Rock Bottom and Back

Rock Bottom and Back

Stood in a pub in Camden on the evening of May 22, 2010, there was a sense of disbelief amongst us. Just a few hours earlier we had witnessed something quite remarkable. Blackpool Football Club had beaten Cardiff City in the Playoffs at Wembley and were heading to the Premier League. Even as I write this over ten years on, I still can’t quite believe it. Having been on rainy away days to Hartlepool and Oldham down the years, we would now be off to Old Trafford and Anfield.

Unfortunately, that incredible season was papering over a lot of cracks. The supporters’ love for Ian Holloway, Charlie Adam, Ian Evatt and the rest of the squad was matched only by the hatred for the owners of the club. Owners who had failed to make any significant investment to the playing staff, the training ground and left the stadium half-finished for years all the while allegedly structuring the business to maximise their takings. The sense amongst the fans for over two decades was that they did not care what happened out on the pitch as long as they still received their dividends. When Brett Ormerod was sold to Southampton in 2001, the transfer fee was a staggering (for Blackpool) £1.75m. Ormerod was Blackpool’s most potent striker. He was replaced by an aging Ian Marshall and Scott Taylor from Stockport County, both on free transfers. So, what happened to the £1.75m from Southampton? A new clock was erected at the ground. A clock that you could only see if you were in certain sections of the stadium. A clock that became affectionately known as The Brett Ormerod Clock, given the fans’ suspicions that that was all the club itself saw of the transfer fee from the Saints.

Despite a spirited relegation, Holloway managed to keep the core of the players together for the following Championship season, narrowly missing out on promotion back to the Premier League. It was at this point the wheels truly started to fall off. Sick and tired of the penny pinching and the training ground resembling the Red Rec, Holloway left along with most of the players, replaced by a concoction of loanees and also-rans on short term deals. Managers came and went, with the club burning through Michael Appleton, Paul Ince, Barry Ferguson, Jose Riga, Lee Clark, Neil McDonald and Gary Bowyer over the following nine years. A period that saw Blackpool go from one of the most exciting teams outside of the Premier League to two consecutive relegations placing the club in the bottom tier of English football.

The bitter separation
Gates at the ground were over 16,000 during the 2010/11 season, demonstrating what this little seaside club meant to the town’s inhabitants. However, as the managers and players left, the lack of reinvestment despite the riches afforded to a club after just a single season in the Premier League (estimated to be £90m) brought the animosity to fever pitch. Protests before the game fell on deaf ears so in the final game of the 14/15 season many supporters staged an on-pitch protest directed at the owners. This led to the 'Not a Penny More' campaign being launched. Exactly as it sounds, this was a call to arms for fans to buy no more merchandise from the club and buy no more tickets for the games. This resulted in gates for home games being down to around 200 people. The owners squeezed their outgoings accordingly, leading to Blackpool being unable to have enough players on the bench due to the wafer-thin squad.

As a fan for 30 years, it was upsetting not to go to the games. It was heart breaking to watch the team plummet down the leagues but we were at our wits end. Every legal loophole was found by the owners to keep operating in this way and because Blackpool, although a famous little club, was a little club all the same, nobody from the Football League or the FA investigated what was going on.

People believe in karma, people believe in fate. I’m not sure what it was in late 2018 that sparked the Oyston’s eventual collapse but finally there was light at the end of the very long tunnel. The owners had sought investment in the mid-00s and a Latvian businessman, Mr Belakon, had bought into the club. It is believed he staked £25m. Nobody will ever really know what happened to that money but eventually, having seen the club enter the top tier and the windfall that that promotion brought, Mr Belakon wanted a return on his investment only to be told the money was not there. The High Court ruled the owners did indeed owe the Latvian £25m and when they failed to make the payment, the receivers were instructed to take over the club, removing the owners from the board in the process.

This was the news that every Blackpool fan wanted. Once the owners were officially removed it sparked a clamour for tickets to the following home match. On March 9th 2019, there was a homecoming. Once again, over 16,000 people filled Bloomfield Road. The stadium was run down, PA systems didn’t work and refreshment kiosks remained closed but the fans were back.

A new era
Watching your club die is a horrible experience, one that all too many fans have felt up and down the country, but the old saying that “bad times don’t last” seems to be true. On 13th June 2019, Simon Sadler, a Blackpool-born businessman who had found professional and financial success in Hong Kong, announced that he was the new owner of the club. After 32 years of Oyston control, Blackpool fans finally had one of their own at the helm, promising to put football first.

After a stabilising but ultimately unsuccessful second spell at the club for Simon Grayson, Sadler appointed Liverpool coach Neil Critchley as the new manager in March 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic cut Critchley’s first season in charge short but the following season, Critchley was able to help Blackpool do what they do best, reach the Playoff Final and secure the win under the Wembley Arch, solidifying their position as the most successful team in playoff history.

Good investments and infrastructure on and off the pitch have been a hallmark of Sadler’s first few years as owner, with Critchley bringing in quality, hungry players to make his mark on the Championship.

No Blackpool fan truly expects a return to the Premier League any time soon, but we now have something that we haven’t felt since standing in that pub in Camden over a decade ago… hope.

This article was first published in Pickles issue 15, 2019. To purchase the new issue or check out the latest Pickles gear, head to our webshop.

Words by Tony Lees
Illustration by Peter Ryan