Tangerine feminist in charge; Vicki Oyston Blackpool chairman
Control of the game - at boardroom and touchline level -is no longer the preserve of men. In part two of our series, Phil Shaw meets a determined chairman while Adam Szreter talks to one member of a card- carrying elite
Wednesday 02 October 1996
These days, if visiting grandees feel the need to bite their lips in the Blackpool boardroom, it is probably not because they have let an expletive slip out. Now that Mrs Oyston has become chairman in the absence of her husband Owen, who is serving a six-year prison sentence for rape, Bloomfield Road is not the most tactful place to complain about defenders "tackling like women" or to deride a striker as "a big girl's blouse".
The influence of the so-called weaker sex runs deeper at Blackpool than at any club in the country. Mrs Oyston's board includes Jill Bridge, the managing director, and Rebecca Bingham, wife of the former Northern Ireland manager, Billy (their director of football). They are joined by Carol Banks, the company secretary. Even the famous tangerine shirts bear the legend "Rebecca's," after the jewellers who sponsor the team.
It is rather harder to label Vicki Oyston, who has the kind of contradictory profile which defies stereotyping. A finalist in the Miss Great Britain contest of 1962, she now classes herself as a feminist. Parallel to her life as a businesswoman, working 16-hour days on the Oyston Group's media, property, investment and farming interests, she has a history of backing left-wing causes and a background in teaching.
There is an even more striking contrast. This softly spoken, vegetarian grandmother of 56 may have accepted that her husband is an adulterer. Yet she is convinced that he has never raped anyone and campaigns vigorously for his release on appeal.
Having chosen some "good, responsible women" to run the club, she has followed since the age of eight, Vicki Oyston is able to limit her involvement as League football's first female chairman to two and a half days a week. "I didn't feel I had to strike a blow by calling myself `chairwoman,' " she says. "I've got the job, I enjoy it, and Owen reckons I should keep it. But the title is irrelevant."
Her only contemporary, Paula O'Halloran, of Barry Town, insists on vetting every potential signing and actually washes the team's strip. "I am not hands-on in that respect," Mrs Oyston laughs. "I watch the finances, I watch the commercial side and I watch the football." Blackpool plan to move into a pounds 50m super- stadium within two years. "It's Owen's baby, but I'd love to make it a reality."
Shortly after becoming a director, nine years ago, she was stunned to be turned out of the Tranmere boardroom because of her sex. She encountered similar prejudice at Bradford City, yet perceives changed attitudes at both clubs and within the game generally. During last week's match at Chelsea, the home vice chairman, Matthew Harding, asked if he could sit with the Blackpool women "because you seem to be having so much fun".
"If I do get patronised, it's usually by the people on the door. They'll say, `Hello, Mr Chadwick. Hello, Mr Wilde,' and then `Hello, dear,' to me. When I'd arrived with Owen some people took it for granted I was just an appendage with nothing to say, though that's not peculiar to football."
Pockets of sexism remain. Before Blackpool last played at Port Vale, the Potteries club rang to warn them that she was not welcome in their boardroom. "Our directors decided not to tell me in case I got bolshie, and nobody passed on the message. So I sailed in and couldn't understand why everyone was ignoring me. It was sheer bad manners and I was quite upset. I wrote to their chairman but never received a reply."
Within the Second Division club itself, Mrs Oyston is such a familiar figure that gender is not an issue. One of her first tasks on taking control this summer was to dismiss the manager, Sam Allardyce. "I don't think Sam had a problem with being sacked by a woman, though I had one sacking someone I had a good relationship with and who had worked so hard."
She recounts how his successor, Gary Megson, drew a diagram peppered with arrows to appraise her of the gaps in Blackpool's system. "I had no trouble following it. My only worry was how much it was going to cost us to put it right!"
Like the power-dressing managing director of Birmingham City, Karren Brady, Vicki Oyston sends words ahead when she wants to visit the dressing- room. Unlike La Brady, she has yet to be greeted by a naked squad bursting with laughter at their own boldness. "I'm an older woman," she reasons, "more of a mother figure."
Despite her previous incarnation as a beauty queen, Mrs Oyston laughs off the idea that she might employ fluttering eyelashes to get her way in a macho sport. "I don't use feminine wiles because I haven't got any. I just behave as naturally as I can and get on with it. But I am clever."
Surely, though, there are situations where a woman's touch can open doors? "Being female is never an advantage. Never. If anything, people expect us to be pliable or gullible. Sometimes we have to lay down a harder line than a man would in similar circumstances."
Pressed to define the qualities that women bring to her club, she admits it is hard to be specific. "Maybe we don't get angry the way men do. We try to get on well with everybody, whereas they tend to be confrontational."
Feminists, of course, are not supposed to be cowed by conflict. Karren Brady has been at pains to distance herself from the label; Vicki Oyston embraces it. "Definitely, in the sense that women can achieve anything they want to rather than in the sense of getting steamed up about unimportant things like being called `chairwoman'. Karren is a feminist, whether she likes it or not."
The male chauvinist fraternity would no doubt argue that such "ladies" are not actually in football, merely on the administrative periphery. Mrs O, as Sam Ellis used to call her, is confident that will not always be the case; that The Manageress, Channel 4's "what if?" drama series, could one day become reality.
"I loved that programme," she recalls. "Me and Gill, my MD, often argue about this. She always says there'll never be a female manager, but I say there will, because the role is changing. They used to run the whole thing, but now they're more team coaches, with other people controlling the financial side.
"Some of the most successful managers have had little or no experience as a top-class player. So I really can't see why a woman shouldn't eventually do the job."
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