The recent resignation of Blackpool manager Gary Bowyer is a huge blow to the club, but only the latest in a long line of negative headlines generated by the Oyston regime.
To the uninitiated the raw data from Blackpool’s dwindling, but still allegedly massaged attendance figures, would suggest that insufficient demand exists on the Fylde Coast for a football club that has spent far more of its 131 year history in the top two divisions than not. The 38,000 who attended the 2010 Championship play off final at Wembley did though prove that even a town whose population with perhaps a 50/50 split of people classed as Sandgrownians and those whose allegiance lay elsewhere could sustain at least Championship-standard football, with the occasion flirtation with the top table.
Diminishing crowds over the last six years and more initially reflected the inherent fickleness of football fans but more especially, a concerted ethical boycott styled as a “Not a Penny More”(NAPM) campaign to drive out the incumbent regime fronted by Owen Oyston, an octogenarian convicted rapist that oversaw the transfer of huge tranches of Blackpool’s Premier League windfall into many of his other, often failing, business concerns. The fans were frequently told that the money was there if it was needed, but a succession of relegations that saw the club plummet from the Premier League to the deadmen of League Two suggested something quite different.
In what become a labyrinthine exercise in untying a Gordian knot of legal jargon, claim and counterclaim, minority shareholder Valeri Belokon, a Latvian banker with fingers in several other Baltic pies was awarded close to £32 million last November, in a judgement predicated on the lack of dividend he received commensurate to the riches that poured into Bloomfield Road during and after Blackpool’s season in the sun. Including monies from television rights, vastly increased gate receipts and merchandise sales, the financial knock-on effects of even just one season in the Premier League are hard to quantify and overestimate. What though happened to much of that money is moot; even the cash seemingly siphoned into other Oyston-controlled companies would appear to be conspicuous by its absence since it has failed to materialise to offset, or indeed pay off, the debt now owed to Belokon.
Nine months on the public impasse between Oyston and Belokon shows no sign of being resolved, although this perhaps says more about what is being brokered behind closed doors than the drip-fed information received by the club’s beleaguered supporters. With attendance figures allegedly exaggerated to numbers that are still an embarrassment, an all but cessation of merchandise sales, the drying up of commercial and attendant revenue streams, it is now to be questioned where the money is coming from to keep the club afloat. It is too simplistic to say the wages saved from the loss of most of Blackpool’s best players – Kelvin Mellor, Colin Daniel, Kyle Vassell, Clark Robertson and loanees Viv Solomon-Otabor and Sean Longstaff – can fund the salaries of the remaining squad and cosmetic additions recruited over the summer. Quite simply, players have to be paid with something, from somewhere, but aside from being bankrolled from Oyston’s own pocket, one cannot see the current situation lasting much longer.
Bowyer was a manager Blackpool both deserved and didn’t. Under normal circumstances a man of his decency and considerable ability, who perfectly dovetailed with the humble and unassuming club legends of yesteryear, would have had a genuine opportunity to replicate the Ian Holloway years. He would surely have been a man of whom the late Jimmy Armfield and Stanleys Matthews and Mortensen would heartily have approved. The very fact Bowyer carried himself through one crisis to the next with a quite dignity heaped burning coals on the heads of the Oyston regime, seemingly more content with plucking the golden goose for their own ends. Sensible reinvestment could have reaped proportionate returns for the owners, establishing Blackpool back in the big-time and giving a leg up to a town where the rules of every possible form of poverty seem to be continually rewritten. Under such circumstances the Oystons granting themselves a reasonable dividend would not have caused the justified tumult within the ranks of the club’s supporters caused by the £11 million extricated by Owen Oyston after the Seasiders’ 2011 relegation back to the Championship.
The failure to attract the calibre of player needed to compete in League One, let alone mount a realistic promotion challenge, seems to have been the final straw for Bowyer. Although players arrived during the summer off-season in their numbers, few clubs elsewhere in the Football League will lament missing out on their recruitment. Going for quantity over quality Bowyer’s hands were effectively tied; even though he has a penchant for developing players and re-calibrating those with something to prove – perhaps unfairly bracketed as never-will-bes – the padding out of Blackpool’s 2018/19 squad leaves them seriously ill-equipped for anything other than a relegation battle. Departing after one league game – a fortunate 0-0 draw at newly promoted Wycombe Wanderers – Bowyer could obviously see the rapidly approaching transfer deadline day was going to prove to be wholly irrelevant to him.
Studying a Masters of Sport Directorship degree Bowyer could be lost to the dugout, although he will perhaps like a crack at a job that doesn’t come with a carousel-load of baggage typical of his stint at Blackpool, and previously at the Venky-owned Blackburn Rovers. A thoroughly decent man who perhaps could have done, against all the odds, even better last season at Bloomfield Road had he not been too loyal to certain players and resisted until too late in many games to make substitutions, Bowyer will indeed be missed, arguably being ranked as the most popular Blackpool manager since the late Billy Ayre.
The footballing equivalent of a failed state, Blackpool F.C. can only look to an immediate future operated, as it arguably has been for so long, on a day to day basis. Its medium to long-term future remains worryingly unclear, as does the opacity through which fans and observers must view the intentions of Oyston and Belokon. There are though very real concerns that without a complete regime change the club could slip into administration and need to start afresh a la Hereford and Darlington. For such an outcome to occur under the auspices of a self-styled lifelong fan that Oyston describes himself to be, would perhaps be the biggest stain on the English game to date and once more bring into question just what purpose does the English Football League(EFL) serve, if as it seems it is more a members’ club than a governing body whose influence would make a paper tiger seem formidable.