Blackpool: Tangerines rise from ashes in new hope but redemption comes with a warning

Saturday marked the return of the Tangerine massive to Bloomfield Road after the ousting of oppressive owner Owen Oyston, but their fight isn't over just yet

Matt Murphy
Blackpool
Monday 11 March 2019 10:08
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Blackpool fans invade pitch after equalising against Southend in League One match

Steve Rowland was surrounded by faeces. Seagull faeces, that is. The Blackpool Supporters’ Trust secretary was blissfully shuffling his way along the rows of stained plastic, together with 50 other volunteers, scrubbing clean dried muck from the seats at Bloomfield Road. They were preparing for a day that felt like it would never arrive; a “homecoming”, as they called it, for neglected fans who’d boycotted the club for almost four years. Saturday’s League One fixture against Southend was meaningless to the rest of the footballing world, but for them it was a cup final. It was a game where they could finally rejoice in unity, to celebrate the ousting of an oppressive regime that wickedly tore the heart out of Blackpool, and dragged them into a state of disrepair.

“Everyone knows how badly this club’s been run over the years, but going in behind the scenes and seeing it first hand is even more shocking,” said Rowland, dropping his sponge to take a short break, “The neglect and the scrimping… they haven’t spent properly to maintain this place. We realised right away what needed to be done to get it ready.”

With mops and buckets aplenty across the stands, and even help needed in the ticket office due to the demand, their toil isn’t just a palpable sign of the hideous state the Oyston family have left the ground in – it took a team of 50 volunteers an entire working week to clean the place in time – but also an important metaphor for how their fans have been ready and waiting to scrub away the past and start afresh.

It’s easy to forget Blackpool were in the Premier League less than a decade ago. But it took the act of them dropping out of the top flight, and then the Championship two years later, for fans to wake up to the reality that Owen Oyston was hardly investing in the club, instead handing himself £11m bonuses and hiring his own children onto the board. It was also revealed that Oyston – who is a previously convicted rapist – had failed both the Premier League and EFL Owners’ and Directors’ Tests, but neither authorities stepped in.

Tangerine fans, beside themselves in disbelief, decided to take the matter into their own hands. Turning their back on the club they love in order to save it, the Supporters’ Trust initiated an “ethical boycott” which culminated in April 2015. They would still travel to the games, but stop at the turnstiles to protest instead. The Oyston family even attempted, in some cases successfully, to sue some of those fans for their defamatory online comments.

Blackpool fans returned to fill Bloomfield Road 

“When we made the play-off final in League Two, we made a spectacular statement,” said Rowland, “Normally when Blackpool gets to a final we take 30-35,000 fans, but the boycott was in place when we played Exeter, and less than 5,000 Blackpool fans turned up, so Wembley was two-thirds empty that day. We would’ve liked to be there, but making the principle point was more important.”

It was left to minority shareholder Valeri Belokon, whose own money had propelled the club to the Premier League, to take the Oystons to court – claiming they were treating Blackpool FC “like their personal cash machine”. The legal battle ended in an admission that the club had been illegitimately stripped of millions, and their tyrannical owner and his family were finally removed from the board on February 25, and Blackpool put into receivership.

***

Saturday marked the beginning of a new, Oyston-free era. The return of the Tangerine massive. A buoyant parade under blue skies up to Bloomfield Road, balloons and banners at the ready, some even in full fluorescent suits and spray-painted heads. It was a sell-out home crowd – even the Nolan Sisters were in attendance – and there was a brand new sign above the director’s box that simply read “Blackpool are back”.

“Today is right up there with the birth of my son,” said Scotty, who has driven past the ground to work every day “feeling nothing but hurt” since the boycott began, “It’s Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one to be honest.”

“I can’t even describe how I’m feeling,” muffled Jo, a 66-year-old fan who was fumbling some change to buy a programme. “I lost my mum back in April 2015. She was a season-ticket holder for 40 years. She’ll be smiling down on us now hopefully.”

The pent-up emotions were vividly clear throughout the afternoon, so much so they couldn’t be contained in the stands as the match headed to full-time. When Southend’s Taylor Moore deflected into his own net to make it 2-2, the stadium erupted, fans spilled onto the pitch, flares in hands. They’d just nicked a point against mid-table Southend, but Blackpool fans didn’t need any excuses to revel in the importance of such a momentous day.

Blackpool fans sense hope after the turmoil of recent seasons

For captain Jay Spearing, this was one of the proudest moments of his career. His face was emblazoned on the programme, and his parents were in attendance – though they didn’t participate in the pitch invasion. “We felt a bit like a new club coming in this week,” he told the Independent, stood next to the tunnel as the last few fans were ushered out, “We knew exactly what was going on off the field [when the Oystons were in charge], but we couldn’t let that affect us. Now that things have been changed and Owen’s left there’s been a real, real lift around the place. Not just around the ground, but in the city too, and leading up to today it was a bit of a buzz.”

***

With a physical presence returning to Bloomfield Road once more, it comes at the right time for them to cheer home a fleeting chance of promotion. Results falling in their favour meant a draw with Southend brings Blackpool within three points of the play-offs with 10 games left. But for many, that would only be a bonus, and isn’t an immediate focus. One of the few advantages of their suffering over the last four years is that more active fans can see through the success, and instead prioritise the club’s welfare.

“It’s going to take time to get back on track,” said Rowland, “Once the bow-wave of euphoria has gone there’s a lot of rebuilding to do. And I think we need new owners in to make that happen. And I hope that’ll happen before the end of this season so we can start properly again in August and have a good campaign next time around. Technically, Oyston could still come up with the remaining money he owes Belokon and buy the club back, and we still have that problem. We’re hoping we won’t, but that’s still a possibility.”

As the search continues for a new owner, with a reported 25 different people interested in stumping up the cash, Rowland insists that the fight doesn’t stop at Blackpool. While their club may now be heading to safety, others like Charlton and Coventry (to name just two) are still struggling with similar issues, and everyone but their own fans are turning a blind eye to it.

Businessman Valeri Belokon speaks after winning multi-million pound High Court battle with the Oyston family over running of Blackpool FC

Throughout their battle – after pleas to various football governing bodies like the EFL fell on deaf ears – the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust even tried to take a petition to parliament to discuss a “big shakeup” that would put more pressure on those authorities to change their tune, so that if an Oyston 2.0 would crop up in the future, there would at least be a more rigorous set of rules in place. However, their petition never amassed enough signatures, and it wasn't chosen for debate. People in power knocking their fight back, again.

“We’ve given the EFL a hard time, we’ve given the FA a hard time and we’ll continue to do so,” adds Rowland, “Because even when we get our club back on its feet, there are others all around us that are suffering the same issues with rogue owners and maladministration, and it was about time the whole thing was changed.

“We keep hammering home the point that, really, every club is just one bad owner away from being in the s**t that Blackpool has been in."

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