It was a story that had been bubbling under the radar of the football world for some considerable time, but by the end of the final round of fixtures yesterday afternoon there could be no doubt that most people were at the very least aware of the anger felt by the supporters of Blackpool FC as their team plummeted from the Football League Championship into League One. With just three minutes of the second half of their final home league match of the season against Huddersfield Town and the score still goalless, a protest pitch invasion by Blackpool supporters led to the abandonment of the match. Doubtlessly, in some newsrooms there will be hacks preparing op-ed pieces declaring the beginning of the decline and fall of western civilisation over such scenes, but if we assume that the supporters of this particular football club are just normal supporters, why should they have been pushed to such extreme behaviour?
The answer to this question comes, of course, in the form of the Oyston family, who have been hanging around the club like a bad smell since Owen Oyston took control of the club in 1988. Owen Oyston had originally had his fortune through the building up and subsequent sale of a chain of estate agents, but he also moved into commercial radio, the nascent cable television industry and beauty pageants, but in May 1996 he was convicted of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to six years in prison. Owen Oyston resigned his position as chairman of the club after losing his appeal against the conviction at the end of 1997. He was released from prison on parole at the end of 1999, though various attempts to clear his name – through a judicial review and even the European Court of Human Rights – have all been unsuccessful, with his appeal to the ECHR being described as “manifestly ill-founded.”
Owen Oyston remains a director of Blackpool FC Ltd, and his son Karl joined him on the board of directors of the club in August 1998, becoming Managing Director of the club when Owen’s rape appeal was lost before subsequently going on to become the club’s Chairman. His time at the club has been characterised by a significant lack of investment in the club. Bloomfield Road’s South Stand was demolished in 2003, but no replacement was built for a full seven years. Former manager Ian Holloway described the club’s Squires Gate training ground as “a horrible environment to work in.” In October 2010, former player Charlie Adam took Karl Oyston to court after having been short-paid by £20,000 on his bonus to get the club into the Premier League. When the ground’s boiler broke down in January 2011, it took two weeks – a period during which the club had home matches against both Liverpool and Manchester United – to get it fixed, during which time the ground had no hot water. And the Bloomfield Road playing surface has long been one of the standing jokes of the Football League over its poor state of repair, a situation which led to the League writing to the club to demand an explanation as to why it was in such a poor condition.
None of this has come about as a result of Blackpool FC having no money, of course. While the club refused to invest in the players that might have kept it in the Premier League following its promotion, Karl Oyston found the money to pay £11m to his father and a further £26m to other companies connected to the family. This penny-pinching combined with what might very well be interpreted from the outside to be very much like asset-stripping led to a state of crisis last summer led to the club having just eight players with only weeks to play before the start of the season. Assistant manager Bart de Roover left at the start of September, claiming that he had not been paid for his time at the club. Manager Jose Riga followed shortly afterwards. Karl Oyston stated at the start of the season that, “my message is simple – judge us at the end of the season, not now.” Small wonder, then, that supporters that had endured a season that has ended with a record low points tally of just twenty-five should have come to call this weekend’s protests “Judgement Day.”
The Oystons, in particular Karl and his son Sam, only seem to compound the predicaments in which they find themselves by frequently acting like – and when we pause to consider some of the utterly revolting individuals that walk the landscape of modern football this is quite an achievement – perhaps the most obnoxious people currently involved in professional football. When protesting supporters left a mobile billboard outside Bloomfield Road with the words “Oyston’s Cash Cow” on the side of it in April of last year, Karl posed next to it with a big smile on his face and Sam posted it to Twitter. At the end of last year, when a supporter texted Karl Oyston with questions about the way the club was being run, Oyston responded with a series of messages during which he described the supporter as a “retard,” a “fucktard,” and “an emotional cripple.” He went on to tell the supporter, who is employed as a business manager, “Sorry that your life is so shit, but that’s only your fault not mine. Enjoy the rest of your special needs day out,” and described protesting supporters as “lower mentality types.” Despite having “apologised” at the time for making the comments, Oyston has since denied the charges brought against him by the FA for misconduct. Elsewhere, Karl Oyston, in an act that can only reasonably be considered to be a further taunting of supporters, was carrying a personalised registration plate on his car which reads “OY51 OUT.”
When Karl Oyston isn’t sending abusive text messages to supporters, he’s threatening to sue them. As has recently been widely reported recently, a sixty-seven year-old lifelong Blackpool supporter, Frank Knight, was required to pay £20,000 and make an online retraction of comments that he had made about the Oystons. It took just three days for a crowd-sourced fundraising exercise to cover the financial cost for him. Elsewhere, Oyston also threatened to sue the chair of the Blackpool Supporters Trust, Tim Fielding, for comments that he made on social media. Fielding resigned his position of the Trust as a result of this threat. Still elsewhere, another supporter, one Steven Sharpe, also had to publish a retraction of comments made on a supporters’ forum after a threat of legal action from the club, and the same thing happened to yet another, David Ragozzino, with the club claiming a total of £150,000. The club subsequently a statement shortly thereafter, warning of further legal action against people who – they claim – make false statements against the club, stating that:
For the avoidance of doubt, the club, directors, management staff and players would far prefer not to take any defamation action against any individual or organisation, but must continue to take action where necessary to combat the false, misleading stories and lies that are being perpetuated.
The heavy-handed actions of Karl Oyston may have been able to silence the individuals concerned through such tactics, but as all of these stories hit the local media they couldn’t silence the growing well of protest against them. While the Oystons went after these individuals, though, the team continued to tank on the pitch and the club’s reputation continued to sink away from it. At times, the stories emanating from the press hit levels that were blackly comic, such as the occasion when goalkeeper Joe Lewis had to play the team’s match against Reading wearing a shirt that already been signed for a raffle because he was unable to find a spare. These circumstances were reported to have come about because the club no longer has a kit man.
With the team having been relegated from the Championship with so much time to spare, it was perhaps always inevitable that supporters of the club would be likely to protest at yesterday’s match against Huddersfield Town. The meeting point for the protests was agreed as the statue of Stan Mortensen, who scored a hat-trick in Blackpool’s most famous ever match, their 4-3 win against Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 FA Cup Final, but the club’s response to that, in yet another demonstration of the complete disrespect with which they seem to hold supporters, was to remove the statue itself, rather than to seek to build any bridges with supporters. Quite what the club was hoping to achieve as a result of this desecration is open to suggestion – after all, it’s hardly as if the protest itself couldn’t begin at the place where the statue of Stan Mortensen used to be until it was removed by the club – and sure enough, Judgement Day arrived yesterday afternoon, with a pitch invasion three minutes into the second half forcing the abandonment of the match with the score still goalless.
Quite what the Oystons hope to actually achieve as a result of their behaviour is just about anybody’s guess. A further legal threat made against the comedian and television host Jason Manford, who had described Karl Oyston as “an odious ferret,” was met with an appropriately tongue in cheek response, whilst yesterday’s protests have led to further reports in the Guardian, and yesterday’s abandonment has now led to international interest, with the New York Times running an article on their website this morning detailing the club’s woes. Even manager Lee Clark, who has somehow stuck by the club through all of this over the course of this season, was unable to blame supporters for their actions yesterday, describing “a very toxic atmosphere” hanging over the club at present. Issuing legal threats against those that criticise them clearly hasn’t silenced the protests against them, and the overall effect of such a strategy seems to have been to make them seem both petty and mildly ridiculous. If the match against Huddersfield Town is to be replayed, even if the match is to be played behind closed doors, “Judgement Day 2” would seem to be inevitable, and the obnoxious Oystons can most likely expect still further protests, until such a time that they finally are run out of the club once and for all.
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