There is, as anybody that has seen one will readily attest, something fundamentally eerie about watching a football match in an empty or near empty stadium. The sound of the referee’s whistle, unencumbered by the padding of thousands of watching bodies, sounds more shrill than we are accustomed to. Not only are the shouts of the players more audible than usual, but they reverberate off the concrete, steel and glass like ghosts of times when the seats or terraces were packed with paying spectators. A football match played out in an empty stadium is a sporting fixture shorn of context. It feels like the physical manifestation of an idea that is decaying. An obituary written for somebody – or something – on a life support machine.
We don’t know exactly how many people were actually present at Bloomfield Road last night for the League One match between Blackpool and Burton Albion last night. We know that the attendance was recorded at 6,197, but we also know, from the myriad of photographs taken at the match last night and posted to social media or forums, that nowhere near this many people actually turned out and watched the match. Blackpool sold around 3,000 two year season tickets last summer, and those people will have been included in official attendance figures, and all advance ticket sales, whether the buyer turns up or not, are counted. They always are. Estimates have put the actual number of people present at the match at around 3,000-3,500, but we may never know the exact number of those that did attend the match. In a way, it almost doesn’t matter. The echoes of the players’ voices spoke for themselves.
Blackpool Football Club has become a car crash in slow motion in recent years. Last weekend, the club’s commercial department’s Twitter account had to be closed after an abusive tweet that was sent from it to a supporter went viral on social media. Supporters are now boycotting the club through a “Not A Penny More” campaign that seems to be catching the mood of a sizable proportion of the remaining fan-base. Protest has become de rigeur both inside and outside Bloomfield Road, with every match now accompanied by the rumbling of a clearly audible discontent. An alternative replica shirt has been designed for this season, for those who wish to continue to pledge their allegiance to the club whilst not wanting their money to go into it while the current owners remain in place, with proceeds going to the Blackpool Supporters Trust.
On the pitch, the actual team itself has started to give the impression of mirroring the sense of purposelessness that reverberates around the club at the moment. A draw on the opening day of the season at Colchester United may have given the optimistic amongst the club’s support impression that new manager Neil McDonald might have arrested a decline that saw the team slump to bottom place in the Championship at the end of last season, but two defeats in five days – a three-nil walloping at League Two Northampton Town in the League Cup last Tuesday followed by a two-nil home defeat against Rochdale on Saturday – may have served as a sobering reminder of another difficult season ahead in a competitive division.
Last night’s match mirrored this Jekyll and Hyde-esque start to the season. A goal up at half-time, Blackpool surrendered their lead in the second half and now sit, disconsolately, in twenty-second place in the current League One table, a single, solitary goal on goal difference from its very bottom. August league tables can be notoriously fickle beasts, but on Saturday the team travels to Bramall Lane to play the pre-season promotion favourites, Sheffield United. The bottom place in League One by the end of Saturday afternoon, for a club that was playing Premier League football just four and a half years ago, is far from inconceivable. And there will doubtlessly be further protests at Bloomfield Road at the weekend, from Seasiders who refuse at least to give up their football club without a fight. These emotions and this sense of belonging seldom just vanish overnight.
Today marks the return of the club’s much-despised chairman Karl Oyston after his six week ban from football-related activity, and this may or may not further stir the hornets’ nest that the support-base has become. Oyston received his ban – as well as being handed a fine of £40,000, being ordered to attend a mandatory education session and a warning regarding his future conduct – for sending “abusive and insulting text messages” to a supporter, the nature of which, one might well surmise (and without wishing to repeat his words – there’s an article from the Guardian about the outcome of the court case, including the somewhat extraordinary revelation that Oyston had sought to get the charge dismissed because of the fact he considered this to be a private matter. An offer remains on the table for the Oystons to hand over the day to day running of the club to the Blackpool Supporters Trust but, four weeks after convicted rapist – and still club majority shareholder – Owen Oyston confirmed through his spokespeople that he was “seriously considering it [the offer] with his professional advisors,” there doesn’t seem to have been any movement on that front, of late.
Until the Oystons finally leave Bloomfield Road for good or repair the structural deficiencies that has left this club plummeting to the extent to which it has over the last three years or so, the echoes around the ground on match days only seems likely to become more pronounced. As winter evenings draw in and the idea of , it only seems likely that the number of those prepared to put up with the club in its current form will only continue to fall. The players’ voices will become increasingly pronounced, and the referees whistle will become more and more noticeable, until perhaps the full-time whistle will be the only whistle left to be heard. The club of Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Alan Ball, Jimmy Armfield and Mickey Walsh deserves better.
Perhaps what makes this story of decay and dismemberment so poignant is the knowledge that the way that things are at Bloomfield Road is not the way that things have to be, but until the current owners of the club can be persuaded that it is no longer in their best interests to stay at the club, it only seems increasingly likely that, at some point in the future, the ghosts of the past may even in time come to be all that’s left of Blackpool FC. Until that bell tolls, though, the supporters – the soul of the club, and those with the most to lose from its demise – will keep fighting for its survival. There is still a beating heart at Bloomfield Road, but it’s outside the ground rather than inside it, at the moment. Not a penny more. For now.
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