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At first it seemed more than mildly amusing. Following the cancellation of their pre-season tour to Spain due to a lack of players, a photograph surfaced of Blackpool's teamsheet for their first match under new manager Jose Riga, a friendly against Penrith. Five of the 11 players were listed only as 'trialist' - the club had little choice. Images of Blackpool's website have also done the rounds, eight first-team players surrounded by advertising in a bid to fill the very evident space, with strategically (and optimistically) placed banners urging supporters to buy the new home shirt. Best to get your own name on the back.
However, when you actually stop and think about it (and I've been as guilty as most), it isn't that funny. Of course there is a sense of the gallows humour so synonymous with long-suffering football supporters, but only Blackpool fans can allow themselves that escapism, relief from the genuine concern about what their social institution has become. The rest of us, powerless as we are, should probably merely be thankful that it isn't our club. This time.
It is just four years since those supporters were preparing for the club's debut Premier League season, quietly optimistic that Ian Holloway could continue his extraordinary ability to make a team far greater than the sum of its parts, and yet now Blackpool sit at their lowest ebb in years, narrowly surviving Championship relegation last season and favourites for the drop in this. Premier League parachute payments are intended to guard against financial heartburn following expensive meals at the top table of English football, but they can do little to account for clusterf**ks entirely of the club's own making. Every Blackpool fan rightly wishes to know why their club is back to a status behind even square one. Perhaps sympathy should replace our amusement.
Ask any supporter in the town centre who is responsible for the club's marked slump, and they will spit out the name of the club's chairman Karl Oyston, possibly with an expletive inserted for added effect. This is their fall guy, the man responsible for extinguishing any hope amongst a group of fans that thoroughly enjoyed the rollercoaster represented by their Premier League season in the sun. Now it is them being taken for the ride.
Karl Oyston is the son of Owen, Blackpool's former owner who saved the club in 1987 when buying it for £1, gaining promotion to the third tier despite the owner's infamously parsimonious nature. In 1996, when Owen was sent to prison for six years after being convicted of rape, his wife Vicki took over the reins before Karl succeeded her in 1999. Promoted to the second tier for the first time in almost 30 years in 2007, Oyston struck gold in May 2009 when he appointed Ian Holloway. Despite a wage budget lower than many others in the Championship, Blackpool were promoted via the playoffs in Holloway's first season. It was an unmitigated triumph.
In a now (in hindsight) unfortunate article in August 2010, the Daily Mail poured praise on Oyston for Blackpool's success, describing how he would sensibly shun the potentially dangerous approach of investing in the playing staff in order to keep Blackpool up, instead 'preferring to invest the money in the infrastructure'. The club's entire playing staff was paid £200,000 a week, the same as Yaya Toure for that same season.
"We can spend every penny we get on transfer fees and salaries and still get relegated, leaving ourselves with a lot of increased costs for the seasons following," Oyston said. "I am absolutely adamant we will not change the approach we have had for the past 11 years."
It seemed to make sense, even following Blackpool's relegation. Clubs of that size can use the engorged coffers gained from television revenue to build a legacy for the future, the playing staff and infrastructure bolstered in order to assist a further assault on top flight football with a greater hope of consolidation second time around.
At Blackpool, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The facilities at the training ground remain among the worst in the Football League, reminiscent more of Sunday League than Premier League, whilst only £750,000 was spent on players in the season following relegation, despite £8.2million being recouped in sales. The chance for legacy had been lost, summed up by former player Keith Southern:
"When we were relegated, that should have been the start of it, not the end," the 33-year-old said. "There should be a legacy the club can look back on and in 10 or 15 years say, 'we got relegated but this is what happened, this is what we built from that day'. Unfortunately it didn't happen and it doesn't look like it ever will. Neither the foundations or the infrastructure is in place and it breaks my heart."
At the end of last season, things seemed to have reached a nadir. Temporary manager Barry Ferguson, who had kept the club in the Championship despite a worrying late-season decline, was informed that his contract would not be made permanent, and 17 players were released, leaving the club with just five professionals on the playing staff. Ferguson was adamant at what needed to happen for the club to progress. "It's a great club, with a terrific stadium and superb fans. What it needs now is investment, that's why the supporters have a problem with the chairman. There are only five players contracted for next season."
Club secretary Matt Williams, for so long credited by those close to the club as the man responsible for ensuring that Blackpool achieved anything at all of positive note, left to join Shrewsbury Town after seemingly accepting that his was a thankless task.
Options to extend the contracts of nine of the out-of-contract players were not taken by the appropriate deadline, but Oyston remained unconcerned. "I see it as a benefit. It allows the manager to bring in his own team, as opposed to picking up a squad that is already overloaded and he doesn't think is good enough." There are limits to that approach, Karl.
When Belgian Jose Riga was finally appointed after 141 days without a permanent manager, supporters hoped there was light at the end of the tunnel, with even Oyston himself making positive noises over the development of the club. "I think there's a different culture from European managers which clubs over here need to buy into," Oyston said. "Right from the top to bottom of our club, it's time we caught up and I hope Jose can assist this. It's a fresh approach and we'll start to really get our enthusiasm back, which is important throughout the club."
And yet here they stand, with Ishmael Miller becoming just the ninth member of the playing squad (and even his transfer now potentially in doubt), 43 days following Riga's appointment and just 23 before Blackpool's first league match of the season away at Nottingham Forest. Even at a time of great urgency it appears that Oyston has continued to dig his heels in, chairman and new manager reportedly at loggerheads over the former's refusal to sanction the latter's transfer targets. Riga's preferred staff have still not signed permanent deals to join the club, and there are growing rumours that the Belgian may quit his post in protest against the lack of assistance from the club.
"The squad is not just thin, it is almost non-existent," chairman of the Supporters' Association Glenn Bowley told the Blackpool Gazette. "We only have eight players five weeks before the start of the season. It is a complete and utter shambles - that's how it seems."
The obvious accusation of Oyston is that a stingy and tightfisted nature is responsible for Blackpool's steady decline, and such a view is backed up by a recent tweet from released striker Michael Chopra. 'Wash your own kit clean your own boots and even bring your own water to training can only happen at Blackpool,' said Chopra. It might read as sour grapes from a pampered star, but in reality potential signings will expect a degree of professionalism on the part of their club. It doesn't reflect well.
Even Oyston himself admits to a frugal nature. "No-one will ever convince me money is the relevant issue here," he said in April. "I'll never be convinced otherwise but that's the thing which is always thrown at us when things are going badly. We don't want things to be as bad as this again." To repeat, they have just nine players.
Is Oyston blind to the wants and needs of his club, its supporters and the local community? This is a football club, a social institution, strangled by a lack of investment just three years after a financial deluge courtesy of the Premier League, infrastructure left lagging behind all of their peers. What should resonate amongst fans of those reading this is just how easily your club could do the same, the power held by one and the love by many. It could be you.
Whatever happens between now and August 9th, it would seem that the damage has been done. The Championship is a gruelling campaign, and pre-season is the only time at which managers can fully assess their squad and coaches can ensure all are in prime fitness. Blackpool are the overwhelming favourites to be relegated from the Championship.
As is sadly so often the case, the only silver lining to the clouds looming over Bloomfield Road comes from the supporters themselves, the response to being downtrodden to vow to respond with strength. A week ago, 500 supporters met at the inaugural meeting of the Blackpool Supporters Trust at the One Club on Bloomfield Road, chants of "Oyston Out" ringing around the venue. They have vowed that they will no longer allow their club to be a laughing stock, and wish to ensure fan representation at boardroom level to ensure the needs of the community are met.
You can dismantle their club. You can leave the playing staff as a mere shell. You can even ruin any dreams or excitement for the new season. But you will never take away the love that supporters and a community have for their club. From the depths of embarrassment and despair, hope will be reignited. No matter how few players are displayed on the Blackpool FC website.
Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter
The conduct of this type of owner needs highlighting more intensely. Venky's at Blackburn, the farce that took Portsmouth down, Leeds currently asking their players to wash their own kits and bring a packed lunch to work etc; it really needs bringing to the attention of the wider public and, more importantly, the authorities. Instead we get banal stories about what Arturo Vidal hasn't said this week, or about how much birthday cake Yaya Toure thinks he's worth. Oyston is a parasite, like far too many owners. When we talk of "firt and proper owners" we automatically think of foreign investors, coming to asset strip our clubs and suckle for the Premier League tit. But the likes of Oysten are every bit as bad, and every bit as detestable.- HarryBoulton