A Response To The Response

Keen followers of the blog – I’m led to believe there are one or two of you out there – may have noticed a distinct lack of activity in recent weeks. My last post was a response to the publication of the club’s most recent set of annual accounts, where I outlined 10 questions that should be answered by the Oyston family.

My inactivity since then has been for a variety of reasons. Posting about the football side has been limited by time, missing the odd game here and there, and to be honest more than a little apathy in the aftermath of the financial revelations. Results had done little to inspire either, with just one win in the last six including some very poor performances.

Away from the football, I had been reluctant to post more about the financial situation. There was still plenty more to say, but there was a feeling emerging that off-the-field disruption was starting to affect performances and results. How true that is remains unclear – players are after all highly-paid professionals who should be able to put paper talk to the back of their minds once crossing the white line. However, I was willing to let this case lie until our season is over, one way or the other.

Until now we had only heard brief snippets from Karl Oyston in reply to the stories that arose in the national and local press. Yet this Monday, the BBC broadcast an interview with the Blackpool chairman as part of their regional Late Kick Off programme, hosted by Tony Livesey. An extended version of this interview was then broadcast by Radio Lancashire on Tuesday evening.

Needless to say I was far from impressed with comments made by Karl Oyston, and therefore I would like to respond to his response. Quotes displayed are accurate transcriptions from that interview, which can still be listened to until next Tuesday (3rd April).

The best place to begin is probably with answers relating to how Karl Oyston and those around him have coped with the last few weeks.

“I think it’s been a rough time for my father and the manager who should be above and beyond any criticism for the way that they’ve supported the club and certainly where Ian’s taken the club. I don’t read it or look at these things but think unjust criticism or criticism by omission of facts is always hard to take like any injustice.”

There’s a couple of points to address here – the first one related to the manager. Ian Holloway was above and beyond any criticism relating to this matter in the first instance. The manager only received criticism once he came out with some ill-thought out comments suggesting fans had no right to an opinion and should stay away from games if they don’t like what’s going on – a stance from which he has since retreated. Secondly Karl refers to ‘injustice’ and newspaper articles being ‘unjust’.

This is further explored in answers to two other questions, the first of these being whether Owen Oyston and Ian Holloway have found the stories hurtful.

“Oh I think so, yeah. I know so. They both took it very badly it was particularly unfair. Some of it was balanced I have to say. I think there was only one newspaper that was particularly inaccurate and the rest of them had a balance, had both sides of the story and had a bit more background. In fact the journalists had probably done a lot more work and didn’t seem to have the same agenda.”

Continuing this theme, Tony Livesey asked if Owen Oyston had spoken about this to his son.

“No-one likes injustice and that’s what it is. People shouldn’t round on people without knowing all the facts and by and large people haven’t so it’s not a story that’s had a lot of effect but it’s still hurtful.”

The key point in all of this is to ascertain just what was so inaccurate about the stories. One assumes, although cannot be certain, that Karl is referring to the Mail on Sunday when singling out one newspaper as being unbalanced and agenda-driven given it was them who broke the story. However, at no point has Karl Oyston, or anyone associated with Blackpool Football Club, highlighted what these inaccuracies might be. What have the Mail on Sunday written that is so unjust? What agenda was there in that article aside from reporting on the facts?

Given that the £11m payment was the highest ever director remuneration in British football history, was it not perfectly valid to cover this story, especially given the fiscal prudence that is frequently espoused by the chairman? The Mail on Sunday have not been forced to print any retraction for inaccurate statements, and if the Oyston family were so hurt by the story, then surely a complaint would have been made if there were untruths contained within?

The likelihood is that there actually were not any factual inaccuracies or unjust reporting, and that the answers given by Karl suggesting there were is a bid to deflect attention and cast doubt on the accuracy of these stories where none should exist. £11m was paid to Owen Oyston as director remuneration via Zabaxe Ltd – a fact that remains as outrageous today as the day the story broke. If Karl Oyston wants to repeat the ‘injustice’ line, he needs to be pushed on exactly what he feels was inaccurate. Sadly it looks as the opportunity for this may not reappear and as such the wider public perception may be incorrectly skewed by his opinion.

Moving onto the technicalities of the £11m payment, Karl was quick to play down the move as a ‘scheme’ to avoid a large tax bill. However his answer was stuttering and might even suggest that Karl himself isn’t quite clear how or why the payment was made.

“It’s not a scheme, it’s effective and efficient tax planning. The company – the money’s not gone to my father – the company – the money’s gone to a company and that company’s been the one that’s lent the football club money over the years and this is a repayment, or a payment to that company.”

It was an answer that had to be heard to understand the unsure nature of his reply, with several pauses and self-corrections thrown in. A stronger questioner – Jeremy Paxman for example – would surely have pushed further but Karl was given a relatively easy time of it by Livesey. Let’s be clear – seeing as Karl couldn’t be – the £11m is in no way, shape or form a repayment of any loan owed to Owen Oyston. It is stated in the accounts as a director payment and is unrelated to any loan past or present.

To further clarify how this is ‘effective and efficient tax planning’, the answer is that for Blackpool Football Club Ltd, it is not. It is however effective and efficient for the Oyston family. This is a very important distinction.

Karl was also asked if he had ever added up and kept track of how much money his family has put in to support the club. His answer again was rather remarkable, both in his apparent ignorance and the untruths spoken.

“I don’t [keep track] because no-one really cares what we put in. All they care about quite rightly is results on the pitch and our league status. I think it’s easy to forget where we’ve come from and how quickly we’ve gone where we’ve gone and how much better we are as a club now and how much stronger and solvent. There’s very few clubs without debt and there’s very few clubs that own their own ground without mortgage. We are particularly strong and we’ll remain strong.”

That the chairman of a football club does not keep track of the amount of money his family has put in in loans is simply staggering. It is difficult to comprehend that this really is the case, but once more his answer may cloak a truth the Oyston family would rather be kept hidden – more on this later. The second part of the above answer isn’t entirely true either. As shown on the most recent annual accounts, there is still a sizable level of debt, the bulk of it owned to the Belokon family. As for owning the ground, the football club itself does not – the tangible assets lie with the parent company, the properties side which the Oyston family renamed to the somewhat abstract Segesta Ltd.

Livesey later asked again if Karl had added up how much had been spent over years, and whether there was a sense of entitlement along the lines of they have paid in and are therefore just having it back in the form of the £11m. Karl’s answer at this juncture was once more unsatisfactory.

“No, because that’s not the case really. It’s a case of we’ve got the money and if we need the money to carry on further redevelopments of the football club, either the properties side or the football side then we’ve got it there to self-bank I suppose. It’s not about how much goes in and how much goes out, and I’m sure many many millions, probably far more millions have gone into the club than have come out, but the question of that – I don’t keep an account of what goes in and what goes out because it’s irrelevant to the decisions I make.”

Of all the poor answers given in this interview, the one above is possibly the most scandalous of the lot, as can now be revealed. A detailed analysis of the last eight years of accounts by an independent accountant can be found in a spreadsheet here. The key section is at the bottom of the spreadsheet which shows the Oyston exposure in the accounts of both the football and properties side of the club. The debt owed to the Oyston family peaked in 2005 at around £8.68m, steadily coming down since then until a significant fall in 2011.

The latest picture we have available is that from the millions put into the club in the form of loans, just £820,466 remains owed to Oyston-backed companies. This is BEFORE the £11m payment to Zabaxe Ltd. This is BEFORE the land deal involving the Travelodge, which the club sold to Owen Oyston for £650,000 in 2008 only to buy it back last year at 10 times the cost. This is BEFORE any management fees from Oyston-owned companies involved in the redevelopment of Bloomfield Road are included.

Therefore the argument that many more millions have gone into the club than come out is completely refutable. It is simply not the case, and perhaps Karl Oyston should be keeping a closer handle on things, in which case he would know this. Furthermore, the final statement of the quote above is astonishing. How a chairman of a club who is famous for micromanagement does not account for loans coming in and out when making decisions is quite frankly ridiculous.

Tony Livesey then moved on to the training ground situation, referring to Squires Gate as possibly the worst training ground in the country. In this area Karl provided mixed answers. His comments suggested work might be bubbling along in the background, but a lack of finer detail, a reluctance to commit, contradictions and aspects involving the acquisition of the land itself will surely rankle.

“It’s not ideal, it’s not ideal for modern football. It was probably alright in the Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortenson era. It can’t be that bad because we got to the Premier League with it and nearly stayed there, so it’s served its purpose and it’s time to move on. We’ve got two options – one’s firming up at the moment and we will be going with a planning application but these things aren’t instant. It took Stoke I think five years, or seven years, to begin the project and complete their training ground. It could take us a while but the cash is there, so there’s no constraints other than planning.”

The answer begins with Karl making the right noises, suggesting Squires Gate is past its best, but then contradicts himself by almost implying that it must be fine if we got promoted to the Premier League with it. Ian Holloway and his players quite clearly managed their feat in spite of the constraints placed around them, and Karl’s reasoning is weak. He then gets back on track by stating it’s time to move on and options are being worked on, but as yet no planning application has been submitted.

Additionally, there is a reference to Stoke’s training complex taking ‘five or seven years’. Not only is this timeframe a little ambiguous, but the reference to it would infer Blackpool’s training ground may take a similar amount of time. Based on previous Oyston project management, an imagined completion date at the upper end or beyond Stoke’s supposed timeline is wholly conceivable. For the record, Stoke City submitted a planning application in February 2009, with their complex being completed in time for the start of the 2010/11 season. Seven years indeed.

Tony Livesey followed up his first training ground question by asking if the £11m paid to Zabaxe Ltd would be used to fund construction.

“Well there’s more cash coming in. As people know we’re on parachute payments this season and next season so cash isn’t the issue. There’s one of two options, both on land that we currently own so land ownership isn’t an issue. It’s just the planning process which is never certain and we’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through. We may be unsuccessful with planning but we’ll keep going and we will in time have a new training ground.

The answer from Karl insinuates that the club will not need to loan back – writing and reading that back still shocks and appalls – the money paid to Zabaxe in order to fund the development of a new training ground, and that future parachute payments from the Premier League will be used for this project. Perhaps even more concerning is that the plan is to develop on Oyston-owned land. This could mean one of two things – either the club will merely be a tenant when it can easily afford to own the land and build the training ground itself, or the club risks paying more than fair market value for the land the Oystons own.

Purchasing land off a third party would bring in an element of negotiation, whereas in this case such a scenario seems like fantasy. Furthermore what’s to say the land the Oyston family own is suitable in size and location? Given the fact it’s been nearly two years since promotion to the Premier League with no full planning application in place, perhaps it has something to do with the location of their land which might draw objections in terms of wildlife and local residents’ objections.

Overall the training ground situation is unsatisfactory for what should be a high priority and a legacy aspect of our promotion two years ago. Karl Oyston remains reluctant to outline any timelines or detailed explanations to supporters and with each passing year it affects the training of the first team, stunts the ability of our youth setup and is one thing that might put off potential new signings.

One topic that Livesey was particularly interested in was Karl Oyston’s infamous thick skin. Livesey asked if criticism was just like water off a duck’s back to him, with Oyston replying in the affirmative.

“It all just washes over. Funny’s funny to me and some of the criticism because it’s so hilarious is, I find it highly amusing. But again we spent far too much time dignifying or giving some credence to the minority that criticise. Most of our supporters are fantastic and have been with us for a long, long time and give tremendous support to the players, manager and the club generally. That’s their passion. As for criticism, it’ll never affect me and it will never ever change a decision.”

This is one of Karl’s major failings – his public relations are simply awful and only serves to antagonise further, creating an ‘us and them’ situation which benefits nobody. Sure, some of the criticism goes over the top in its frenzied nature, but the club fails to respond to even reasoned arguments, of which I’d like to think the previous post on this blog could be classified.

Karl continues by talking about those who have chanted against him and his family in the past.

“I think it’s funny because if you want to do something, if you want to change something then have an alternative or have a practical way of changing it. And just to chant against something you don’t particularly like isn’t a way of change. Find someone else that wants to come in and live up to their aspirations is always the way people should go if there were someone waiting in the wings who was going to take the club into the Champions League and guarantee Premier League status then they’d have every right to squak and say that we should step aside. But if there’s no-one there then it’s just a ridiculous thing to do.”

Karl is once again misguided here. It should not be the case that just because there is no obvious alternative – and unless his family were to put the club up for sale on the open market, how could there be? – that fans should not be allowed to provide feedback. A reason that fans resort to chanting against the owners is due to a dreadful lack of communication from the club’s hierarchy.

Fans forums for instance were a once or twice a season event but have been canned in the last few years. No regular updates are provided through official or unofficial channels about the status of the South East corner development, or the training ground. The only supporter group the club will deal with, BSA, appears to have its hands’ tied behind its back and there never seem to be publicised meetings between the two parties. Karl Oyston has relegated them to a supporters club that only runs away travel and organises events – albeit they do perform this task very adeptly in what must be frustrating circumstances for no reward.

Currently, the club only feeds out the Pravda line through its outlets of communication. Might I suggest a period of Glasnost instead? The majority of people are right-minded individuals who will acknowledge and applaud open communication and react accordingly. However, by isolating themselves the club, with Karl Oyston as its figurehead, can never hope to build bridges by carrying along its current path.

I will conclude with one final revelation which was brought to light in examining the financial accounts of the club and the various Oyston entities. Buried in the final set of accounts for Protoplan Ltd – it was liquidated after receiving its debts back from the club – was the following text.

“The asset in fixtures and fittings is that of a bust of Sir Tom Finney. No depreciation has been provided on this asset as it is likely to increase in value in the future.”

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Protoplan, an Owen Oyston company, owned a bust of Preston North End’s most famous player, accounted for to the value of £13,000. Owen Oyston, the lifelong Blackpool fan, as the story goes. Meanwhile, dedicated Blackpool fans had to dig into their own pockets to fund signage on the stadium at a cost of £7,000. Something does not add up.

Focus now returns on the pitch with a final seven games (and hopefully 10) remaining. It is to be hoped those same dedicated fans can be rewarded with a strong challenge for Premier League football once more. On the pitch, the players and management will have the support of every true Blackpool fan. Off the pitch, scrutiny should be kept at a premium and as supporters we must not be threatened into thinking our opinions are not valid. This is our club. It always will be.

Up the ‘Pool!