Saturday, 16 January 2016

Must Try Harder!

This week's theme is Must Try Harder and so you're in for a helping of Blackpool footballing folklore - but first, congratulations to the team, who apparently did try harder this afternoon and who have notched up a handy 5-0 win over Scunthorpe (although I wasn't there to witness it on account of my ethical boycott), thereby lifting Blackpool temporarily at least out of the relegation zone.

This will be a blog of two halves and a contrasting tale of two 'legends' of the game, the knighted and the benighted. Inferences are there to be drawn, for those who wish to draw them, about the ugly truth that entwines itself around the beautiful game.

John Owen Oyston, a lifelong Blackpool supporter, took over Blackpool FC in May 1987 when it was on the brink of bankruptcy. The Tangerine Apocrypha states that he bought it for £1. Blackpool was a struggling 3rd division club at the time, with gates of around 4,000. Owen likes to say that he saved the club from going under and in one sense, of course, that is correct (although other options were available). He has been saving the club since 1987.


Nearly 30 years on.... Blackpool is a struggling 3rd division club with gates of around 4,000 and Owen Oyston is a multi-millionaire. What is the point that I am trying to make? Read on.

For the majority of those nearly 30 years, Blackpool has been in the bottom two divisions of the Football League, scrapping to get by; and twice during that period Owen has tried to relocate the club so he could sell Bloomfield Road (our football ground since 1899) for commercial redevelopment. We now have the stadium registered as an ACV - Asset of Community Value - the first one in Blackpool, I believe. The only significant change in the footballing fortunes of the club came in 2006 with the arrival, as a 20% shareholder, of wealthy Latvian Valeri Belokon. His investment (some of it in the form of loans) enabled the renovation of the stadium and the purchase of key players who were instrumental in Blackpool's rise to the Premier League in May 2010.

We were in the top flight for only one season (though shrewd investment in a good reserve goalkeeper in the January transfer window almost certainly would have ensured our survival in the top flight). We almost got straight back the following year, losing the play-off final at Wembley much against the run of play on the day. Since then, despite a financial legacy from that year in the Premier League of over £100 million, Belokon has been side-lined and is currently pursuing a High Court case against the Oystons under section 994 of the Companies Act, the perception is that not a great deal of the Premier League millions has gone into the footballing side of Oyston's business empire and that which has been invested in the football club has not been wisely placed - poor managerial appointments, an over-reliance on short-term contracts and loan players.

The paradigm changed as a result of that season in the Premier League. The majority of the 15,000+ fans who enjoyed that short rise to the top regard the subsequent lack of vision, ambition and appropriate investment in the club by Owen Oyston and his son Karl (chairman of Blackpool FC) as the squandering of a legacy - and many a life-long Blackpool supporter will not step inside Bloomfield Road again until the Oystons are no longer part of Blackpool FC.

Owen has conceded: "The directors of Blackpool Football Club, and obviously I am included, have made some bad decisions, the consequences of which we are suffering from." He also said: "I really believe that we can get back to winning ways and return to the top flight. For my part, I am dedicating my life to achieving the success that we all want."

Words are meaningless (except mine in this blog, of course!) unless they are backed up by actions.

Unfortunately, there is not the merest hint of a sign from the Oystons that there is any ambition, a long-term plan, or the astute investment to back it up, to lift Blackpool out of this slide down the divisions towards non-league football. Maybe the undeclared goal, as rumoured, is to wind the club up and sell or build on the land. I hope not.

Football clubs are not just businesses (though there is nothing wrong with investors making a reasonable return). They are social enterprises. If Blackpool FC goes to the wall, it is a community that suffers. It is we the fans who, over decades, have poured both our emotions and our hard-earned wages into watching the team, buying the shirts, scarves, TV sports packages. Our money funds this 'industry' and without the fans - the real heart and soul of any football club - there would be nothing worth. If Owen Oyston is the lifelong Blackpool supporter he claims to be, then as majority shareholder he needs to take decisive action to preserve any good his legacy may represent - even if that means standing his son Karl down as chairman; even if that means selling the club to new owners who are prepared to invest with ambition and a respect for the proud history of Blackpool FC and its deeply hurting fans.

All I can say is Owen Oyston - must try harder!

Okay, it's half time. Let's move on from the ridiculous to the sublime...

Stanley Matthews, born in Hanley, was originally a Stoke City (and England) player. He was in the RAF during World War Two and stationed in Blackpool so he played by invitation in Blackpool's wartime team from 1941 onwards. When hostilities ceased and League football eventually recommenced it wasn't long before Matthews signed from Stoke and joined Blackpool FC officially in the summer of 1947. He was part of the magical Blackpool team of the 1950s, usually finishing in the top half of Division One (without ever winning the League Title) and contesting three famous Wembley cup-finals.  He drew thousands to see him wherever he played and he continued to play for the Seasiders until 1961, clocking up 440 appearances for the club before re-signing for Stoke City. He then played for Stoke, at the highest level, until he was fifty - a quite exceptional feat. He was made a CBE while still at Blackpool and received a knighthood in the year he 'retired', for he actually went on playing the game he loved in veterans' matches until he was seventy.

Stanley was arguably the greatest footballer not only of his own era but of all time. We were so lucky to have him playing for Blackpool for the best part of 20 years and the best part of his career. He was always a perfect gentleman on and off the field. He was never sent off, in fact he wasn't even once booked in his whole playing career. He became a global ambassador for the beautiful game and devoted much of his out-of-season time from the 1950s right through to the 1970s to coach poor children in various parts of Africa. In 1975 he ignored apartheid and formed a team of black schoolboys in the township of Soweto. They became known as 'Stan's Men'. When they said it was their dream to play in Brazil, he organised the tour for them through his connections.

Always looking out for the good of the game, he followed the technical developments of South American football with interest and was openly but politely critical of the FA and its parochial view of the game that Britain gave to the world.

One of my favourite quotes from his (very readable) autobiography concerns the FA and that famous 1953 cup final, where only 12,000 of the 100,000 tickets were allocated to Blackpool supporters: "I couldn't make up my mind whether they were dunderheads or simply didn't care about the genuine supporters who were the lifeblood of the game."

He became an honorary vice-president of Blackpool FC (goodness only knows what he would have made of the ravages besetting the club right now) and the sporting world and more mourned his death in 2000. His legend lives on and a new documentary film is in the offing.

There you have it then - two working-class lads who 'made it' in their different ways. As I said soon after kick-off, I would leave it to you to draw your own inferences. And so, just before the final whistle, this week's poem, written in tribute to a boyhood hero - that footballing genius and all-round good man Stanley Matthews.


I wrote it originally for the Imperial Hotel's Visitors In Verse project last year and offer it here re-titled and in slightly modified (and improved) form.

Stan For All Seasons
He was blown into town by the fortunes of war,
fell in love with the Fylde and would train on its shore;
wore the tangerine jersey of Blackpool with pride
when the Seasiders flowed, an unstoppable tide,
to the spine-tingling cry of "Come on you 'Pool!"

Matthews played on a diet of strong tea and toast,
he steered clear of the booze and he rarely smoked,
made the most of his talents through fitness and balance;
this wizard of dribble, our lightning mid-fielder
left many a decent full-back for a fool.

Twice beneath the twin towers Matthews tasted defeat
playing for Blackpool FC - but in May Fifty-Three
his will to succeed would not be denied;
he helped win us the cup and grown Seasiders cried
- a timeless moment of pure sporting cool.

The first player to be knighted while still in the game,
Sir Stanley stayed focussed and didn't court fame;
he gave up his summers to coach the poor boys
in the slums of Soweto and Dar-es-Salaam,
using football to challenge minority rule.

Matthews carried on playing for fun, once retired
till, injured at seventy, was heard to retort:
"a promising career cut tragically short!"
This man for all seasons deserves his renown,
for in football's rich sporting crown he is the jewel.

Thanks for reading. I'm heading for the showers! Have a good week, S;-)
Reactions:

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Considered and beautifully written piece from a true supporter.
The poem is a great tribute.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Points are all well-made. KO is the real problem. Really liked your poem & just wish I'd been around to see Matthews play. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

What kind of legacy do the Oystons think they are leaving at BFC? Nothing to be proud of. Can't wait for this miserable chapter to be over. When they're gone, then I'll start going to games again.

PHILIP SCOTT said...

Stan often turned at Arnold Juniors games afternoon, especially to watch his son playing. He would ref some games and take penalties, one of which I remember saving.One afternoon shortly after England had played Germany in 1953 Stanley Junior turned out wearing the Red shirt his Dad had worn in that match. We thought it was showing off.

Stan gave so much pleasure He did not have as many tricks as today's players but the skills he used always ensured he could beat his man. He never headed the ball nor did he scored very often. He always passed to Stan Mortenson or Ernie Taylor for them to score.