It's Their Fault: Karl Oyston

Last time out we examined the influence Blackpool’s defence might have had on relegation. Now it’s the turn of Karl Oyston to take some of the flak. How did ‘Pool’s Chairman / Acting Chairman / Chief Executive (delete as applicable) contribute to a season that promised so much, yet ultimately ended in disappointment?

Case for the prosecution

The most obvious criticism that can be directed towards Karl is that he simply never provided his manager with a budget realistically capable of sustaining Premier League status. That Ian Holloway nearly achieved this feat should be considered a miracle. A £10k per week wage cap left Blackpool effectively fighting with one arm tied behind their backs. Nobody was advocating the sort of financial suicide previously employed by the likes of Hull and Portsmouth – fans were simply requesting the club to make a decent fist of it, yet only a fraction of the money provided by the Premier League’s television deal went directly on the team.

All of this brings us to the chaotic pre-season, a period Holloway recounted as the ‘worst summer of his life’. Blackpool had to wait until just four days before the start of the campaign to recruit their first players – hardly ideal when preparing for their biggest season in living memory. Before this, ‘Pool had had to endure the ignominy of losing out to Championship clubs when chasing players. Most notably Bristol City beat ‘Pool to the signing of both Brett Pitman and Jon Stead.

This might say more about the financial risks second tier sides are willing to take than the ultra-cautious approach from Blackpool, but it still left ‘Pool fans with an uneasy feeling, just when excitement for the new season should have been peaking. In a recent meeting with users of popular club message board AVFTT, Karl stated that he didn’t see a problem with players not being signed in time for pre-season, but one has to think that some of the players signed in August might have had a more effective campaign if they had had longer to bed in.

With hindsight, the January transfer window was even worse. While Beattie and Reid arrived as fairly high-profile signings, it soon became apparent they were mere shadows of their former selves, and worse still, not up to the fitness demanded by the rigours of Premier League football. Sergei Kornilenko, while relatively unknown, promised to be a shrewd signing. A Belarussian international, ‘The Tractor’ joined on loan from one of Russia’s top clubs, Zenit, and had previously been on loan at another top flight Russian side Rubin Kazan. With Russian football taking place primarily in the summer months however, Kornilenko signed while on his close season and never found full fitness. He may well be a quality player, but ‘Pool never saw the best of him and it was not the time to be gently easing in such a player.

A fourth January signing, Salaheddine Sbai, never even made a matchday squad and was subsequently released at the end of the season. Some onlookers may wonder if he even existed at all. Completing the five January signings was Jason Puncheon, the only one who offered much in the way of a positive contribution. None of the above, with perhaps the exception of Andy Reid, necessitated a transfer fee and the best impact being made by a player loaned from League One does not give the casual observer any assurances that Holloway was provided with an adequate budget to bolster his squad in the transfer window. The view at the time might have been that transfers could wait until the summer given the seemingly secure league position at the time, but this complacency cost ‘Pool dear in the end.

As well as a lack of on-the-pitch investment, a failure to assist Holloway with an all-encompassing backroom set-up has drawn criticism from within the squad. Matt Gilks, who on the back of his comments looks certain to exit the club this summer, launched a stinging attack on the Bloomfield Road management. His comments in full, are as follows: 

“The biggest disappointment is that we didn’t really have a go at it. There are cash restrictions with facilities and staff-wise. We dipped our toe in the water. Maybe if we had put our foot in and had half a go we could have stayed up. We don’t have anything at this club. We wanted a kit-man – that got rejected. We wanted a sports scientist – one came in part-time and got messed about.”

Now, if reports are to be believed, Gilks has every reason to bear a grudge against the Blackpool hierarchy. Allegedly on a contract typically earned by a player in League One or even League Two, Gilks has made no secret of the fact he feels he has been undervalued at Bloomfield Road. Therefore, whether you can take his above statement at face value is up for debate. Nevertheless, it suggests a feeling within the playing staff that they could have been given more support. A tendency to tire towards the end of games was evident with the concession of so many late goals, an area that perhaps could have been improved upon with a full staff of fitness and conditioning coaches.

There’s also the small matter of the training facilities – currently situated at the outdated Squires Gate premises. Upon promotion to the Premier League, plans were announced to build a new training ground worthy of the club’s elevated status, with an initial estimate suggesting the facility could be ready for early in 2011. As of today, the new training ground is still nothing more than a set of plans and some applications for planning permission. Access to a modern training ground could surely have only helped ‘Pool in the second half of the season, and when the new training ground will appear remains to be seen.

Case for the defence
With all the above in mind, surely Karl Oyston has some redeeming factors? Well, if you were to believe a certain section of the Blackpool support, the answer would be ‘no’, but Oyston did make some positive contributions to the overall season. The biggest issue facing the club ahead of the new season was getting the stadium facilities ready for the start of the season. The opening fixture against Wigan which was scheduled to be at home did have to be switched, but on a very trying timescale, credit does have to be given to the club hierarchy for managing to make the necessary improvements to get Bloomfield Road up to Premier League standard.

A fancy stadium does not put points on the board however – just ask West Ham who could have plenty of extra capacity once they take over the 60,000 seat Olympic Stadium, possibly while still being in the Championship. Another parallel can be drawn with West Ham here – while Oyston has been roundly chastised by some ‘Pool supporters for not pushing the boat out in the January transfer window, West Ham did back their manager with significant funds. Despite this, Avram Grant guided the Hammers to 20th place – the costly acquisitions of players such as Demba Ba, Robbie Keane and Wayne Bridge did little to improve the results. Therefore Karl, and his defenders, would argue that a January spending spree might not have saved Blackpool anyway.

Karl’s major victory this season, and a decision for which he won near universal praise, was managing to hang onto Charlie Adam in the January transfer window. Under extreme pressure from Liverpool and Adam’s agent, Oyston stood firm and was not bullied into selling for a price not befitting a player who would go on to earn a PFA Player of the Year nomination. In an era where player power rules, and the mere mention of a transfer request sees many clubs cave in, it was refreshing to see Oyston stick to his guns and put Blackpool’s survival chances first. Ultimately holding onto Adam did not save Blackpool, but had Adam been sold, relegation would surely have been swifter and resulted in a lot of ‘what if’ scenarios being played out in the minds of Blackpool fans. 

The Verdict 

Guilty – at least in the eyes of this author. And that really is the key point here. You will not find a single Blackpool fan without strong views of Karl Oyston one way or the other, and from just glancing at the sizes of the cases for and against, it’s quite easy to guess which side I come down on. I do try to praise Oyston where praise is due, but there are so many areas in which the club could be improved, I have always been sceptical of his leadership. Being cautious is to be admired in an era of clubs continuously finding themselves in financial hot water, but Karl goes beyond cautious and is completely risk-averse, to the extent that hardly any risks are taken at all.

The £10k per week wage cap, in addition to contract clauses insisting on wages being halved upon relegation, priced Blackpool out of the transfer market with many of the manager’s transfer targets finding better deals elsewhere, even at a lower level. The parachute payments are designed to account for paying contracts awarded in the Premier League, and when survival was so close, it’s disappointing that just a little more wasn’t done financially to secure the players that may have made all the difference.

Join us next time, as we examine how much of the blame Charlie Adam can take for Blackpool’s relegation to the Championship.