Blackpool’s accession to the Premier League was, on the surface, one of the feel-good stories of 2010. A club with a tight wage budget had broken up from the bottom division of the Football League and reclaimed a place in the top division that it had last held almost forty years previously. The team itself battled hard in the Premier League once there, winning a league double against Liverpool and beating Tottenham Hotspur at Bloomfield Road before succumbing to relegation by a single point on the final day of the season. They were relegated back to the Championship with their pride and dignity intact, and have made solid progress this season, sitting in fourth place in the table and still in touch with the automatic promotion places for a return to the top flight.
Yet there was always a suspicion – albeit a slight one – that there was more to the owners of the club than met the eye. Chairman Karl Oyston resigned his chairmanship in August of 2010, citing disillusionment at the way in which the modern game was headed as the biggest single reason behind his decision to step down while remaining as acting Chief Executive of the club. A month after this resignation, however, he filed for bankruptcy even though his family had been listed on The Sunday Times Rich List – with an estimated value of £105m – just two years earlier. After the Premier League announced that they would be investigating Oyston’s dealings, the bankruptcy vanished from the Insolvency Service’s online register, indicating that it had been withdrawn.
This morning, though, the Daily Mail’s website shone a particularly harsh light on this particular story with the news that the club’s accounts for the 2010/11 season show that Blackpool FC paid out an eye-watering £11m to a company called Zabaxe Ltd which is owned by Owen Oyston, the father of Karl Oyston. Indeed, Zabaxe Ltd – which is described as an Accounting, Auditing & Tax Consultancy and has its registered address the club’s home stadium – has just three company directors – Owen Oyston and his wife Vicki, both of whom are also directors of Blackpool Football Club, along with a Rosemary Conlon. This was a revelation that Blackpool supporters had been aware of for several days, but its release into the public domain will now surely only increase the pressure for this family to depart from this particular club.
Owen Oyston isn’t without skeletons in his own closet, either. He was convicted of the rape of a model in 1996 and served three years of a six year prison sentence having failed in an appeal to get the verdict overturned. This process of appeals ended up at the European Court of Human Rights in 2002, where it was rejected as “manifestly ill-founded”, with the court stating that “there was no reason to reach a different conclusion in the present case.” He was adjudged in by The Radio Authority to be unfit to hold a controlling interest in the four commercial radio stations that he had at the time in 1997, and had to resign the chairmanship of Blackpool FC two years later. A civil case brought by the victim of the original crime was settled in the same year.
There will be those of the opinion that the Oyston family are entitled to do as they wish with the profits of the company that they have been running. The high-mindedness of Karl Oyston as he resigned from the chairmanship in August 2010, however, certainly sticks in the craw, with the benefit of hindsight. “Everyone else seems to subscribe to the way business seems to be conducted and it is a way I find unacceptable”, he said at the time, adding that, “I don’t think any deal should be about the agent”, a comment which should be set against rumours of discontent within Bloomfield Road at the time from the players over a lack of bonuses and manager Ian Holloway over being unable to compete in the transfer market because of the Oyston-imposed £10,000 per week salary cap at the club.
It is worth taking a moment to consider just how much money this £11m actually is. The exact amount paid out was £11,067,554, which equates to £211,538 – more than the basic salary of any player in the Premier League at the moment. It is also seven and a half times the £1,464,200 which was the highest amount of money paid out to agents by a Premier League club (Middlesbrough) for period from July 2009 to the end of June 2010. Even if we are to disregard the staggering hypocrisy of Oyston’s weasel words, Blackpool supporters (and, in all likelihood, manager Ian Holloway) will likely now always be left wondering whether their team might have won the extra couple of points that would have kept the team in the Premier League had it been released to strengthen the club’s playing staff rather than finding its way into the back pocket of one of its directors.
Blackpool Football Club has spent enough time in the lower divisions over the years for everybody connected with the club to be fully aware of the fact that there are precious few football clubs that can afford to give away £11m under any circumstances. Moreover, there have already been suggestions that this amount of money may not be the final total of money that has been taken out of the club by the family in recent years, although we may have to wait and see what happens with regard to that. What we can say, however, is that Karl Oyston must explain clearly and precisely why this company was paid such a massive amount of money and the reputation of him and his family will likely stand or fall on how convincing his answer is. Their behaviour may not have been illegal, but it is immoral and they should be called to account for it.
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The first edit of this page had Rosemary Conlon named as Rosemary Oyston. This has now been corrected.