All Premier League teams have their enemies, but Blackpool FC had few. There was a romance about the Seasiders' rise to the Premier League in 2010 that resonated with the English soccer-sphere. Their bright orange kits, the town's iconic tower, the fading lights of a coastal resort that once shined so bright in the days before budget flights and all-inclusive package vacations; this was a club that had stumbled upon promotion to the billionaires' league.
But as quickly as they rose to the top of English soccer, taking on the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, the club washed out after a single season, was relegated to the English Championship, and now seems likely to be relegated yet again. However, Blackpool's demise is more than a tale of sporting decline. The club now serves as a warning of how, with the wrong people in charge, the Premier League can be the worst thing that ever happens to a soccer club.
So who's to blame for the trajectory that has taken Blackpool from the most lucrative soccer league on the planet to last place in the English Championship this season, with just 13 points from 21 games? Most fans point to club chairman Karl Oyston.
"The club's owners have taken the brunt of the blame from the fans," explains Tim Fielding, chair of the Blackpool Supporters Trust—an organisation founded to give the club's disgruntled fanbase a collective voice. "We should have had a legacy from our rise to the Premier League, but there's nothing like that. This club spent 30 years in the lower leagues and that's where we're heading back now. The squad that we had two years ago has been systematically dismantled, and simply hasn't been replaced."
To illustrate Fielding's point, one need only look at how Blackpool showed up for a pre-season friendly game against amateur opposition in July with no fewer than five players listed anonymously as "Trialist" on the team-sheet. Then there was the pre-season tour of Spain that was cancelled because the club simply didn't have enough players to make it worthwhile. Oh, and prior to the start of the 2014-2015 season, just eight players were contracted to the club. In essence, Blackpool is a soccer club without a team.
The squad was eventually filled out with youth players and free transfers, and the ill-feeling between club chairman Oyston and manager Jose Riga growing so intense that Oyston attempted to replace Riga when the Belgian returned home for a few days during an international break. Unfortunately for Oyston, the replacement he sought—Burton Albion's Gary Rowett—rejected his approach and went public with it, much to Riga's indignation.
Riga has since been dismissed and replaced with Lee Clark, who has led something of a slight revival—lifting Blackpool to within four points of second bottom in the Championship table—but with most of his players secured to contracts only a few months long, there's a possibility that another rebuild will be needed before the end of the campaign.
So what exactly has Blackpool and the Oyston family done with the Premier League parachute payments—designed to mitigate the impact of relegation from the top flight—amounting to £48 million over four years?
"The promise was that the Premier League would change the club forever, but the reality is that it didn't," says Fielding.
"If you take a trip to the training ground, you'll see it's on par with some of the worst facilities in the Football League, and the funding to develop the stadium was in place before we were promoted. Even the pitch has been been like a cow field at times."
Consider that upon their promotion to the Premier League, Blackpool's income increased by £42 million, by virtue of the division's lucrative television broadcast deal, only for Oyston to keep the club's outlay at a modest £10 million by sticking to the wage structure that had sustained them in the Championship. A subsequent £32 million surplus was recorded, with Oyston awarding himself an £11 million salary—the highest salary ever for the director of an English soccer club.
"If I had spent the £11m on players' wages, nobody would be complaining," explained Oyston, defending the transfer of cash from the club to a company in his father's name, "but that money would be gone to Ferrari dealers and whatever else players spend it on."
Oyston insists that his family's ownership of Blackpool should be regarded as a success. "I'm a rebel against the whole way things are done in football," he once proudly proclaimed. Latvian shareholder and club president Valeri Balokon would disagree.
"Since Blackpool was promoted to the Premier League you have paid yourself more than £11.5m in salaries and £24m in interest free loans to your various companies, all without my approval," Belokon wrote in an open letter to Oyston. "There is little sign of the parachute payments being spent where they should be, on the team, the stadium and the training ground."
Blackpool was never truly prepared for the Premier League. The club had to install a temporary stand at one end of their 17,000 capacity Bloomfield Road stadium to accommodate the bumper travelling crowds that Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United's ilk brought with them. Even with responsible management they may still have suffered relegation from the top-flight. The indictment of Oyston et al has instead come in the seasons that have followed.
More than 100 players have been registered to Blackpool's first team in the last two years, going some way to explaining why they currently sit at the bottom of the Championship table.
"What we have now is a cobbled together team of misfits who other teams don't want," sighs Fielding. "The players we have come to us because they can't get a contract anywhere else. We've had nearly £9 million in parachute payments this year alone and, somehow, we're borrowing a left-back from Rochdale."