At just past 3pm on Thursday June 13th 2019 I became the owner and custodian of a famous institution, founded in 1887, which is known to us all as Blackpool Football Club.
As I reflect on my first year of ownership, my still fresh feelings of gratitude, responsibility and wonder are of course overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the havoc that has been wreaked throughout our lives and communities. I would like to send my sincerest condolences to those of you that have lost loved ones during this period. I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all of you who work for the NHS and the emergency and essential services which have kept Blackpool and the surrounding areas going through this difficult time.
My first anniversary has coincided with a busy and important week in the life of the Club with the announcement of the curtailment of the 2019/20 season and the release of the player retained list. I would like to thank all of the players and coaching staff for their efforts during the season and wish all those leaving us good luck for the future.
Blackpool was one of the eighteen League One clubs which voted to end the season. Our Club’s decision was the result of many hours of debate between The Board, Head Coach Neil Critchley and me. Right up until an hour before our vote was due, we were agonising over our three options of curtailing, playing on or abstaining. In the end, our decision to vote to curtail was based upon many reasons, not least of which because, given our mid-table position, we had little to aim for. Of course, we also considered our primary responsibility to safeguard the health of our staff, as well as the cost of staging matches behind closed doors. Very importantly we spoke at length with Neil as to what he wanted. Neil assured us that in the time he’d spent with the squad, he had made the necessary assessments such that he felt that, with the right additions and a solid pre-season, we would be prepared for the start of the next season, whenever that may be.
When I bought the Club in mid-June of last year I did not anticipate to be on my third manager by February of this year. Terry McPhillips departed abruptly in early July. His departure left us without a manager, an assistant manager or a goalkeeping coach just weeks before the start of the season. At that point it made sense to turn swiftly to Simon Grayson given his familiarity with the Club, as well as his outstanding record of four League One to Championship promotions. Following an encouraging start and some thrilling matches against the likes of Peterborough and Fleetwood, our season fell away rapidly over the Christmas and New Year period. With the addition of a strong recruitment team, led by Tommy Johnson, we had in place a plan to strengthen the squad in the January window. It was frustrating for me to watch our performances fall apart as that recruitment plan was being executed and strong additions were being made to the playing squad. In the end the decision to part ways with Simon was less about the poor results on the pitch but more about the Board’s growing concerns that we were not building in the right way. We seemed frequently to change tactics but we did not appear to have a defined playing philosophy.
The search for Simon’s successor was deliberately thorough and detailed. With the prospects of reaching the play-offs greatly diminished, we felt comfortable that David Dunn and Tommy Johnson would ensure that we stayed safe and we were in fact heartened by the immediate improvement in our performances which we saw under their leadership. I will always be grateful to them for stepping up in the manner in which they did.
We needed, however, to find a Head Coach to help us define and implement the Blackpool footballing philosophy. I thought back to when I had flown over from Hong Kong in late September to watch the Friday night Lincoln game. The next day I was jet-lagged and at about 4.30am, in the driving rain, I decided to retrace the footsteps of my childhood. As I walked along the Promenade I could see how many people were already working in the hotels – cleaning up from the day before and preparing for breakfast. It reminded me how hard people in Blackpool work, that people go there to enjoy themselves and that it was my duty to ensure that that was reflected on the pitch with hard-working and organised players who deliver an entertaining brand of football, with an emphasis on youth and development. After assiduously researching the managerial and coaching landscape, I have little doubt that in Neil Critchley we have found the man to deliver that vision.
One of the first things that I did after buying the Club was to appoint to the Board Brett Gerrity, a fellow Seasider and long-standing and trusted friend to be my eyes and ears on the ground. He would turn up to the stadium most days and report back to me and as he did so the enormity of what I’d taken on began to dawn on me. The interim management had done a solid job at preparing the Club for sale but over those first few weeks and months it became increasingly apparent that I needed people with the experience of running community-focused football clubs on budgets appropriate to their circumstances. I was pleased to announce first Linton Brown to oversee our commercial efforts and then Ben Mansford as Chief Executive. I honestly believe that in the four of us the Club now has as hard-working and passionate a Board and management team as any in the EFL.
We have achieved much off the field in the past year. There has been significant investment in the stadium. This investment will necessarily be ongoing after years of neglect. We have improved the club shop, our online presence and the ticketing process. There are further improvements to come. We’ve rebuilt relations with the Community Trust, the local council, local businesses and the wider community. We are in the process of installing a new, purpose-built modular building at Squires Gate. The playing surfaces both there and at Bloomfield Road are vastly improved. We have increased staffing across media, finance and marketing and I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of all of our non-playing staff, most of whom are currently furloughed. I very much look forward to the day when they can safely return to work.
Looking ahead, the Club clearly needs a modern training facility where the entire football operations can work together in one location. Negotiations are ongoing to secure our preferred site whilst designs of a building and pitch lay-out are currently being refined. We are also excited by the prospect of wider regeneration in the Revoe area and have had early stage discussions as to what that could mean for our East Stand development.
Now to you, the fans. I am truly grateful for the manner in which you have supported both the Club and me personally during the last year. Whilst the match versus Southend on March 9th 2019 was The Homecoming, the first match of the season on August 3rd versus Bristol Rovers felt like my homecoming. I have never had the temerity to imagine that my name would be sung at Bloomfield Road but to have that happen and to be referred to as “one of our own” is truly beyond my wildest dreams. After over twenty years working abroad, I truly feel that I have been welcomed back to my home town. But it’s not about me, it’s about us and our love and support for our town and our club. That day in August was the beginning of a new era for us all and I relish the prospect of leading us forward as club custodian. Please rest assured that whilst mistakes will undoubtedly be made along the way, we will continue to make careful and deliberate decisions which, to the greatest extent possible, will be in the interests of all stakeholders alike.
The outlook for football outside of The Premier League is very concerning. We want to plan for the future and the 2020/21 season but in all honesty we are unsure as to exactly what we are planning for. We have no visibility as to when next season will start and, of course, we have no idea when or how you, our fans, will be able to return. I want to back Neil and to invest in the playing squad but it is very challenging to do so against this uncertain backdrop. Additionally, whilst you can rest assured that I have the immediate wherewithal to ensure that the club will survive this crisis as I currently see it, the pandemic has truly exposed the need for a restructuring in football’s finances. I fear that over the coming months many clubs at our level may just not be able to continue and quite what that means for us, the season ahead and for football in the EFL is impossible to predict.
In my opinion, for football to emerge largely unscathed from this difficult period, things will surely have to change. However I strongly believe that we, at Blackpool Football Club, are on the right path. In order to be successful, all clubs will need to be less reliant on the blunt tool that is money spent on players wages. It is imperative that more emphasis is placed upon developing your own talent. I believe that the three pillars of our future success will be our Academy, our recruitment and our coaching.
I’ll wrap up by thanking my family and particularly my wife Gillian for their unwavering support. I took ownership of the Club at a point in time when I would otherwise have looked to spend more time with Gillian and my two young kids. We have had to make significant adjustments to our family life in order to make room for the Club and I am grateful for their ongoing patience, support and understanding.
I hope that all of you stay safe and well and I look forward to the day when we can all meet again at Bloomfield Road.