Christine Seddon, Blackpool Supporters Trust Chairperson, was good enough to spend some time talking to AL3 following the confirmation that Owen Oyston was to be named English Football’s Worst Owne in a poll of over 3,000 supporters.. Thank you very much to Christine for her time. You can follow the work of the Blackpool Supporters trust via their website blackpoolsupporterstrust.com and their twitter feed twitter.com/BlackpoolST
AL3: What is your initial reaction to the news that Owen Oyston has been named the worst owner in English football?
CS: Entirely predictable I would say! We’ve known it for a very long time and have been fighting a campaign to get rid of the Oystons for years now. Given the history of these owners and what’s come out in recent years, for me, the only surprise would have been if they didn’t top the poll!
AL3: You as a Trust and the Blackpool supporters, in general, have been fighting for years now, if you could maybe summarise for those who aren’t aware, why you’re fighting the campaign that you are?
CS: We believe a football club should be at the heart of its community, and while we have absolutely no problem at all with any owners making money out of a club if they’ve invested in it properly, what happened at Blackpool was that on the back of investments mainly from Belokon who was a Latvian banker who invested in the team, we got to the Premier League and unprecedented millions poured into Blackpool Football Club, which should have secured its future, and instead the owners prioritised their own interests, as has been proved in court last year, illegitimately removed or stripped the assets from the football club and allowed it to literally tumble from top to bottom.
What was even worse than that was the way they turned on their own supporters and when supporters started highlighting what was going on and complaining publicly about it, threatened some of them with legal action. Some supporters had to pay out literally thousands of pounds of their own money to stop them from taking this legal action against them and I’m afraid that was a line crossed. So the relationship between the owners and the fans has deteriorated to such a point that there’s just no going back.
We know what their priority is now, so we know there can be no future for Blackpool Football Club, a proper future, while they own it. We know that, no matter what they do, we can never trust them. The only way forward is for them to leave, and that’s what the campaign is all about.
AL3: Earlier this year, the Courts concluded that the Oyston Family had stripped assets from the club..
CS: I think it was £27.6 million as such but the actual award to Valeri Belokon who, of course, because he is a businessman and has made a financial investment, has been able to take them to court. As fans, we have no recourse to law. That’s something else that we’re trying to highlight. We haven’t got a judge. We haven’t got a referee. Nobody is speaking up for us which is why we’re having to take such drastic action by boycotting our own club. There’s nothing else we can do. It’s a huge sum of money, and Mr Oyston still owes Valeri Belokon the bulk of the debt.
AL3: Following that award Owen Oyston publicised that the club had been put up for sale. Has there been any progress towards a sale of the club or a solution in your eyes?
CS: No, none whatsoever. Yes, Mr Oyston did come out and say the club was up for sale but the reality is that he has absolutely no interest in doing any kind of deal. He just seems to be absolutely determined to cling on to the club no matter what. His situation is completely unsustainable because through the courts he owes this fantastic sum of money to Mr Belokon and he is also, because of the “Not A Penny More” Campaign, the boycott, he is losing something like £2m every season on the club. It is unsustainable, it can’t go on forever.
You would think, and any other businessman I’m sure would realise that the position was untenable, and would come to the table and negotiate properly, mainly with Mr Belokon because that’s where he owes the debt. Unfortunately, this is Owen Oyston who lives in his own deluded bubble and is simply refusing to face the reality of his situation. Now ultimately that will be worse for him because of all his assets have been frozen by the court. So it is in Mr Belokon’s hands, he can auction off Mr Oyston’s assets until his debt is recouped. But the problem for Owen is that, at auction, your assets will usually be sold for far less than they’re actually worth. So it is a crazy situation. For his own sake, you think “why won’t he negotiate”?
At the end of the day, we have an 84-year-old man here who claims he loves football club but we say it isn’t that he loves the club, it’s that he loves owning the club and he just seems to have lost the plot now. He seems reluctant to do what’s even best for him now, nevermind what’s best for the club. It’s crazy.
AL3: I was reading a lot of the comments that were sent in with our Ownership Survey and several seemed to suggest that Oyston’s actions in detrimenting the club had become a deliberate way of “getting back” at supporters who had criticised or questioned him. If anything it seems to me that Oyston’s tenure as the owner of Blackpool Football Club seems to serve no other purpose than promote what a terrible individual he is. I can’t, as an outsider, understand what he gets out of this anymore. Would you agree with that, that this has now become something deliberate to get back at supporters?
CS: There’s potentially an element of that in there, and particularly when his son Karl was the Chairman. Karl was like a pantomime villain really and while he was at the helm a lot of the… hatred, if you like, was directed at him. He was very dismissive and rude about supporters and clearly couldn’t have cared less about what supporters thought. Whereas Owen Oyston has always tried to make out that he loves the club and has been a fan since he was a boy and is “one of us”. But clearly, once the information came out in court of what exactly had gone on, it was clear that that isn’t the case.
So there could well be a sort of “revenge” element in there, but significantly, the Premier League applied the owners and directors test retrospectively. Which means that Owen Oyston can not own a club in the Premier League. At the time Blackpool were in the Premier League, they failed to follow it through. By the time they checked to see if Owen Oyston had got rid of his majority shares, Blackpool had been relegated. The stance [from the Premier League] became: “Not our problem anymore”. But the EFL (who have been absolutely useless in all of this) didn’t pick it up. They just refused to apply the test retrospectively. We don’t understand why the Premier League will apply the test retrospectively but the EFL won’t. It’s crazy.
What that leads on to, is that the integrity of the competition is compromised. For all those subsequent seasons, particularly when we were in the Championship, you have an owner who has absolutely no interest in being competitive, because if we were to get promoted he would have to lose the club. How can they just ignore something that is monumental, instead just sweeping it under the carpet?
Should anybody be surprised that Blackpool were allowed to disappear down the divisions? It suited Owen Oyston, because if we’d gone back again he would have had to get right of the club. It’s absolutely outrageous what has gone on, and this is why Blackpool fans are so angry.
AL3: What discussions, if any, have you had to the FA and the EFL and what has their response been?
CS: Well, we’ve had quite a lot of communications with them. We actually had two protests outside EFL headquarters as well. Last March the EFL did agree to meet with Blackpool supporters and we highlighted all of these issues, but they stick to their mantra of being mainly “competition organisers”. Basically, they say that Oyston hasn’t broken any of their rules. So our argument is “well isn’t it time to get some new rules then?”. You have a convicted rapist (that is a conviction that is never spent), he certainly wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near grassroots football. In this day and age, with all the sexual abuse scandals, the #MeToo movement, is it really appropriate to have someone like him owning a Football League club? Of course it isn’t.
You’ve then got the EFL’s interpretation of the rules compared with the Premier League’s interpretation of the rules. How can there be a disconnect there? Fundamentally the issue is that no-one has any real power to deal with rogue owners. The leagues are self-regulating, so they represent the clubs and their owners. To change anything, to get any rules implemented, the owners have to agree to it. If the owners are the problem….. it’s turkeys voting for Christmas isn’t it? This is why it doesn’t happen.
So we have been fighting very hard, we’ve been trying to get to Parliament, we had a petition earlier this year that, unfortunately, other football fans didn’t pick up on it, to say that we believe the government needs to appoint an independent regulator to oversee the football authorities because nobody is doing anything. Clubs like ours, and others of course, Hull, Coventry etc have all been let down. We’re all just falling through the cracks and there is nobody picking this up at the moment. That is another big part of our fight.
AL3: Finally, on the BST website there is a list of aims. Your website says the ultimate aim is community or supporter ownership of the club. What are your next steps both short and long-term in addressing the issues that you have at Blackpool?
CS; Well, our main priority is to get new owners. We’re in limbo, we’re stuck, we can’t do anything while Oyston is still in place. So that has to be the priority and we will continue to campaign by that using any legitimate means. Our long-term aims, our members have actually just voted to change our long-term aim because there isn’t that much support to be totally supporter owned. There is a lot of support for us to hold shares and work with investors, which I think we can all understand, you do need funding and a lot of supporter-owned clubs can struggle in that respect. But we are certainly working with other supporters trusts.
Two of our committee, myself and the deputy have just been elected to the National Council of the newly merged Football Supporters Federation / Supporters Direct organisation, so we see that as being hugely important because we just started trying to sort our own club out but we saw that this was part of a much bigger problem. Really, even if we get some fantastic owners in, that’s brilliant, but it’s pot luck at the minute and that’s not acceptable. We need to change that framework so that whoever the owners are, they have responsibilities that there is somebody, some organisation somewhere, that can deal with them when they go off the rails…