resentment build.

“That is the most stupid thing they could have done,” adds Robb. “Stan Mortenson, a modest, inspiring guy, who represents everything good ... the statue removed by the Oystons, who have represented so much bad this season.”

The supporters who have organised demos and complained about the state of their beloved club deserve huge credit.

Today’s protest – labelled Judgment Day –which falls, depressingly, on the 62nd anniversary of the Seasiders finest ever moment – the 1953 FA Cup win - could be the biggest uprising yet.

For me, someone who cares about the club and was there every step of the way as it rose from League Two to top-flight, it is incredibly sad to witness the whole sorry saga.

If Karl Oyston had acted with dignity and decorum throughout, displayed a little humility and held his hands up, apologised for the mess, and promised to try and bounce back next season, then I daresay the majority would have accepted his words.

But the fact he has turned on the supporters, has a car numberplate saying ‘Oy51 Out’, and appears to have done nothing to try and arrest the alarming decline, has caused almost every single Blackpool fan to disown him.

In fairness, I don’t think he ever intended any of this to happen.

Never in a million years would he have wanted to drop to League One, where the clubs get a much lower slice of the Premier League TV money than the Championship sides.

Unfortunately the season spiralled out of control so rapidly that he didn’t have time to pull it back. And when it was clear they weren’t going to get out of the hole they’d dug, it was then Oyston seemed to panic.

It is hard to see where it goes from here.

“The only person that can answer that is the charman and the owners,” added Bowley.

“They need to talk to the fans first of all – all of them, not selective groups – and set out what their plans are. But they can talk as much as they like, it is action that is needed,

“And where do the fans go from here? Individually they have a decision to make. Do they support the football club but not the regime and carry on watching, or do they just walk away? That’s a really hard decision.

“A lot of people have already walked away and I can understand why.

“So the future is unclear, but what I do know is that the constant abuse right, left and centre has to stop.

“There needs to be some respect back at this football club, starting from those at the top, because it is desperately lacking.”

There is no doubt that the chairman has permanently lost the respect of a large chunk of the supporters, who will never forgive him for what has happened over the last year.

But, conversely some fans are fickle, and win the first dozen games next year and challenge for promotion and many will get behind the team again.

Football is cyclical; there are good and bad times.

But this is as bad as it gets.

Blackpool will rise again – maybe, as unlikely as it seems, as soon as next season.

If they do, great. But even if they – don’t laugh – won the Champions League in the next few years, it would not erase the stink of this utter shambles of a season.

It has shamed the name of the club and been an insult to the fans and Karl, like it or not, must take all the blame.