GAZETTE OPINION: Only one way, Karl, to end this shameful saga
Thank you Karl.
So read the banner on February 23 2002 when Blackpool FC’s former crumbling wreck of a Bloomfield Road stadium was unveiled after a multi-million pound makeover.
Blackpool lost the game to a last-minute Leon Knight goal, but no one in the 8,981-strong crowd really cared.
Fans seduced by Owen Oyston’s grand plans for a massive complex at Whyndyke Farm finally had something to grasp after years of standing in a rotting pit of a ground.
This was a start of a new dawn for the club, out of the doldrums with a new arena (admittedly, only half completed) with a bright manager in the helm and looking forward.
The man to make that happen, with Football Foundation cash bankrolling the redevelopment, was Karl Oyston.
That banner was a genuine thank you to the chairman for sparing the club from years of sniggers and life in the lower reaches with little prospect of improvement.
Oh, how times change.
From gratitude to sheer, utter hatred of a man fans will understandably point to for the club’s astonishing collapse.
No club has ever fallen from the Premier League to League Two in such short time as Blackpool, apart from Portsmouth who were beset by administration and financial chaos. The Seasiders can have no such claim.
No fan could ever imagine the whirlwind rise to the Premier League under Ian Holloway, which completely galvanised an entire town.
Everywhere you went youngsters wore the tangerine of Blackpool rather than the red of Liverpool or Manchester United. Matchdays felt like an adventure of a lifetime, dominating Liverpool at Anfield, spanking Tottenham at home, a double over Newcastle. The breathlessness was invigorating.
But while many fans probably knew deep down it could never last, no one in their right mind could have imagined the position the club is in today.
Facing trips to Exeter, Stevenage and possibly Braintree, who average barely more than 500 fans this season in the National League.
Diehard fans who have supported the club for decades refusing to buy a season ticket or even step inside the stadium.
Repeated protests against the running of the club culminating in last weekend’s show of force through the streets of Blackpool.
A final day capitulation to finish three places below a side who not long ago were in the Unibond Premier League, but spearheaded by a football fan with money and ambition.
And when the dust settles on the post mortem of the latest shameful chapter in Blackpool’s recent history, the blame can only lie at the hands of one man. Karl Oyston.
That banner 14 years ago has taken on a slice of macabre nostalgia today.
Of course, while the good times roll, the focus of attention is not on the club’s owners.
When you’re dazzled by fast attacking football which we had in the Holloway era, you tend not to see past that, fans ignoring the shambles behind the scenes.
But question marks over the Oystons were omnipresent long before the Premier League beckoned.
Then-manager Colin Hendry, perhaps trying to deflect blame for his side’s woeful 4-1 FA Cup defeat at Doncaster, revealed he had to buy sandwiches and drinks for his players before the game as nothing had been organised, laying the blame at one man’s door.
Promises of a new training ground became a laughable sideshow. An actual plan has now been submitted to the council, but you can be entirely forgiven for thinking it will never materialise.
The South Stand took on a similarly mystical persona until it became impossible to avoid.
An away fan had to literally fall through the temporary east stand before that was eventually replaced.
And then – when a little bloke from eastern Europe appeared on the scene – things changed. And some didn’t.
Bankrolled by his millions, the genius of Holloway, the astonishing team spirit of journeymen footballers with a bit of added fairy dust, the Premier League had been achieved against the odds.
But still Oyston made headlines.
Talisman Charlie Adam called in the Premier League over an unpaid bonus, a battle he won. It was an unnecessary sideshow which could have cost the club its best player.
Three home games were postponed during a sub-zero winter because Blackpool didn’t have undersoil heating, made worse by a pitch that when fit resembled a cabbage patch.
Those games had to be rearranged, and, although they won two, a busy end to the season ultimately cost the club its survival.
Relegation and the discontent really kicked in, once Holloway left.
Managers came and went, a clearly astute Michael Appleton jumping ship when he realised it was an impossible job.
And don’t underestimate the impact of secretary Matt Williams’ departure.
Without him, Oyston appeared rudderless and unable to stop the bad news flowing like a toxic river ready to burst its banks.
But instead of trying to quell the discontent, Oyston appeared to fan the flames.
His car registration was changed to OY51 OUT. He posed next to a billboard which read ‘Blackpool FC, Oyston’s Cash Cow’, a picture of which was posted on Twitter by his son.
His family posted on social media a picture of them with tennis racquets following a fans protest where they chucked tennis balls on to the pitch during a home game against Burnley.
And then the gamechanger – banned from the stadium for six weeks after he was forced to apologise for calling a fan a ‘retard’ and telling him to “enjoy his special needs day out”.
He said: “I regret stooping to the level of those threatening and abusing my family.”
Many will argue in such a position of power he should rise above the abuse, which has also led him to suing fans for their comments posted online.
While the silent, rational majority despaired, a number of the vocal minority went a step too far and landed themselves in court with a hefty bill.
Some of the abuse towards the Oystons was vile – and The Gazette said so. We were criticised for not supporting fans threatened with legal action, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say what the hell you want, without proof.
Some of the comments – even after some fans received court writs – were beyond the pale, utterly idiotic. There can be little defence or sympathy for such moronic behaviour.
But it also worked both ways – Pool fan Andy Grice won £20,000 in damages from Sam Oyston for comments he made on Twitter.
It seemed everyone was at it, a social media graveyard for intelligent thought and basic dignity.
And it all tarnished the name of Blackpool FC making them a laughing stock among other fans.
Blackpool were certainly not the “envy” of the Football League, like Oyston had claimed before, after this.
But it continued – promising youth players Harrison McGahey, Mark Waddington and Dom Telford were allowed to leave after years of hard work by the astute Richie Kyle to mould them into top players.
The Morty statue was removed before the Huddersfield game last season – which was later abandoned – with Lancashire Police insisting the decision had nothing to do with them.
A police officer, under oath let’s remember, told a court Oyston ‘was beckoning and enticing fans’ as they tried to storm the directors box following that game during the sit-in protest on the pitch. While no-one came out with much credit, his actions were hardly counter-confrontational.
This season, fans stayed away, many of those with two-year season tickets still being counted despite being nowhere near the ground. Next year it will be near empty if fans follow through their ‘Not a Penny More’ promise.
But one of the saddest indictments of all is seeing apathy course through the veins of lifelong fans.
Fans actually want the club to lose if it hastens Oyston’s departure. They have been dealt a terrible quandary all season, wanting a change in regime but not wanting to see their club slip into the abyss. What a legacy of such glory not so long ago.
Jimmy Armfield and MP Gordon Marsden withdrew from the Fans Progress Group (FPG) while Coun Tony Williams swiftly abandoned his attempts at a truce when he realised it was futile.
And now we have the unwanted distraction of the Oyston v Belokon court case where Oyston’s lawyers have already been accused of ‘grandstanding’. No football club ever runs smoothly but the sheer frequency of shambolic and shameful episodes, one after another, can no longer continue.
The club has sunk to its lowest ebb. Even Neil McDonald admitted the job is “impossible”. No doubt the shenanigans will go on.
A club is nothing without its fans and this is a marriage utterly doomed.
The divorce was sealed a long time ago but the repercussions continue to rip this great club apart.
Sadly, the bitterness and hatred is so deeply entwined now there can be only one outcome, if we are to prevent the seemingly relentless march to oblivion.
It’s time to do the decent thing, Karl, before any more damage can be done.