What is happening at Blackpool?

A few seasons ago, like the majority of football fans in England, I was wrapped up in the story of Blackpool making it to the Premier League. Blackpool isn’t too far away from where I live; on a clear day I can see Blackpool Tower, and as they had not any anything approaching success on the pitch in my lifetime, I was definitely hoping they could give a good account of themselves and stay up.

It was a romantic story; a team with a miniscule budget and a small stadium and a training facility that was completely dilapidated, making it to the Premier League under the leadership of Ian Holloway, where they would face players who made more money a week than the entire Blackpool squad did.

Unfortunately, Blackpool ended up being narrowly relegated, but they made a really good fight of attempting to stay up and won the respect of all neutral fans in the process.

The hope for Blackpool was that they would be able to use that Premier League season as a springboard so that they would be in a position to make it back to the Premier League and possibly even establish themselves as a Premier League side.

While Blackpool nearly made it back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, losing in the playoff final to West Ham, things have unravelled quickly both on and off the pitch.

Instead of moving forward as a club as the fans would’ve hoped, Blackpool have been sliding backwards at an alarming rate. Holloway left to join Crystal Palace in 2012, and since then Blackpool have not been in the promotion hunt. Last season, Blackpool got off to a flying start, but then completely collapsed, only taking 2 points from 12 games, a run which culminated in the sacking of manager Paul Ince, by text message, and it was left to Barry Ferguson to step up as caretaker player-manager, and he narrowly succeeded in avoiding relegation.

Blackpool appointed Belgian Jose Riga, a former Charlton manager, but he was fired last week after less than five months in charge.

Giving the Championship table a casual glance, you would find that Blackpool are bottom with only one win and three draws from their first 15 games, and they are also out of the League Cup. So, you may think it’s hardly news that they would fire a manager who had only won once in 15 games.

But, there’s a ton of mitigating circumstances which have to be taken into account when looking Riga’s record as Blackpool manager. He has had to put up with more in his short time in charge of Blackpool than most managers have to in their entire careers.

At the end of last season, Blackpool released 17 players, and failed to come to an agreement with star player Tom Ince, who joined Hull. This meant that In July, Blackpool had to cancel their planned pre-season tour of Spain because they only had eight players on the books, which included no goalkeepers. Blackpool only had 13 players for their season-opener against Nottingham Forest.

Blackpool eventually cobbled together a squad of players, but the strong suspicion was that they were left with players nobody else wanted just to make up the numbers, rather than players who could make a positive difference to the team. Shortly after, Riga’s assistant manager Bart De Roover left Blackpool, claiming that he had not been paid or offered a contract and that Blackpool were the most unprofessional club he’d ever worked at.

The lack of any sort of transfer activity or player signings became a real bone of contention between the fans, Riga and Chairman Karl Oyston. The relationship between Oyston and Riga had been rocky since day one, but now there was out and out animosity between the two to the point where they were barely on speaking terms.

A couple of months ago, Gary Rowett, then-manager of Burton Albion publicly announced he wasn’t going to take the Blackpool job (he has recently been named manager of Birmingham City), which, considering Riga was still in charge at the time, was a shock to everyone.

An uneasy truce was called between Oyston and Riga, but recently the pair fell out again of a lack of signings at the club, and this has culminated with the firing of Riga, with former Huddersfield and Birmingham City manager Lee Clark having taken over.

What’s remains unclear though, is why Karl Oyston has allowed Blackpool to slip from a team that were on the cusp of establishing themselves as a Premier League side to a side which look likely to be relegated into League One.

Usually, when a club chairman or owner falls out so spectacularly with their coach or fanbase, it is because they are new to football, and have made a mistake, or a series of mistakes, as a result of not really understanding that what may have worked in whichever field they had previously been in may not necessarily work in football.

But, in the case of Karl Oyston, he has been running Blackpool since 1999 (he did step down for a few months in 2010) and before that both his parents had held the position of Chairman. So, whatever is happening behind the scenes at Blackpool, it can’t be explained by naïveté or inexperience on the part of Karl Oyston.

It’s fair to say that the Oyston family’s time in charge of Blackpool hasn’t exactly been plain sailing since Owen Oyston saved the club from bankruptcy in 1987. Owen Oyston was known as an especially tight-fisted chairman, which meant that his popularity amongst the fans plummeted, despite having saved the club previously. In 1996, Owen Oyston was convicted of rape, a crime he still denies committing, and served 3-and-a-half years in prison.

Owen Oyston’s wife Vicki then took over as Chairman, but left the post a few years later following pressure from the Blackpool fans. This is when Karl Oyston became chairman.

Now Karl Oyston has been vilified by Blackpool fans who accuse him of being too focussed on the financial side of Blackpool while at the same time being apathetic to what is happening on the pitch.

In their season in the Premier League, Blackpool went against what most clubs do and didn’t increase their spending on wages by much, and they didn’t spend a great deal on transfer fees. This meant that Blackpool more or less kept all of the TV money and prize money they received that season, as well as the parachute payments that all relegated Premier League clubs receive for the first few seasons after relegation, to soften the financial blow of losing the tens of millions all Premier League clubs receive.

That financial prudence would’ve been fantastic for Blackpool had that money then been reinvested into the club. The squad could have been improved, and major investment could’ve been made in the training and youth facilities, which could have brought Blackpool into the 21st Century and made them a more attractive club.

Instead, what’s happened is that money has poured out of the club, without anything tangible to show for it. On the pitch, Blackpool have deteriorated as they have become increasingly reliant on loan deals and short-term contracts. Off of it, the training facility is as bad as ever, and the club just seems completely disorganised. For a recent game against Brighton, the club made the near-300 mile trip using public transport at rush hour, as they hadn’t booked train tickets in time to go earlier in the day.    

In the Blackpool accounts from their season in the Premier League, it was shown that £11m was paid to a company owned by Owen Oyston. In the accounts for the 2012-13 season, it was shown that the highest-paid director at Blackpool, believed to be one of the Oyston family, was paid £568,000, an increase of £503,000 from what the highest paid director was paid the previous season. That sum was more than Blackpool spent on transfers. In the past few seasons £24m has been given out as interest-free loans to other companies.

Karl Oyston defends the money going out of the club by saying it helps the club avoid being hit with a large tax bill. There may be some truth in that. Most football clubs don’t turn a profit as they spend to chase success; in fact, only 4 of the 24 Championship clubs made money last season. In the UK, businesses have to pay Corporation tax, a tax on profits, so by reducing the amount of profit they made, Blackpool avoided paying as much in taxes.

Thanks to the Chairmanship of Karl Oyston, Blackpool have been financially stable for the past few years, but it’s come at a big cost. Blackpool are going backwards on the pitch, and that financial stability could be threatened as a result. Blackpool have received their final parachute payment and if they get relegated to League One, they will lose a lot of revenue also.

Fans come to watch matches in the hope of being excited and entertained but while Karl Oyston remains seemingly content to watch Blackpool slide down the leagues, Blackpool fans are rapidly losing all hope and may hit a point where they give up altogether.