Saturday 19 August 2017

Fans step up to plate in battle for football's soul

Blackpool Football Club chairman Karl Oyston and his wife had been the subject of online abuse after their handling of the club. Photo: Getty
Blackpool Football Club chairman Karl Oyston and his wife had been the subject of online abuse after their handling of the club. Photo: Getty

Jacob Steinberg

The symbolism will hang heavily in the air at Wembley this afternoon. At one end of the ground, a sea of red and white will offer a perfect demonstration of the positives that can be achieved when supporters have a say in the running of their club. Facing the followers of Exeter City, however, the swaths of empty seats in the Blackpool section will tell a sorry story about what happens when football fans are pushed too far.

The League Two play-off final pits together one supporter-owned club and another whose disenfranchised fans are so fed up with the people in charge that many of them are boycotting Blackpool's biggest match of the season. For Blackpool fans who have made the painful choice to stay away from Wembley, winning promotion to League One is of secondary importance compared with the onerous task of getting the Oyston family out of Bloomfield Road.

There is an argument that they ought to have put their protests to one side for a day. Yet for those who have vowed never to give another penny to the Oystons, whose stewardship of the club has caused so much anger, purchasing a ticket would have been akin to abandoning their cause. Their relationship with chairman Karl Oyston and his father Owen was damaged beyond repair as soon as the pair launched libel cases against dissenting supporters.

In better times, the queue from the ticket office would have snaked around Bloomfield Road. Blackpool took about 37,000 fans to Wembley when they beat Cardiff City in the Championship play-off final in 2010 and about 30,000 when they lost to West Ham two years later. They have sold about 5,000 this time.

"There'll be plenty of 'Oyston Out' scarves in the ground," says Andy Higgins, a member of the Blackpool Supporters' Trust. "Most of us think that if you're going to go and finance that family, who are intent on suing supporters, you're financing litigation. That's when they went too far. Litigation against your own fans is beyond the pale."

While the BST has been frustrated in its attempts to host a big screen event, at least it is likely to be a busy afternoon for the pubs in Blackpool. But there will be mixed emotions when the game begins. Some supporters want Blackpool to win despite the acrimony. Others believe victory would strengthen the Oystons' position.

"That creates division even before you get to the people who support the team and in some cases the owners," says Tim Fielding, the BST's honorary vice-president. "But the best interest of the club is served by the owners selling up. I don't think promotion will facilitate that.

"I spoke to Owen when he spoke to fans at the Blackpool Hilton last summer. I repeatedly asked him to stop suing fans and consult with the BST. And they won't do any of it, so some people will not give them any more money. There aren't exceptions made for Wembley.

"It's taken a lot to radicalise us, and the Oystons have managed it. We're seen as the vanguard of the protest movement about fit and proper owners. We work closely with Leyton Orient, Charlton and Coventry."

How the BST would love to emulate Exeter's model. It has been 14 years since the Exeter City Supporters' Trust took over, following relegation from the Football League under owners who had left the club on the brink of financial ruin. Exeter manager Paul Tisdale calls the trust a "bubble in a rotten industry".

Arsène Wenger is the only manager working in the English game to have been in the job for longer than Tisdale. Exeter were bottom in November but Tisdale was given time to revive his team.

ECST chairman Martin Weiler says: "We've steadily had over 3,000 members and that's withstood peaks and troughs in form. What we benefit from is an enormous outpouring of volunteering. For the semi-finals, we had a whole team of volunteers who came in to be trained in ticketing. We have a pop-up store in the middle of Exeter selling merchandise for the final.

"That spirit is worth an awful lot financially, but culturally it reinforces the sense of ownership. It's our club. Why wouldn't we help it?"

Blackpool's fans are forced to help their club in different ways. The BST protests outside every home game and that can lead to disputes with supporters heading into the ground. There have also been issues online.

"There are all these made-up user names on social media who will do anything to vilify the trust," Higgins says. "Nobody knows who these people are, coming out and saying they witnessed verbal abuse and intimidation."

The BST can only look at Exeter and wonder. "Scenarios like this have put paid to the argument that football fans know nothing," Fielding says. "It's about time there's a radical overhaul in this country and fans were in the boardroom."

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