When Frugality Becomes A Lack Of Ambition

Clubs should be applauded for not spending beyond their means, but it's possible to be too cautious. After relegation, Blackpool have been hindered by a startling lack of ambition...

Last Updated: 16/01/13 at 09:32 Post Comment

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Football supporters are right to worry when they see their side overspending. QPR fans can only cross their fingers and pray that their club doesn't drop from the Premier League this season, because the economic fall-out could be explosive. Fans of Leeds, Portsmouth and Rangers know only too well the dangers of the 'Monte Carlo or bust' speculative attitude so prevalent in a game that generates the dangerous combination of greed and desire more than any other.

In a time of recession, frugality and financial care are to be applauded. Whilst many of their fans may disagree, Newcastle should be commended for their decision to operate a strict wage structure. Loic Remy may instead prefer to join a relegation battle, but some on Tyneside have short memories: it isn't so long since the club spent £110million on players in a four-year period that ended in relegation. In that relegation year, the club's wage bill was £71m, the fourth highest in the country.

But whilst we are celebrating caution, is it possible to go too far the other way? Can we criticise a club or its owner for being too frugal? If so, then there is an obvious example.

Owen Oyston saved Blackpool FC. He bought a large stake in the club for £1 in 1987, took over the debts and then became owner a year later after purchasing new shares. With Oyston's assistance, Blackpool moved between the fourth and third tier without any significant demonstration of progress.

Even at this time, Oyston was known for his extreme thriftiness, and local papers reported on alleged events at the club including arguments over the purchase of a washing machine and payment for the players' pre-match meals.

In 1996, when the owner was sentenced to six years in prison for rape and indecent assault (a verdict that Oyston continues to strenuously deny despite appeals being rejected), his wife initially took over before his son Karl replaced him as chairman, a position he still holds despite a brief absence from the role in 2010.

This is very much a family affair, and four years ago this family struck gold. In May 2009 Ian Holloway was appointed, replacing caretaker manager Tony Parkes. On a shoestring budget, Holloway performed miracles to bring Premier League football to Bloomfield Road and, even after relegation, Blackpool reached the play-off final last season.

Relegation was not seen as a disaster, simply due to the £90m windfall that one season at the top table provided. To the outside world Blackpool had made the conscious decision that relegation was the likely consequence for a club elevated beyond its apparent station. The club spent £4.5m on players following promotion, an effort that could initially be seen as sensible. "We hadn't expected to be here so let's feel the benefits for the next few years rather than spaffing our load in one summer," was the apparent verdict.

What a season of Premier League football (and subsequent £90m) does for a club such as Blackpool is to provide two choices. Firstly, the club can choose to invest in players upon relegation. With Ian Holloway remaining at the helm, the squad could have been bolstered to attempt a resurgence back to the Premier League, this time with a more realistic opportunity for consolidation.

At Blackpool, this didn't happen. Despite the increased funds and player sales of £8.2m for Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell, the Tangerines spent just £750,000. Whilst Holloway again performed magnificently to reach the play-offs, the manager's patience was wearing thin: "We are a skeleton compared to everybody else and we do things on a shoestring. We need certain things in place because for the moment we've had to beg, borrow and steal." Finally, after a summer spend of just £200,000 on Isaiah Osbourne, Holloway had (understandably) had enough, and left for Crystal Palace in November.

Such is the restriction on budget that new manager Michael Appleton was prepared to leave the club for pastures new (and pastures markedly less green) after just 11 games in charge, and a series of coaches have ruled themselves out of the vacancy. Currently, it appears that MK Dons boss Karl Robinson may be offered the role. We can suspect that he will have little to spend in the remaining two weeks of the window, despite Blackpool languishing in 15th place in the Championship.

The second option following relegation is to invest in the club's facilities, something that Blackpool required more than any other club in the Championship. Whilst pragmatic supporters can understand the lack of desire to invest in players, the reluctance to improve inadequate facilities - and the very fabric and image of the club - is less forgivable.

The training ground is barely fit for purpose, best described by Holloway in 2009: "We are never going back to our training ground again. Every player this club has ever had hates it, and every player we have is frightened of it. It is a horrible environment to work in." In response, the chairman pledged a move which never arose. The stadium has been in 'renovation' for 12 years, and still has one temporary stand. Undersoil heating has never been installed, Portakabins are still used as toilets in some areas and the pitch was described as "a cabbage patch" by Michael Appleton before his departure. Again, progress has been moth-balled.

Now, all of the above could be forgiven in the current climate. Supporters (and me) could be told that we can't have the best of both worlds, to shut up and be grateful. And I would see the critics' point of view. But in March 2012, Blackpool's company accounts for 2010/11 were released, immediately raising several questions.

The accounts included a payment of £11m for director remuneration. This was to Zabaxe Ltd, a financial advisor. The two directors of Zabaxe are Owen Oyston and his wife Vicki, and the payment equates to a wage of over £105,000 per week to each individual - a staggering figure that equates to almost half of what the entire playing squad were paid combined during the Premier League season.

On top of that, £6.5m was paid in two payments for land near the ground where a Travelodge hotel has been built. This land was originally owned by the club but sold to Owen Oyston for £650,000 in 2007/8, so the club has essentially paid Oyston £5.85million to develop the land. A £4.2m loan was re-paid to Protoplan, another Oyston-owned company and, finally, over £1.9m was paid to three companies coming under the umbrella of Promenade for construction work carried out. No prizes for guessing who owns those particular enterprises.

Supporters (and, more pertinently, fans of the game) have a right to know the exact business reasons for the payments, but the communication line from the owners to the fans has been pitiful. The attitude is best summed up by this line from Karl Oyston: "After the way in which he has supported the club, if it was an £11m salary to my father, so what?"

It all leaves a great deal more than simply a nasty taste in the mouth. This should be Blackpool's honeymoon. They should have been rewarded with their season in the Premier League with expansion, regeneration and an improvement. The gain from the Premier League windfall should be enjoyed by the whole club, the whole community and the whole town.

Instead, Blackpool are in danger of simply falling from whence they came. The bountiful receipts of their annus mirabilis have been lost quicker than a child's pocket money at one of the town's arcades, with frugality giving way to a startling lack of ambition. Fans wanted a return to the big time, but instead it's hard to remember that Blackpool were ever there.

Daniel Storey - he's on Twitter

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