Saturday, 21 December 2019

Blackpool vs. Shrewsbury Town

As Christmas comes but once a year, the season produces several one-off specials in celebration; from television programs and pantomimes to novelty jumpers and their once-a-year drinker wearers propping up the bar in your favourite pub (and being sick on it). So as a ‘Christmas Special’ groundhop of my own, instead of seeing a game in non-league, I’m going to see a game in The Football League as Blackpool host Shrewsbury Town in League One.

The last time I was stood outside Bloomfield Road, it was in 2016 as part of my doing the 92 book series. As I approached the ground, I saw a match-boycotting crowd outside the turnstiles, holding up banners and chanting for the club’s owners to ‘get out of our club’ – all whilst the Cher classic ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves was being pumped out from the PA system. Blackpool were in a toxic state (which is putting it mildly) but eventually, through a legal intervention, the owners did leave (forced to sell) and disaffected supporters returned to see in a new dawn for their club.

So that’s why I’m here – to see how this historic football club is managing after a troubled time. Also, being late-December, I didn’t want to risk the possibility of a game being called off, so attending a league ground, with their professional set-ups, helps greatly with these odds. Okay, I might be here for the beer too.

I think in years to come, the Oystons’ reign will be held up as the example of how a breakdown in relations with the supporters can be the death knell for a club. Despite Blackpool rising from the depths of The Football League to the Premier League under their ownership, the potential of the club was somewhat suppressed from there. Key investments in the stadium, training ground and playing staff were not made (despite them making huge profits with TV money and player sales) and eventually, reality caught up with them and they were back in the fourth tier, just 6 years after being in the top one.

Due to their ostensible lack of urgency to reinvest profits back into the club to strengthen it for the long term, accusations of ‘asset stripping’ were directed at the Oystons by supporters. As you’d imagine, the owners didn’t take too kindly to this and they battened down the hatches, refusing to have any meaningful dialogue. The silence saw supporters grow increasingly frustrated, protests turned to boycotts and in the midst of these, insults were traded by both sides (the owners would take legal action against several supporters for libel, whilst chairman, Karl, would receive a 6-week ban from all football activity for labelling a supporter ‘a retard’ in a text message). These incidents ensured that any reconciliation was nigh-on impossible – lifelong supporters chose to not attend games, feeling that any penny they spend would go straight into the pockets of the Oystons.

I read an interesting comment from a fan whilst researching this story – if you weave yourself through too many loopholes, don’t be surprised if you tie yourself in knots. Ultimately, it was one of the Oystons’ business dealings that brought their ownership to an end. In 2006, Latvian businessman, Valeri Belokon, purchased a 20% stake in the club, promising supporters that his ambition was to see Blackpool in the Premier League within 5 years (they got there in 4).  Along with majority shareholder, Owen Oyston, Belokon would personally finance the construction of a new South Stand and South-West corner for the stadium. A year later, Belokon announced that he would be setting up a fund to provide the club with a transfer kitty to purchase players that would help them up the leagues. Keep these investments in mind.

Despite their one season in the Premier League being seen as a great example of how a club on a limited budget can go toe-to-toe with the big boys, alarm bells were ringing before a ball had been kicked. The club took pride in that none of their players were on more than £10,000 a week – indeed, Belokon told the Daily Mail that was the model going forwards. However, anyone with a fleeting knowledge of football economics would know that such a budget isn’t particularly competitive if you’re trying to stay in the Premier League – so were they collecting the TV money in a noble attempt to strengthen the infrastructure of the club, so they’ll be able to return stronger? The stadium (they had to switch their opening Premier League match against Wigan because their ‘temporary’ East Stand wasn’t built) and training ground were cited as major issues for the club throughout the next couple of years.

Fast-forward to 2015 and with Blackpool going backwards and questions being asked about the direction of the club, Belokon took legal action against the Oystons, alleging that they had ‘misused’ club funds. After Belokon resigned as a director of the club in August 2017, the following November saw a court determine that Owen Oyston and his son, Karl, had ‘abused their majority shareholding position in a manner that was detrimental to both the business and Belokontheir findings revealed that £26.77 million had been ‘illegitimately stripped’ from the club, paid to their other various companies. The Oystons were ordered to pay Belokon £31 million to buy out his shares – a sum that forced them to put the club up for sale.

With the help of Belokon-appointed receivers, the shares owned by Oyston (and Belokon himself) were sold to lifelong Blackpool supporter, Simon Sadler this summer, ending 31 years of Oyston rule. Promising a new era for the club, with intelligent investments in the infrastructure and squad – being a trader on the Hong Kong stock market whose work has helped to amass a hedge fund of $3.5 billion, it’s not difficult to feel positive about his pedigree and intentions with a club he genuinely loves.  This quote in his interview with The Guardian best sums this up:

Somebody had to step up and become the custodian of this club, to make sure that future generations can come here and watch a match, like I did with my dad” (Simon Sadler, Guardian interview, July 2019).

He understands that ultimately, a football club is there to serve the community it represents, not to solely provide businessmen with a means to feather their nests. Let’s not be naïve here; professional football is a business – and like any business, it needs to make money to be viable. However, good businesses do not alienate the vast majority of their ‘customer base’ and fellow investors just to make a quick quid. They value that customer base, listen to them and affect changes (make investments) that are geared towards improving their standing for the long term, giving their customers a ‘brand’ that they can attach themselves to and be proud to do so.

Speaking of alienating customers to make a quick, easy quid (this is how you do a segue, kids), the Northern train franchise have recently been indulging in some seasonal ‘banter’ to try and improve their own brand – and it’s about as welcome as a hole in a dingy. After a year of poor service and calls for the Arriva-owned company to be stripped of its franchise, temporarily renaming Blackpool North station as ‘Blackpool North Pole’ has been met with universal derision – especially when trains to said station continued to be routinely cancelled! I’m all for seasonal laughs but after the year they’ve had, this was a poorly misjudged attempt at marketing. Still, I make a hypocrite of myself by doing a chuckle and taking a snap of the seasonal signage as I disembark off the Avanti West Coast London-Blackpool service (only 35 minutes from Wigan, by the way – on time, plenty of seats and everything).

My first stop on exiting the (Blackpool) North Pole, was the ‘1887 Brew Room’ – recommended by Blackpool blogger and real ale fanatic, Jane Stuart. If you’re interested in reading about the experiences of supporting a League One club, drink and food recommendations (as well as latest going-ons in Coronation Street), then check out her blog. As a fellow beer ponce, the existence of The Brew Room caught my attention as soon as she started describing that the pub had its own on-site brewery and a plethora of external brews – being five minutes from the station, it’s the perfect first pit stop on your way to Bloomfield Road.

Originally known as ‘The Stanley Arms’ (more recently known as ‘The Blue Room’) it’s quite apt that I’m stopping off here on my way to the game, as Blackpool FC were formed as a result of a meeting here on the 26th July 1887. As you may imagine from a pub that hosts such meetings, it’s big and roomy – the antithesis to the average craft ale bar, which are small and tight, and hosted in spaces that were created for something else (such as a shop, storage or even a former public toilet, like the one I found on a visit to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier this year).

What the purpose-built pub brings, that the converted spaces mentioned above necessarily do not, is a snug, comfortable feeling – ideal for when you’re coming off the street on a cold, winter’s day. The welcoming atmosphere is being enjoyed by a range of people – from generic old men blowing the froth off a (craft) bitter, lads out on a pre-Christmas blowout, right through to a family partaking in a game of Battleships (the mum showing no mercy in sinking her son’s ships, whilst the dad looked on, nonplussed). After scanning the beer selection, I go for a pint of ‘Mince Pie Porter’ by Mad Dog Brewing Co (well, it is Christmas) – although it was perfectly palatable, the raisiny flavour was at a minimum, so the liquor slipped down easy enough, but without much fanfare.

Making my way to the stadium, I must congratulate the club for re-introducing the facility for supporters to print their tickets at home – offering a quick and easy way for you to purchase your seat for the match, it sums up the state that the club was in that an innovation like this wasn’t available until this season. (Although, a note to the club here – the margins in which you have to fold the paper could do with looking at; I had to fold mine in an unusual position to get the scanner to read the barcode!)

I’m sat in the Jimmy Armfield Stand, behind the goal, for today’s match. Named after the legendary right-back, Jimmy spent his entire club career at Blackpool, playing the vast majority of his 569 league games in the First Division. Moreover, he was an England regular for the best part of a decade – 43 caps and playing in the 1962 World Cup, as well as being a squad member in ’66. In fact, if it hadn’t have been for an injury at the end of the 1964 season that ruled him out of summer tour with England, opening the door for Fulham’s George Cohen to establish himself as England’s right-back, Jimmy would have been England’s first-choice for that position during that World Cup.

After his playing career, he moved into management with Bolton Wanderers – before replacing Brian Clough after his ill-fated spell at Leeds United. Doing a relatively decent job (including reaching the semi-finals of the 1974-75 European Cup when Bayern Munich – controversially – knocked them out), he was replaced as manager by Jock Stein in 1978. He never managed again – he worked as a journalist for the Daily Express for many years before returning ‘inside’ the game, working as a consultant for the Football Association. He would advise the FA to appoint Terry Venables in 1994 and was later involved in the appointment of Glenn Hoddle. Afterwards, he worked as radio summariser for BBC Five Live – which is how I best know him. 

I enjoyed his radio work, which is something he did up until his death in January 2018. He would talk about the technicalities of a game, whilst sounding like he actually knew what he was talking about – unlike many contemporary pundits (in my opinion). Thinking about this, it’s no surprise that he had such an erudite, well-rounded view of the game – he was a player, a coach, a manager, an FA board member and a journalist, after all!

What strikes me, as I sit down (aside from my arse hitting the plastic seat), is the number of positive affirmations dotted around the ground. These signs contain various BLACKPOOL ARE BACK messages – the boards behind the goal, facing us, telling us we’re 'BACK in this South Stand', [that we need to be] 'BACKING the players', and [we’re] 'BACK in Love'. These reinforce the message that for most supporters in here at least, THEIR Blackpool are back. The away shirts (and advertising boards in the ground) carry the message 'Get Vocal' – but whilst this is promoting a local government initiative to get people talking about their mental health, it can be seen to have a double-meaning, to literally get the supporters to be more vocal whilst supporting their team.

Being a marketing man (though, you wouldn’t think it), seeing things like this suggest to me that the new board and owner know exactly what they're doing – which makes a change. They value the importance of fostering positivity in the supporter base and getting involved with projects that affect the locality. Just to sum this all up, the footer of my ticket contains a #MakeNewMemories tag, which is no doubt designed to encourage supporters to think about the good times they’ve experienced at the club, whilst also joining the new revolution to create more good memories. I think it’s brilliant and I bet the supporters are extremely proud to have a club that puts itself at heart of the community once again – the whole point behind its formation in The Stanley Arms back in July 1887, after all.

The home supporters were certainly 'getting vocal' early on – positioned just outside the League One play-offs, a win would push their side into the top 6 going into Christmas, so those sat in the opposite stand to me busy themselves, willing their side to attack their goal from the first whistle. Except chances were hard to come by – although Blackpool were the better side in the first half, the best opportunity they created was a header from a cross that was tipped over the bar by the goalkeeper. Shrewsbury were quite content with sitting back and absorbing pressure; the best action their supporters had was a bit of banter with the home supporters (“Blackpool is a shithole…I want to go home” was countered with chants of “England…England, England, England”, in reference to the visitors’ proximity to the Welsh border). Here’s hoping for a vast improvement (on the pitch, at least) in the second half…

…and it was. First, Blackpool came within inches of scoring when Armand Gnanduillet’s header across the goal from a corner hit the post. Then the forward turned heel not long later as he handled the ball in his own penalty area from a long-punted free-kick. It seemed innocuous from my vantage point and everyone was shocked – the magic of the highlights showed that he punched the ball away whilst challenging for the header. After much remonstration, Fejiri Okenabirhie stepped up to take the penalty; he drilled the ball down the middle and despite Jak Alnwick getting a good portion of thigh on it, the ball nestled in the roof of his net.

The supporters around me are now urgently willing their side on to level terms; that Christmas play-off place slipping away. They have a great chance to grab an equaliser when they’re awarded a free-kick 25-yards out. “Come on…” whispers a chap behind me, the desperation clear in his voice. Sadly for him and 7,000 others, it was a terrible hit – the ball ballooning high and wide, bouncing on people and empty seats, eventually landing next to me! So I take it upon myself to get in on the action by chucking it to the ballboy (it went straight in his 'breadbasket’, by the way. A magnificent throw). I found the ball to be very grippy, very soft to the touch – I’d imagine this is an attempt to improve a player’s control of the ball. It’s just a shame that it can’t help them to take decent kicks!

Despite my rapid, accurate throwing, the home side didn’t help themselves – creating nothing of note after the free-kick. In fact, Shrewsbury should have had the game wrapped up late on, as a forward went clear of the defence, one-on-one with Alnwick, only to smash the ball into the Blackpool supporters behind the goal.

It finishes 0-1 and despite it (obviously) not being the result that these supporters wanted today, looking in from the outside, it's actually a good thing to see them being unhappy at events on the pitch again, rather than what's happening with the club at boardroom level. As an aside, I think it’ll be beneficial for them to stay at this level for the next few years so they can continue to build up the infrastructure, squad and positive outlook that can help them to stay and progress at Championship level – supporting Wigan, who do have the infrastructure (if not the squad), I know full well that the second tier has grown into a difficult level to stay and progress in.

It's freezing as the game finishes, so I call in my usual Bloomfield Road haunt, the Crazy Scots Bar, for a post-match pint. Just off the Promenade, this bar markets itself as a daytime family sports bar, evening party bar. So, being just after 5 pm, you can imagine that this clash of clientele makes for a very interesting experience. I like it in here as a) it's close to the ground and b) not many match-going supporters seem to come in here after the game. I notice it's now changed its name to 'Happy Scots Bar' ('crazy' doesn't seem to be politically correct?) Their beer selection has improved vastly since I was here last – they've got their own craft bitter and lager on, so I plump for a lager at just £1.90, it's an absolute steal. It's pretty good too.

Another bar that I wanted to make a beeline for was the Imbibe Tap Room. I collected a flyer for this place from November’s beer festival at Wigan Central (my go-to real ale bar) and was looking forward to trying it out – except a sign on the door said it was shut for two weeks for a refurbishment (at this time of the year?) I console myself with a few pubs on the way back to the station, having a few in The Counting House on the North Promenade, watching Liverpool win the World Club Championship with an extra-time win over Brazilian side, Flamengo; a deserved win, but extremely laboured.

My train back from Blackpool North Pole is done via a Northern train – and get this – not only did it set off on time, it was an electric train! I’ve not been to Blackpool for about a year, so forgive my excitement, but this was the first time that I’ve caught an electric train from there.

It’s 2020 in less than two weeks, by the way.

Anyway, I hope you have a Happy Christmas and a joyful New Year. Here's to more groundhopping, pints, pies and goalmouth scrambles!


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