Blackpool fans up and down the Fylde Coast await with bated breath the decision of a High Court judge in what could turn out to be a turning point in the club’s history.
That is the hope, for many the last hope, of those supporters who are desperate to see a change in ownership after years of boycotting their own team’s matches.
It comes on the eve of a pivotal judgement between the club’s owners, the Oyston family, and its president Valeri Belokon, in what could see the Latvian millionaire win upwards of £20m, potentially making it one of British football’s most expensive legal actions.
It follows an explosive six-week trial that took place over the summer in the highly unusual scenario of club directors being pitted against each other.
Belokon’s main argument centred around claims the Oyston family used the football club as their “personal cash machine” after it enjoyed a cash “jackpot” after winning promotion to the Premier League in 2010.
Alan Steinfeld QC, appearing for the Oystons, asked the judge to dismiss Mr Belokon’s “confused” case, saying he had suffered no unfair prejudice.
Instead, Mr Belokon wrongly “thought” he had obtained a “gentlemen’s agreement” entitling him to equal shares.
This court case could not have been foreseen back in 2006 when the Latvian took out a 20 per cent stake in Blackpool Football Club with his investment contributing to the development of the Armfield Stand and the club’s meteoric rise to the Premier League in 2010.
But his relationship with the club’s owners turned sour in recent years culminating in two high-profile court cases during 2017.
Belokon won the first in Manchester in February, concerning money from the Blackpool FC hotel.
The Latvian was in dispute with the Oystons over his share of profits after he provided £4.7m in July 2008 to develop the south stand and south-west corner of the club’s stadium.
The judge decided in Belokon’s favour on that occasion leaving the Oystons with a bill of at least £2m – but that figure could be dwarfed by what they could be forced to pay this time round.
A ruling in the higher profile and more explosive second case, in which Belokon claimed “unfair prejudice”, will be passed on Monday in the High Court in London.
What happens if Belokon wins?
If the Latvian wins, as most expect, it is hoped by the boycotting fans that the financial damage will be so costly to the Oystons it will give them no option but to sell up and leave the club.
Many onlookers have even speculated that the two opposing parties could negotiate a settlement that involves the running of the football club, although this seems unlikely as the relationship between the two has irretrievably broken down.
Andrew Green QC, appearing for Mr Belokon during the six-week trial, argued the appropriate remedy “should be nothing other” than the Oystons buying out Mr Belokon’s interests.
If a court order led to the football business having to be sold to a new owner to raise funds for the buyout, that was likely to be popular with supporters currently boycotting Blackpool because of the Oystons, Mr Green added.
Whatever happens, if a change in ownership is possible then it’s likely to be a long drawn out, protracted affair.
Those expecting major news involving the future of the football club on Monday are likely to be disappointed. And, as we saw with the Manchester case earlier this year, the Oystons are likely to appeal the decision (although that is down to the judge’s discretion).
Christine Seddon, chairman of Blackpool Supporters’ Trust, remains confident that Belokon will prove to be victorious.
She said: “I really don’t think that anybody who listened to the evidence or read the court reports could possibly think that Valeri is not going to win.
“He’s absolutely going to win, it’s just by how much - and that is the significant thing.
“Blackpool fans are hoping it will be a very large award because that, coupled with the ongoing Not A Penny More campaign, will be our best way to get rid of the Oystons. It’s as simple as that.”
What happens if the Oystons win?
If the unexpected happens and the Oystons are victorious then their grip on the football club will tighten, although it is likely they will continue to lose money due to the continued fan boycott.
Valeri Belokon, having being forced to pay the court costs, would still have his 20 per cent share and his South Stand investment but any plans of being involved in the day-to-day running of the club would surely be well and truly over.
Meanwhile those fans pleading for a change in ownership will have been dealt a major blow.
But this remains unlikely and the best case scenario for the Oyston family seems to be suffering relatively low financial damages in the region of £5m to £8m, as opposed to figures at the higher end of the scale which range from £20m to £30m.
This would still be costly to the family but something they could just about manage while remaining owners of the club.
Former BST chairman Tim Fielding says he can’t see any scenario where the Oystons win the action.
He said: “A considered view of those who know what the case is about is that there’s little doubt that Valeri has suffered prejudice.
“I personally would be astonished if Valeri didn’t win the action. I think it’s a case of how much he is awarded.
“There’s all sorts of permutations and it’s going to be interesting on Monday how the judge approaches it, because he has a very wide discretion.
“He also seems alive to the potential implications to the football club.”
Is Belokon interested in buying the football club?
Belokon has previously indicated a willingness to remain involved with the club, although it is understood his preference is to work alongside another investor - preferably a local one.
However that has been complicated by recent news of Belokon’s suspension from Blackpool’s board having failed the EFL’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test.
The ban means Mr Belokon cannot hold any high profile role at an English league club, despite him still holding the title of Club President at Blackpool.
However that disqualification came about as a result of a criminal conviction and 20-year jail sentence that is highly disputed by Belokon’s representatives, who claim it was handed down by a “kangaroo court” in Kyrgyzstan and is not recognised in Latvia, nor the European Union.
Those that are more cynical suggest Belokon purely wants his fair share of the money back and will ride off into the sunset with his big sack of money.
But those Blackpool fans who remain committed to forcing regime change believe the Latvian has yet to let them down up to this point and have faith that he will be their knight in shining armour.
Tim Fielding remains confident that, even if it’s not Belokon, there are people out there who will have some interest in purchasing the football club.
He said: “Valeri has said he’s got someone who is prepared to work with him but even if it’s not Valeri, there are people out there who are interested in buying English football clubs.
“Be that for good or bad who knows until you see what purchasers there are out there.
“But the current incumbents, from my perspective anyway, set a pretty low benchmark for what we would expect from owners.”
What sort of sums are likely to be involved?
Most observers expect Belokon to win the case, with the main sticking point concerning the costs he is awarded.
Estimations have varied from a £5m awarding to as high as £30m, with many boycotting fans hoping the latter would force the Oystons to enter negotiations with the Latvian over handing over the club.
How they would pay such a sum is another case entirely.
The hope, according to Tim Fielding, is that the Oystons will have no other option but to sell the football club to raise the required cash.
He said: “The legal action could result in a fairly big award being made in favour of Valeri and if that happens, then you would think the Oystons would have to sell at least one of their assets to make the payments.
“I think most Blackpool fans would hope that’s going to be the football club.
“It’s potentially the biggest trigger that the football club is likely to have for a change of ownership.
“But there is the inherent risk they will sell something else and be adamant they will keep control of the football club, which is what they are officially saying on the record.
“But common sense dictates if you’ve got an asset that is losing money and is potentially marketable, be that to Valeri or third parties, then you would consider relinquishing that other than other assets that will continue to make you money.”
Karl Oyston contacted
The Gazette tried to contact Karl Oyston, chairman of Blackpool Football Club, from Thursday October 26 onwards to ask him if he wanted to comment for this article.
We received no reply.