'˜I can't believe the club I love would treat me like this'

A former Blackpool goalkeeper's widow was threatened with legal action after being accused of taking part in last May's pitch invasion.

Friday, 20th May 2016, 1:53 pm
Updated Friday, 20th May 2016, 2:56 pm
Pauline O'Rourke, wife of former Blackpool FC goalkeeper Billy O'Rourke, has been wrongly accused by Blackpool FC of invading the pitch during last year's protest.

Pensioner Pauline O’Rourke, whose late husband Billy played 98 games for the Seasiders in the 80s, was sent a letter demanding cash by the club’s solicitor — after what she claims was a case of mistaken identity.

Despite the 65-year-old, of Whimbrel Drive in Thornton, telling the club it had made a mistake, she said she is still banned from the stadium and has not had an apology.

She said: “It’s disgraceful how they’re treating fans.”

Former Blackpool FC goalkeeper Billy O'Rourke

Mrs O’Rourke, who said she volunteered at the club for 20 years and is a time-served season ticket holder, was in her seat watching Pool’s final game of their disastrous Championship season against Huddersfield when around 150 fans poured onto the pitch on May 2.

The game was abandoned early in the second half, with the FA later handing out a fine of £50,000 to the club.

Pauline said: “I went down to the front to see what was unfolding, but I never went on the pitch.

“I stood there for five or 10 minutes, and left to go to the No. 1 Club [a working men’s club across the road from the stadium] to meet some friends.”

Former Blackpool FC goalkeeper Billy O'Rourke

But in mid-November, Graham Woodward, solicitor for Blackpool FC, sent her a letter accusing her of ‘serious unlawful actions’.

In the letter, dated November 13 and seen by The Gazette, Mr Woodward said Mrs O’Rourke went on the pitch and refused to leave, forcing the referee to abandon the game.

“Your activities have been criminal, and also constitute civil wrongs,” the letter read.

“My client is entitled to compensatory damages for these actions and also aggravated damages given the circumstances of your actions, the clear deliberate nature of them, and the clear intention to cause damage.”

The letter, which claimed fans may now be more reluctant to attend games because spectators can’t be sure they won’t be called off, said the club also wanted Mrs O’Rourke to agree to never attend another game at Bloomfield Road, invade pitches anywhere else Pool are playing, or encourage others to do the same.

“In the absence of confirmation from you … that you will comply with our requirements … and that you are prepared to make sensible proposals in relation to damages and costs, my client will commence proceedings against you…”, the letter added.

“I was really upset,” Mrs O’Rourke said. “I opened the letter and was accused and told I might be taken to court.

“I was innocent and it was really unjust. They now know it wasn’t me, and I still haven’t had an apology.”

In an emailed reply to Mr Woodward, Mrs O’Rourke said: “As your client will know, I am the widow of the late Billy O’Rourke and I have been a passionate supporter of Blackpool FC since Billy first signed in 1984.

“During that time I have held numerous voluntary roles within the Blackpool FC family, including assisting with and chairing Tango Junior Seasiders and supervising the ball boys at home games, [being] a founder member and secretary of [fans’ group] BISA, as an active member of BSA (Blackpool Supporters’ Association), and more recently, a serving committee member of Blackpool Supporters Trust.

“To find myself being served with a letter of this type from the club that I, and in his lifetime my late husband, have given so much of my time, and threatens to take me to court for something I haven’t done, unless I agree to sign undertakings to pay damages and costs to them, that as a pensioner I can ill afford, is extremely upsetting and worrying.

“I request an urgent meeting with Karl Oyston and/or [club owner] Owen Oyston to discuss the basis upon which this misconceived claim has been intimated against me, and with a view to hopefully clearing up this accusation.”

Mrs O’Rourke said she received a reply after a six week wait, thanking her for clearing the matter up and saying the club had now identified who was really on the pitch.

But she said the response stopped short of an apology, and left her believing she is still banned from Bloomfield Road.

Mrs O’Rourke added: “I will not go to another game until the Oystons have gone.

“I do think he will go, we just have to keep the pressure up and believe.”

Billy O’Rourke played for four different Football League clubs during his career: Burnley, Chester, Tranmere Rovers, and Blackpool.

He played for the Seasiders six times while on loan in 1983, before making a permanent move a year later.

He made 92 appearances between 1984 and 1987, when he signed for Tranmere following a successful loan spell.

Mr O’Rourke died in 2002 following a brain haemorrhage. He was just 41.

Leader of the opposition at Blackpool Council, Tony Williams, said he met Owen Oyston just a day before more legal letters were sent to up to 12 fans, which threatened them with action for their part in the pitch invasion, on May 12.

Although Coun Williams said what was discussed at the meeting would remain private, he described the get-together as ‘very positive’.

He said: “I came away with the feeling there was a definite intention to improve the relationship between the club and the fans.

“I’m stunned these letters went out the day after.

“It’s a step backwards.”

A spokesman for Blackpool FC said: “The club can confirm that Mrs O’Rourke was incorrectly identified as a pitch invader during the investigations that followed the criminal act of encroaching on a football pitch against Huddersfield Town on May 2.

“Excluding individuals convicted of criminal offences or involved in ongoing legal action with the club, individuals identified as being involved, or present, at any of the illegal actions are not banned from entering the stadium, subject to an acceptable behaviour order being signed with the club’s ground safety officer.

“It is important to stress that the club was sanctioned by both the Football Association and the Football League for the illegal pitch invasion against Huddersfield Town and the club is required to take whatever action necessary to prevent any repeat.

“The club is currently awaiting information that was agreed to be provided some months ago by Lancashire Police to conclude the investigation and reluctantly take action where required against those already identified and a small number of others, amounting to no more than 12 individuals.

“All at Blackpool Football Club would prefer the problems of the past to be speedily dealt with, to allow complete focus on resolving the issues within the club’s board and relationship with some of its supporters.”