There was plenty of scrubbing at Bloomfield Road on Thursday. It was only expected that most of the orange seats inside Blackpool’s stadium were filthy, few had been occupied in recent years and the harsh winds of the north west coast had weathered them somewhat.
All of those taking part in the big clean up were Blackpool supporters and most had not stepped foot inside their home stadium for some time. They came with buckets, sponges and cloths – all orange, of course – and began the usually mundane but in this case thrilling task of scrubbing more than 1,000 plastic seats.
It was in preparation for Saturday’s match and no clean up operation has felt so symbolic as the deep cleanse that this club needs after years of torturous ownership.
Clean up operation seems symobolic
David Reidy was one such participant on Thursday morning cleaning the seats; “the ones in the corner were the worst,” the loyal fan of almost six decades said. “The seagulls seemed drawn to them. They had four years of muck encrusted on them. On some, it was six inches deep. It was really disgusting.”
The symbolism around the stadium this week has been quite apparent. The filth that has gathered over the past four and a half years was being washed away with smiles that have not been seen around Bloomfield Road for just as long. It was in preparation for the League One fixture against Southend United, but this game will mean so much more for the home fans.
For the first time since May 2015, the orange seats will be used for what they are supposed to be used for: to sit on to watch a football match. There will be emotion – and plenty of it positive – charged around the stadium come kickoff after what happened in the High Court two weeks ago.
After four seasons, the longest running fans’ boycott in English football has ended. Within seconds of it becoming clear that the unpopular ownership of the Oyston family has ceased, the supporters excitingly planned their return. There is the expectation of over 15,000 spectators will be watching on from the stands on Saturday and it has been locally labelled “The Homecoming”.
Anticipating ‘The Homecoming’
In between planting orange and white bedding plants and sweeping away the moss from the front entrance next to the statue of club legend Jimmy Armfield, volunteers spoke of the ‘tough love’ that has gone on for the past few years. Many highlighted how difficult it had been to stay away but through it all they believed that it was for the good of the club, and they’ve been proved correct.
“I can’t wait,” said manager Terry McPhillips. “The place has been an empty shell. Saturday is going to go down in history as the biggest day ever for our supporters.” The reason for the uplift in mood is clear; gone are the Oystons and a lot of the associated troubles that they brought.
When Owen Oyston, a local estate agent, bought the club in 1987 for £1, he referred to himself as “Mr Blackpool” and in turn neglected the roles of the supporters as the purveyors of the club, they’ve never liked him since. Son, Karl, took charge in 1996 when Owen went to prison and between them both, Blackpool bobbed between the third and fourth tiers of English football.
In 2006, however, the Oystons sold 25 per cent of the club to Valeri Belokon, a Latvian businessman, and his ambitious injections of funds led to the signing of Charlie Adam, the rebuilding of the south stand and also a place in the Premier League, albeit unexpectedly.
It was then, though, that it all turned increasingly sour. The money that came from top-flight football went straight into the Oyston’s pockets; a bonus of £11 million were paid to Owen, a hotel and a country house wedding venue were bought and Belokan was sidelined from all decision-making and a lot of the profits. A further £30 million was taken in loans whilst Blackpool’s training ground fell into disrepair.
Blackpool only lasted one season in the Premier League and as a consequence, the demands of Richard Scudamore, the league’s chief executive, that Owen step down was never realised. The supporters, however, did carry on their protest. There was an increasing perplextion as to how the club was being run and why. From there, the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust was formed and two weeks ago it achieved its aim.
It’s been a long time coming and it hasn’t been easy
It has been a struggle to say the least, fifteen supporters were sued for defamation and one pensioner was obliged to pay £40,000 after holding up a sign at a home match which suggested the owner was a liar. The supporters never had the owner’s ear. As relationships deteriorated further, Blackpool sank through the divisions; managers came and went – unable, and not particularly eager, to stay.
Supporters decided to speak with their feet, by not turning up for home matches then in theory the Oystons would have been starved of income. It went further as sponsors were shunned and shirt sales barely rose above single figures. As much as it hurt everyone associated with the club, it felt like the right thing to do for the long term.
At times the club was running at a £2 million annual deficit, but it didn’t seem to hugely bother the owners who almost seemed to take pleasure in antagonism. Karl drove around the town in a car with the registration plate “OY51 OUT”, he called fans “intellectual cripples” and it was difficult for the supporters to get their message across the obnoxious and self-importance barrier that existed.
High Court ruling gives other hope
Belokon did, though, get his message across as he demanded his share of the Premier League income and took the Oystons to court. Then on one dreary winter’s morning a high court judge finally found in the Latvian’s favour that Blackpool has been “illegitimately stripped” of its assets. Also, he insisted that, as Oyston was not prepared to pay what was due from his own pocket, the club be sold to cover the costs.
Since that day a few weeks ago, the former owner has not been seen around the place. And now the time has come for Blackpool fans, the true purveyors of the club, to welcome themselves back to their club. It gives other supporters in similar situations – such as those at Bolton and Coventry – hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Prior to the big match, came the big clean, “four years of neglect, it was a total mess,” said one club employee. The stadium was in no fit state to host an FA Cup tie against Arsenal in January but now the screens are working, the seats clean and the pitch looking in much better condition.
It will be just before one o’clock on Saturday when they gather at Blackpool Tower and prepare to march to Bloomfield Road in time for kickoff and their first home match for quite a while. As supporters settle into their seats, they will look amongst themselves and smile having finally returned home. The half time pie and pint will taste that bit sweeter given this has been some time coming.