Perhaps the most important element of any football club is its fanbase, without which they would cease to exist. With that in mind, we were eager to find out more about the various supporters groups at Blackpool FC – who they are, their purpose, what makes them tick and how they respond to any criticism they receive.
Concluding our series of interviews with a number of Blackpool’s supporters groups, we end with the club’s official supporters group BSA (Blackpool Supporters Association). Glenn Bowley (chairman) and Fiona Martin (vice-chair) took time out to answer our questions…
Measured Progress: To kick us off, for those who are unfamiliar with BSA, or perhaps unclear about what the group stands for, would you like to give us a bit of an overview about who BSA are, and what you see your main function as?
BSA: BSA are the official supporters association of Blackpool Football Club. We view our role as working with the club, and as a separate organisation, to improve things for supporters, or to provide events and services for supporters. This can take the form of travel, fundraising, dinner evenings, dealing with members’ queries, commemorating former players, as well as discussing issues such as ticket pricing, matchday provision and amenities with the club.
MP: The travel side of BSA is obviously one of your strong points and has been a vital service for many fans down the years. For those who haven’t travelled to an away game with BSA before, what is it that you think makes your matchday travel so popular with your members?
BSA: We have a long-established away travel service, with a commitment to run buses to all away league games priced as cheaply as we can. This, in part, has helped build up a loyal foundation of regulars whom we help support Blackpool by getting them to the games. We also try to offer something for everyone on our travel; this includes things such as on-coach raffles/competitions as well as pre-match stops.
Where we can we will always try and stop in a village or town so that people of all ages and interests can hopefully find something to appeal to them. Whilst we appreciate that there are many other ways of getting to games, we will always try to offer a service that first and foremost helps people support their team as simply and as cheaply as possible, and secondly tries to make the rest of the day enjoyable.
MP: Away from travel, BSA have also been responsible for some excellent fundraising drives, most notably the Jimmy Armfield statue. The amount required seemed a daunting figure initially, but how pleased are you with the money raised and the final statue itself?
BSA: The Jimmy statue and other projects (such as the paintings of Alan Ball, Alan Suddick and Billy Ayre) are something that all Blackpool fans can enjoy and be proud of. The best thing about the Jimmy Armfield statue is that thousands of Blackpool fans helped in some way – whether that was spending £1 on a raffle ticket or coming to the Gala Dinner.
It is not only a statue for Jimmy, but a statue for the fans. We couldn’t have built the statue without primarily the support of the fans, but secondly the support of BFC and Karl Oyston. There was a lot of hard work by everyone on the BSA committee but the statue looks fantastic. We’re currently working on finishing the area off by producing some plaques to tell the story of Jimmy’s life and career, and of the creation of the statue.
MP: Another main strand of BSA’s activities are the events, such as the Billy Ayre event last season. These events always seem to be well-attended and highly-spoken of. What do you have planned for the coming season?
BSA: Yes, we have a lot of experience as an organisation, and as a committee, of putting on events now. They are always hard work, but we try and appeal to a variety of people. For this season, we have a Night with Paul Ince open to all season ticket holders planned, although the timing on this has been delayed. We did a similar event with Ian Holloway in 2009 where he talked about his plans for the season, how he was settling into life at BFC and his career in general. We’re sure that Paul will be able to entertain us all just as much – and that he has some stories to tell!
We are also working with the newly formed BFC Former Players Association (chaired by Derek Spence, and with the involvement of Marc Joseph, Terry Alcock and Ben Burgess) to put on a “Legends” night in October. This will be a two course supper, with entertainment, and then a question and answer session with a variety of former players from every era. We also have ideas for other things we would like to do both in the lounge and in the Seasider Bar that we are looking at for later in the season.
MP: BSA is also in the fortunate position of a seemingly close working relationship with the club. How does this relationship with the chairman operate – is there a set structure for meeting with Karl Oyston on a regular basis or is it more ad-hoc?
BSA: As an organisation we’ve worked hard over a number of years to develop a good relationship with the club at all levels – including the ticket office, the commercial staff, the media team as well as the chairman and secretary. Our chairman speaks with Karl Oyston regularly – how regularly of course depends upon what is going on – and there are sit down meetings that take place with the chairman and secretary. There is no set schedule for these though, and they can involve the whole committee or just a few of us. It can largely depend on what either of the, or both, sides wish to discuss.
Karl will be the first to admit that he doesn’t get an easy ride from us and we challenge him on a number of issues. We are fortunate though that the club are supportive of our efforts and will listen to our comments, ideas and suggestions, and will always help us where they can. For example, the recent season ticket reduction came from a meeting between BSA, Karl Oyston and Matt Williams and we have been pushing for the club to update the seats in the north and west stands.
MP: A highlight from the past was the fans forums, but in recent years these largely seem to have been phased out, until one was held behind closed doors earlier this year. Was any reason given for the lack of fans forums, and why was the most recent one convened in a way that appeared almost secretive?
BSA: Fans forums were, understandably, exceptionally popular. However, despite requests for them, the club and the chairman felt that there was no benefit to hold them as they were getting very little out of them with a large number of people. The BSA chairman has suggested on many occasions holding a similar event but on a smaller scale and given the issues we were having last season it was agreed to. It wasn’t held behind closed doors or secretive; it was advertised to our members and those who applied to come were all able to.
However, to protect the integrity of both those who were attending, and the integrity of the meeting, we requested that they kept the time and date of the meeting out of the public domain. We took this decision as we felt that those who attended would be subject to abuse on internet forums before the night had even happened, and this would be unfair on them. Those who went got a lot out of the night, and the feedback was very positive. There was a full transcript in the Blackpool Gazette and Karl has agreed to do it again next season.
MP: It’s understandable that BSA primarily looks to serve its members, but one of the aims on your own website states that BSA seeks to “improve communication between Blackpool FC and its supporters.” One would interpret this as including all supporters, not just BSA members. For example, despite a ‘Minutes’ page on your website, none of these appear to ever be published. Taking that into account, would it be a fair criticism to say BSA could do more to engage with the wider fanbase?
BSA: That’s a difficult one. You often find that some people want it both ways. Going back a few years we were heavily criticised by people asking how dare we claim to represent them when we should only claim to represent our members. Wind the clock forward a few years and because that line doesn’t suit their agenda or needs, we are now expected to represent all. We feel now that given the size of the club, we should really be focusing on our membership. It only costs £5 to join and you do get something for your money.
However, our belief is that the priority is for the club to do more to communicate with its fans and have suggested things over the past few years. These include chairman’s blogs, notes in the programme and we are pleased that the club secretary now has a weekly column in the Gazette. That is a good step forward and not something a person in such a position at many other clubs, especially at our level, does. Minutes of our committee meetings are available to current members from our secretary.
MP: The past six months has seen the emergence of a new supporters group – SISA. To date they boast a membership in excess of 1,000 (Editor: The SISA Q&A actually places this figures just under 1,000) but it’s believed that BSA (and the club) refused communication with SISA, going against one of BSA’s aims which expressly states you will “work with other recognised fans groups of Blackpool FC” – having over 1,000 members surely counts as being recognised. However, despite this stance your chairman Glenn Bowley and Karl Oyston attended one of SISA’s recent meetings to observe. Is the decision not to communicate a policy you stand by, or have things changed since then? On a broader point, what are your feelings towards SISA?
BSA: A few points to address here. First of all let’s take the decision for BSA not to meet with SISA. The BSA committee voted against meeting with SISA (worth noting that the vote was four in favour, seven against and the chairman of BSA did not vote). This was for a number of reasons. First of all, our assessment was that SISA was formed last season because fans were unhappy over certain issues such as no improvement to training ground, two managers leaving, a “lack” of investment in playing squad and a dreadful playing surface, and those people wanted SISA to provide an independent voice.
Karl Oyston has to be the person that takes responsibility for those issues, so for SISA to write to him and congratulate and thank him on his hard work left us slightly confused as to what SISA are and what and who they represent. Given SISA has yet to have their inaugural AGM and formally elect their committee, we also did not want to start engaging with people who in a few weeks time may not be involved in the organisation.
Our policy on not to communicate stands at present but that doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t change, and committee members on both sides have spoken informally about all things football. There would have to be a benefit for our members though and it cannot be purely about SISA. The reason Glenn Bowley attended the meeting was purely to learn a little bit more about the organisation and he found it extremely useful and reported back some very positive feedback to the BSA committee.
MP: Since the club reached the Premier League, it would be fair to say that fans have been unhappy with progress in a number of areas. A popular criticism of BSA is that there hasn’t been enough public opposition from the official supporters group towards the lack of development with the training ground. How are BSA lobbying the club in this regard?
BSA: The training ground saga is certainly ongoing, and everyone is disappointed that it hasn’t progressed quickly. From the outset, the club have kept us informed of the plans for the training ground but given that schemes like this are so commercially sensitive, we have to respect the club’s wishes by not divulging exactly what is in those plans. For us though, it is more than the training ground.
There has to be a legacy from our Premier League season which is something we bring up with the club and was also brought up at the fans forum. Whilst people, and rightly so, criticise the slow progress on the training ground, we must not forget the areas where the club is striving. The Blackpool FC Community Trust is arguably one of the best trusts in the country that is carrying out some incredible work in Blackpool and the rest of the Fylde coast.
MP: Many fans are worried about how the club is being run, particularly in regard to how the finances are being managed. Most notably, there are concerns over the £11m salary to Owen Oyston, the Travelodge land deal and ongoing loans out of the club to loss-making Oyston ventures. As the official supporters group, you have been widely criticised for not openly speaking out against this, despite claims you would be requesting a meeting with the chairman on these matters when the news of the £11m salary broke. Is this criticism fair, and if not, what representations have you been making to the club?
BSA: This subject is something that was discussed at the fans forum earlier this year. At no point have we been contacted by any of our members over this issue, but the concerns of a section of the wider fanbase were put to Karl who made the position clear to us and to the media.
MP: Looking forward, what reassurances have BSA had from the club that we are heading in the right direction, both on and off the pitch? Do you feel fans can be optimistic about training ground development, investment in the squad and that money earned from our season in the Premier League will benefit the football club?
BSA: Everyone has their own views about what they want the club to achieve, and what the current position is. As a general point though, everyone accepts we’ve had a difficult summer to round off a rather miserable twelve months. From that point of view I guess things can probably only get better. Paul Ince has brought much needed stability to the club, and everyone is looking to move forward. It might be a little later than we’d like but we’re starting to see real quality being added to the squad and there’s nothing to suggest Paul won’t be able to bring more players to the table.
Training ground plans are ongoing, and we believe, not too far away from being submitted for planning permission. That’s down to the chairman, the architects and the politicians to sort out and push on with. Some people will always be more optimistic than others, that’s life, but cautiously optimistic would probably be about right.
MP: Finally, and on a lighter note, what do you think (or hope) Paul Ince and his squad can achieve this season?
BSA: I hope they can get 138 points and have the league won in February! Alas, I suspect that’s a little too hopeful. There’s promising signs and there’s also some areas of concern. Paul did a great job at the end of last season; but this is a different story over a full season. We’ll all have a better idea once the season is underway, but I think that whilst we might not be play off-material we’ll be closer to the top than the bottom.
We all know how tough the Championship is, and others will disagree, so we take it as it comes and see what the season throws at both us, and the 23 other teams. What we can all do is get behind Paul and the team and help them achieve all they are capable of.
We would like to thank Glenn Bowley, Fiona Martin and BSA for their willing participation in this project. Anyone who wishes to join or contact BSA can get in touch with them in the following ways: