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Struggling Football Fans Everywhere Can Take Heart from Oyston’s Ousting

Struggling Football Fans Everywhere Can Take Heart from Oyston’s Ousting

Tuesday, 5 March, 2019 - 08:00
Blackpool fans campaigning against Owen Oyston asked visiting supporters not to spend inside the ground. (Getty Images)
That was a belter of a line from Lieven De Turck, representing the always bewildering Roland Duchâtelet at a forum of Charlton Athletic supporters a few nights ago, when the man reputedly in charge of trying to sell the club floated what viewers of Blackadder might recognize as the “cunning plan” option.

He didn’t put it in those terms, of course, but equally I’m not even sure Baldrick would have come up with something quite so brilliantly harebrained as standing up in front of a room of already exasperated football fans and proposing, in one of those lightbulb moments that probably encapsulate Duchâtelet’s five years as Charlton’s owner, that the Football League should get them out of a hole by buying the club.

All of which might have come across as some kind of misunderstanding, a wind-up even, were it not for the statement that appeared on Charlton’s website the next morning to clarify that, yes, he was deadly serious. It noted that Duchâtelet’s property had been vandalized and complained of intrusion into his personal life. There was the now‑obligatory mention of “fake news”, referring to one of the stories about the owner’s alleged penny-pinching (namely the rationing of bottled water for players in training sessions), and the killer line was saved for last, having claimed that no foreign investor would possibly want to buy the club and endure the same indignities. “Therefore,” this 668-word piece of tragicomedy concluded, “the owner demands that the EFL acquires his football club.”

Well, it’s an idea, I suppose. I particularly like the way he “demands”, rather than simply “requests” or “proposes”, and I hope it is not too impertinent to point out that it is not exactly common practice for a football club to be bought by the league in which it plays. Or, indeed, that he appears to be making an impressive challenge for the 2018-19 trophy as the most preposterous football-club owner in the business.

Not that he can be considered the overwhelming favorite just yet when there is so much consistently strong competition elsewhere. Nobody, for starters, could persuade me that any club has had it worse than Coventry City under the hard‑faced ownership of the London-based hedge-fund Sisu and there are plenty of other contenders. At least the supporters of Blackpool are now in a position, finally, to fumigate the corridors of Bloomfield Road and talk of the wretched Owen Oyston in the past tense. Yet it is still very evident that football is awash with clubs where, if you remember the old Monty Python sketch, the people in charge are here on behalf of the Silly party or the Slightly Silly party.

Bolton, under the chairmanship of Ken Anderson, have been added to the list this season, especially after the latest reports of staff and players not receiving their wages for February, and Notts County, increasingly, are another one, given the strange set of events that has seen their narcissistic owner, Alan Hardy, take the oldest club in the Football League to 92nd position, place the club up for sale and invoke the kind of financial chaos that risks them being sent to the knackers’ yard.

Hardy made his money at an interiors company called Paragon and, knowing what we do now, that was a curious tweet it put out on January 19 to boast that “we’ve started 2019 on fire” (flame emoji) with £11.7m of new deals in just one week. Back in the real world, Paragon has just gone into administration, putting Notts at significant risk of the same because one appears to be reliant on the other. HMRC, meanwhile, has issued a winding-up petition against the club, to be heard on 10 April. Hardy, to recap, regards Peter Ridsdale, the chairman whose over-spending once prompted the News of the World headline “Post-war Iraq is being better run than Leeds”, as some kind of mentor. Perhaps you can see now why they get on so well.

Mostly, I wonder when, or if, the long-suffering fans of Coventry will experience the mix of relief and joy that Blackpool’s supporters will encounter this week now the thousands of boycotters who have stayed away from Bloomfield Road these past few seasons, including distinguished former players such as Tony Green and Eamonn O’Keefe, as well as relatives of the great Stan Mortensen, can look forward to going back, at last.

Oyston and his son, Karl, formerly the chairman, did not just bring the town’s football club to its knees, they seemed to take a sinister pleasure from their unpopularity, summed up by Karl driving around the old seaside resort with an OY51 OUT private registration plate. And now, after all the mutiny and boycotts and perhaps the most brilliantly orchestrated and devoted fan protest there has been in English football, Oyston’s time is up. Blackpool’s game against Southend next Saturday will be their first at Bloomfield Road since the fans got their way. Supporters are planning a party, starting with a celebration march from the promenade, and perhaps in some small way it can be a reminder for every other club that has inadequate or reviled owners, that things can change for the better, that it won’t always be one crisis after another, and that one of the reasons why this sport pulls us in, why it is so damn addictive, is that the bad times always make the good ones seem so much better.

For now, I imagine that will be only small comfort for the supporters of Coventry when it is apparent now that the nadir of Sisu’s reign might not be, as previously assumed, the year-long exile of “home” games being staged in Northampton, six motorway junctions south.

The latest from Coventry is that the league has set a Tuesday deadline to establish where the team will play next season, amid the long-running dispute over rent and other issues with the Ricoh Stadium’s owners, the Premiership rugby club Wasps, and Coventry city council, the freeholder. If nothing materializes, an EGM will be held on 25 April to consider expelling the club from the league. No more Coventry City? It would be nice to think that is an empty threat and the followers of this beleaguered old club can cling to the hope that they, like Blackpool, will come out the other side one day. Yet it is no use just assuming everything will be sorted out. Nobody knows, is the truth.

The same applies to Notts but if they can bear to look through the gaps in their fingers across the River Trent they might also remember it is only two years since Fawaz al-Hasawi had turned Nottingham Forest into a shell of a club. Forest’s new owners, in the words of the chairman, Nicholas Randall QC, took over a club “in intensive care”. This season they have had their biggest average crowds since the club’s European Cup-winning days. Season‑ticket prices have been slashed and plans have just been announced to turn the City Ground into the biggest stadium in the east Midlands. The moral of the story: things can improve.

As for Charlton, the club’s website contains the minutes of their fans’ forum and – well, everyone loves a trier – De Turck’s attempt to persuade everyone that a takeover by the Football League was the most sensible option. “He said they would pass the Fit and Proper Persons’ test, they understand the monthly losses as they have the financial figures of the club, and they have the football knowhow to run it,” it reports. “The fans’ forum unanimously rejected the proposal saying it was unfeasible.”

The other option, perhaps, is that Duchâtelet, who has been trying to flog the club since 2017, drops his asking price, which is clearly scaring off potential buyers, accepts it is the end of an era/error (delete as applicable) and let’s a proud old club breathe again. Now that would be a cunning plan.

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