By Simon Evans
ACCRINGTON, England (Reuters) – Blackpool supporters were in rare, buoyant mood as they gathered at Accrington Stanley’s ground to enjoy a pre-match pint ahead of their League One (third tier) match on Tuesday night.
The recent removal of the Blackpool’s owner Owen Oyston from the board of the troubled club, now in the charge of receivers, looks to have brought an end to five years of decline and fan boycotts at the coastal outfit.
The chant of “Blackpool are back”, rang out in the fan-zone where supporters of both teams mixed before the game and it wasn’t just those bedecked in tangerine who were celebrating.
Accrington chairman Andy Holt wandered among the visiting fans many of whom approached him to shake his, take a selfie, and thank him for his support.
With his flat cap and frank-talking, Holt is a well-known figure because, as an active user of social media, he talks with supporters of all clubs about their concerns — but also because Stanley make a real effort to welcome away visitors.
As well as making sure that visiting fans enjoy decent facilities with reasonable prices, Holt insists stewards and police treat away supporters with as much respect as his own season-ticket holders.
“Fans are fans. You want all fans to be treated right and have an enjoyable time,” he said, as he inspected the facilities behind his newly built stand.
The fans appreciate it.
“There is rain forecast and he’s opened up his new stand for away fans for us. He is the best, he is absolutely down to earth,” said Blackpool supporter George Robinson.
After inviting members of Blackpool’s Supporter’s Trust in to the club’s bar for a drink and a chat, Holt reflects on the situation that faced the opposition.
“How long did that situation go on at Blackpool? How long does it have to go on before someone says ‘look, you need to get a grip and sort it out’?” he asked.
‘NOT SO IDEALOWNERS’
For Holt there are two major signs of the financial and governance troubles facing many of the 72 Football League (EFL) clubs outside of the Premier League.
“We are driving good owners out while all these others who are not so ideal are hanging around and nothing gets done,” he says.
The ‘not so ideal’ owners manage to stay in the game, says Holt, because of a lack of checks and controls from football’s authorities.
To become an owner of a club an individual must pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test but, argues Holt, more regulation is needed once an individual takes over a club.
“I would get involved a lot quicker. I think the EFL needs to get some rules in place so it can intervene. I could run this club into the wall, if I felt like it, and I would still be considered ‘fit and proper’,” he says.
While there are no shortage of ‘crisis clubs’ where fans are often opposed to their owners, Holt sees a wider problem in the game that confronts even the best of owners.
“They are losing fortunes in the (second tier) Championship. 400 million pounds a year. You can go down the list, clubs losing absolute fortunes,” he says.
“We have got to be able to get our house in order, the amount of clubs that are up for sale and their owners tell me how much they are losing, year in year out, and they can’t find a way out of it.
“Honestly, it’s eye-watering the amounts that are being blown in football.”
Accrington, a club which was reborn after going bust in the 1960’s, overcame the odds to win promotion from League Two last season. But with an annual turnover of around 3 million pounds and average home attendances of less than 3,000, they are realistic about their prospects.
For others, chasing the dream of promotion through the divisions to the Premier League, the financial risk-taking becomes more serious.
“The problem with football is that if you let one person over-spend, everyone else is automatically at a disadvantage,” says Holt.
“It is like playing poker with a load of pissed up (drunk) blokes — they don’t make sensible bets and your only hope to compete with them is to make not-sensible bets or sit out the game.”
Despite his critique of the football business, Holt gives the impression of loving every minute of his involvement with Stanley and he has no doubt what is the root cause of the troubles facing lower league clubs, foreseeing trouble at the higher level.
“The Premier League is the problem, that is what has destabilised football, it is tipping the balance so much now. It is like a big listing ship,” he says.
“I think the Premier League has to change. In the future there will be less money, that is why the big six are doing what they are doing. They want a bigger share of the pie because they know there is going to be a smaller pie.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)