March of victory for fans who fought long and hard
They fought relentlessly. They remained firm outside the football club they loved and refused to set foot inside in protest. They stood up to multi-millionaires and did not back down. Then, they won.
Seasiders old and young, dressed in striking tangerine, took to Blackpool Promenade today in a huge celebration of hard-headed dedication and camaraderie triumphing over wealth and power.
Flags were waves, air horns were blown, and less than flattering chants about recently ousted Blackpool FC owner Owen Oyston rose uproariously from pockets of the 4,000-strong crowd as they marched victoriously to the Blackpool and Southend United match.
Worn-down and battle-weary from years of protesting the Oyston regime, but by no means broken, fans shared feelings of excitement, relief, and optimism for the future of the club that once rose to the heights of the Premier League - only for it all to come crashing devastatingly down in just a few short years.
Steve Rowland, 66, former chairman and current secretary of the Blackpool Supporters Trust, said: "I think ecstatic is the word, because we have worked long and hard to try and bring this day about, and here it is.
"Everybody has come back in their thousands, as we knew they would, and the sun is shining.
"Normally when we have a march it rains and we like to blame it on the Oystons - but they haven't been able to spoil this one.
"It has been an incredible hard few years, but we knew what we were taking on when we formed the Trust in 2014.
"It was obvious what was going on behind the scenes at the club and we knew that we would have to force the issue. If the FA and League won't step in and acknowledge the problem of rogue owners, then the fans must do it for themselves.
"The fans have fought using the only power they had, which was to withdraw their custom, and held firm.
"We are the first English club to do it, and I think it's an historic campaign.
"I feel proud of everybody who has stood firm behind the movement and they have got the right to enjoy going back to their club, because it's shocking what the Oyston's have done.
"They have destroyed an entire community for years, and now we have the chance to step up again and make this the best little club in the North West."
Tears were shed by some loyal supporters as they marched in their thousands into Bloomfield Road, which was the brightest and busiest it had been in years.Children in Blackpool FC shirts accompanied their parents to what would be the first football match of their young lives, while elderly fans relived the electric atmosphere of the club's Premier League glory days.
The celebrations were laced with sadness, though, with happy memories of departed loved ones strong in some people's minds.
A moment of silence was observed before the match in memory of the Seasiders who had passed away before they were able to see the club returned to the hearts of its fans.
Stephen Kirkham, 43, from Bispham, used to attend Blackpool FC matches with his dad, Barry, before the club was relegated in 2015.
Barry died of heart failure on February 21, age 74, before he could see his beloved club come home.
Stephen, a tech support worker, said: "My dad brought me from then I was five-years-old and it makes a very emotional homecoming for us.
"It's upsetting that we never got to come back together.
"We went to Wembley several times and following them for years both at home and away.
"I feel very privileged now to see this.
"I feel very emotional, but we're going to cheer them on all the more today for my dad."
Stephen's nine-year-old son, Daniel, has now taken over Barry's season ticket.
Stephen said: "We're getting the same seats as we had four or five years ago. Those were mine and my dad's seats and we're carrying on the father-son time."
Alan Davis, 49, who lives off Revoe Park, South Shore, used to be a steward at Blackpool FC in the 80s. He attended the march with his partner Laura Hall and 18-year-old son Matthew.
"I remember the ground before it got torn down and built up into what it is today - all the guts and garters of the place. My mum passed away 21 years ago, and she took me to my first matches, so it takes me back," he said.
"It's a big day not just for us here but for the ones who sadly passed away while waiting for the club to go back to the community."
Wiping away tears, he added: "It's very emotional. I don't know how I'm going to get through the rest of the day."
Jacqui Deacon, 60, travelled from Great Eccleston for her first Blackpool match since before the boycott. She said: "I have been coming since I was three with my grandparents. Now I'm the grandma. In fact, my little granddaughter, Isla, is coming today to her first match. She's three.
"I turned 60 in January, so this is the best birthday present I would possibly have.
"It shows what can happen when the fans stand by their principles. The Blackpool Supporters Trust have done a great job."
Mum and son Margaret and Andrew Matthews, from Bispham, had also been boycotting matches in protest.
Today will be their first home game in five years.
Andrew, 40, said: "It's been five years, but it feels even longer. I feel elated.
"It shows what the Oystons could have had if they didn't penny pinch. There's all that money, all that support, and it was all taken. We are looking at what could have been, and it might well be again in time.
"We're looking forward to a better future, a football club for the community where you're safe in the knowledge that you can spend your money and it's going to be put back into the club. That's all we want."