The English Football League (EFL) says its main objective is to bring stability back to Blackpool Football Club after meeting with concerned fans.
The meeting, held at Blackpool’s Village Hotel, saw EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey attempt to address a number of issues relating to the club.
Harvey said the EFL will do “whatever it reasonably can” to bring stability back to the club, which has been beset by off-the-field issues for a sustained period of time.
He went on to say the EFL is not looking to be an “obstacle” to progress, when questioned whether or not they will allow Valeri Belokon to take over the club from underfire owner Owen Oyston.
Most exchanges were dominated by Harvey and Tim Fielding, honorary vice president of the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust (BST) - who eloquently addressed a number of the supporters’ concerns.
The meeting began with Harvey issuing an overview of the EFL, what it is and what its main objectives are - a presentation that lasted almost 30 minutes.
He then outlined the background to the Owners’ and Directors’ Test and explained why Owen Oyston is considered fit and proper to own a club, while Belokon is currently banned under the EFL’s rules.
Harvey made it clear the test only seeks to determine eligibility, not capability.
The EFL’s position is that Oyston is not banned as his conviction for rape, which came in May of 1996 and saw him imprisoned for six years, came before their new rules were introduced in 2004.
However, Tim Fielding questioned the EFL’s interpretation of their own rules and claimed Oyston should not be permitted to run the club.
He said: “Your own definition makes it clear that a previous conviction applies before the new rules came into being.
“The rules clearly infer convictions that pre-date your rules do apply.
“I’m interested to know how a convicted rapist is allowed to own a football club, especially as we have recently heard about the goings on at Crewe, Manchester City and other clubs in respect of the child sex abuse scandal.”
Harvey responded: “I am going to have to defer to others. I was not around (when these rules came into force).
“If there is no question we can give a direct answer to, we will come back to you in future.
“Some argue there should be no start date for our test, but that was the approach taken by the league back then and it was voted in by our 72 member clubs.
“The test is there to achieve what it is set out to achieve.”
Harvey added: “I recently met with both Owen Oyston and Natalie Christopher to understand the current position.
“They both subscribed to the position of bringing back stability.
“I understand the view that fans are the heart and soul of a club, their emotional attachment is always going to be far greater than that of any shareholder.”
In what soon became quite a heated and passionate confrontation, Fielding argued the EFL’s own rules meant someone who is on the sex register, where Oyston will remain for the rest of his life, should be banned.
“Misinterpreting one of your own rules is why we have such a big issue at Blackpool,” Fielding said.
“From where we’re sat, the rules are not fit for purpose and only compounds the problem.
“I believe Owen Oyston should be banned under your rules."
Harvey responded: “I believe our interpretation is the correct one.
“I accept that had the conviction come after 2004, he should have been banned.”
Harvey then moved on to the matter of Valeri Belokon’s current suspension.
The EFL say the Latvian is banned on the virtue of his 20-year conviction in Kyrgyzstan for offences linked to money laundering and say their test covers convictions in all “competent courts”.
Belokon is not currently considered a “relevant person” by virtue of his 20 per cent shareholding, but he would be if he was a director.
Blackpool’s former president is able to appeal the decision, the EFL say, but they remain committed to working with him as made clear by their recent statement.
Belokon denies any wrongdoing and, in a statement issued to The Gazette earlier this month, said the conviction ignored the “most basic principles of natural justice”.
He recently met with the EFL in a bid to overturn his ban.
Fielding suggested the EFL could be the only barrier standing in between Belokon and taking over the football club.
He said: “We are here at this meeting because we are very concerned about where our club has been and where it is going.
“People who have read the High Court judgement will surely conclude that Valeri Belokon is a fit and proper person to run a football club.
“I do accept that, under the rules, he had to be automatically banned.
“But would you consider temporarily lifting the ban?
“We’ve got our owner talking about the club going into administration and being relegated if that happens.
“Well Belokon wants to buy the club and Owen wants to enter dialogue, but the bar to any discussions taking place seems to be the EFL’s banning order.
“Belokon’s lawyers have already presented you with various bits of evidence. The judgement is not recognised in the EU or this country, the only ones who recognise it are the Kyrgyzstan government and the EFL.”
Harvey replied: “We are committed to working with Valeri Belokon.
“But the fact is, there is currently no deal in place for him to buy the club as of yet.
“We want to bring stability back to the club, so we will do whatever we reasonably can to achieve that.
“That is why I met with Belokon on March 6 and we remain in communication. But he needs to provide the evidence.
“I can not tell you what his intentions are, it’s what he does that matters.
“I can assure you he sees us as part of the solution. He agreed that bringing stability back to the club has to be the main priority.
“There are many ways to achieve that - some more popular than others. But we have not ruled anything out.
“The future of Blackpool Football Club is our main interest.
“We have no preference to the shape of the solution, we just want to find the solution.
“There were many things in the judgement that we will consider. But we can not single-handedly do it on our own.”
Fielding then followed that up by asking if the EFL will stand in the way if Oyston and Belokon come to an agreement.
“The last thing we want to do is to stand in the way,” Harvey responded.
“We are not looking to be the obstacle to progress.”
Harvey also made it clear he expects to hear back from Belokon’s lawyers Clifford Chance, who intend to provide evidence on why the Latvian’s ban should be overturned.
The next item on the agenda concerned the role of the EFL as a competition organiser and not one of a governing body - a point Harvey was key to emphasise.
He also made it clear that the EFL does not have ability to force a change in ownership at any football club.
BST committee member Andy Higgins questioned the stance of the EFL not being a governing body, arguing they are involved in governance to a “significant level”.
He posed the question whether or not the EFL feel as though there needs to be an independent regulator - something BST have called for with a petition they have recently set up.
His point was expanded upon by BST chair Christine Seddon, who said: “In court we heard the full extent of what has gone on at our club in terms of how the Oystons ran our club.
“If it wasn’t for Valeri Belokon, these issues would still be going on.
“That is totally unacceptable. As fans, when we have complaints, who do we go to?
“We need an authority, the current system should simply not be allowed to continue.
“This has been going on for too long. Other clubs are suffering, it’s not just us.
“We need somebody who is going to stand up for the fans.
“We recognise you are not the people to do that.”
Fielding added: “If it wasn’t for the action taken by a minority shareholders, where the costs involved in taking the issue to court were eye-watering, we would have been in the same position.
“Before November we already knew about the £11m payment taken out during the Premier League season.
“Fans were already being sued by the Oystons, me included, and some were facing bankruptcy.”
Harvey replied: “What was the catalyst for this meeting? Believe it or not, it wasn’t the protest. It was the November judgement.
“That court judgement made for depressing reading but it goes without saying that Valeri Belokon is getting compensated for what he has suffered.
“I am sure that is causing some significant pain for the Oystons.
“That court judgement is what laid the issues bare.
“But in fairness, the offences the judge found are not a breach of any of our rules. It was a civil matter between shareholders.
“The Oystons have been ordered to make a significant payment which puts the future of the football club in doubt.
“Our objective is to keep football clubs alive for the benefit of the fans and the community.
“But I can assure you we had a watching brief long before (the court judgement).”
Seddon asked if Harvey would sign their petition, a request he politely denied.
He added: “No doubt the circumstances at Blackpool Football Club are on the extreme end of the scale.
“But generally most of our clubs are fine.
“We do not ignore fans, but we look after the clubs as a corporate entity.
“Maybe we need to consider how to better represent fans in future.”
Conversation then moved on to the EFL’s consultation it is currently carrying out regarding the problem of the conduct of football owners.
Harvey says the process is ongoing and a report will be delivered to their next meeting in June.
Higgins accused the EFL of being opaque, only for Harvey to interject.
He said: “I am happy to be criticised, but we are not opaque. If we did not care, we would not be here having this meeting.
“No one is forcing us to be here. At least we recognise the key issues.
“But we will complete the work we have set out to do. Let us go through the process.”
The last say fell to Seddon, who said: “We do appreciate this is a bit unusual but we believe you need to understand where we are coming from.
“As fans we are looking for a new framework where security is assured.
“All football clubs are only one bad owner away from potential disaster.
“We’d like to work with you and for you to work with us.”
Following the meeting, the EFL released the following statement through a spokesman: “The EFL welcomed the opportunity on Tuesday evening to meet with representatives from various Blackpool Supporters’ Groups and the Blackpool Gazette to discuss their ongoing concerns in relation to Blackpool FC.
“The meeting addressed and explained a number of key, and current, matters including the Owners’ and Directors’ test, the role of the EFL, issues pertaining to the existing ownership structure at the club alongside the League’s overall approach to supporter engagement.
“Throughout the course of the evening, those present were given the opportunity to put forward their respective group’s position as well as tabling other matters for consideration by the EFL, who was represented by its chief executive Shaun Harvey.”
Harvey said on its conclusion: “The EFL continues to appreciate that the ongoing situation is complex and concerning for supporters of Blackpool FC and I would like to place on record my thanks to those who participated in tonight’s meeting.
“The debate proved to be a useful and constructive experience and, we will, over the coming weeks and months, continue to work with all stakeholders in an attempt to find the appropriate solutions into the relevant matters raised and discussed.”