Looking for a low point in Portsmouth FC’s recent history is a distinctly unhappy exercise, but the bleakest indictment of this sorry mess might just have come in April 2010. After Portsmouth entered administration for the first time, a list of creditors was produced.
A total of £30.8m was owed to other clubs, agents and players past and present, but it was the list of ‘others’ owed money that struck a chord: Pasta King – £1,296.35; Pukka Pies – £40; Scout Association of Guernsey – £697; St John’s Ambulance – £2,701.91. The list went on and on and on, 15 pages detailing those who had been caught in the crossfire.
There is often a sense that football finances are like monopoly money, particularly at the elite level. As players, managers and agents move around vast swathes of capital funded by a broadcasting deal worth billions every season, it is easy to lose sight of the real-world picture. David Luiz might move for £20m and then £50m and then £20m more, but the cold, hard cash is untouchable.
Portsmouth’s list of the financially damned offered a starker vision of football finances where, somehow, figures of tens and hundreds of pounds speak louder than millions. These organisations were reliant upon that money to survive, carrying out work in good faith that they would be recompensed. There are myriad stakeholders who lose out when a football club collapses, but few thoughts are given to the charities and local suppliers.
There is a Wikipedia page dedicated to ‘Doing a Leeds’, defined as a ‘phrase which has become synonymous with the potential dire consequences for domestic clubs of financial mismanagement’. Portsmouth merit three mentions, but could easily justify their own subsection. If Leeds United fell from the higher high, Portsmouth sunk to the lowest low.
Portsmouth’s economic suicide was initially caused by little more than sporting naivety, Icarus flying too close to the floodlights. Harry Redknapp was permitted to spend vast sums of money on players in order to establish Portsmouth, perennially a lower league club, as a Premier League force. When Redknapp’s departure for Tottenham was followed by the disastrous appointment of Tony Adams, cracks began to appear.
Yet this is less a sporting failure than a financial one. To fall into administration to stave off liquidation once is unfortunate, but to do so twice spreads blame far and wide. The Football League are at least partly culpable for the application of a Fit and Proper Person test that is entirely unfit for purpose in identifying those who will be inadequate owners of the country’s sporting institutions.
By October 2009, reports surfaced that Portsmouth’s players and staff had not been paid. In May of that year, Sulaiman Al Fahim had bought the club, but soon sold it on to Ali al-Faraj. By early 2010, Balram Chainrai was in charge after Al-Faraj had defaulted on a loan secured through collateral on the club and its ground, Fratton Park. Chainrai took control and placed the club in administration.
When Vladimir Antonov bought Portsmouth in June 2010, supporters of a now-Championship club were unconvinced that the Russian was their knight in shining armour. Less than 18 months later he had been arrested on charges of asset-stripping Bankas Snoras, a Lithuanian bank of which he was chairperson and majority owner. For Portsmouth this meant only one thing: they were back in administration.
It goes without saying that these were bleak years to be a Pompey supporter, entire seasons written off in August, dark humour and despair the only diet of the match-going fan. Having finished eighth in the Premier League in 2007/08, Portsmouth finished on a lower rung of the league ladder for seven consecutive seasons until May 2015: 8th, 14th, 20th, 36th, 42nd, 68th, 81st, 84th.
Every statement of sorry fact sounds like a death knell. Between 2009/10 and 2012/13, supporters witnessed three relegations and only 45 league wins in four seasons. Between May 20 and August 10, 2012, every single member of the club’s playing staff left the club. Portsmouth had nine permanent and three caretaker managers between October 2008 and May 2015. These are characteristics of a football club reduced to a shell.
The light at the end of the tunnel came on April 19, 2013. Supporters’ Trust members Mark Trapani, Ashley Brown, Iain McInnes, Nick Williams and Mike Dyer sat in front of assembled media to announce that the club’s Trust members had taken control of the club.
As those five men smiled for the cameras, Portsmouth were instantly reborn. For the first time in four years, ‘dark’ was not the exclusive form of humour. A club that had been ravaged and ripped apart by naivety, greed and mismanagement was finally in the hands of those who would care for it as if it were their own.
Football supporters are at their loyal, passionate best when times are hard, and nowhere is that more true than at Fratton Park. The tribalistic nature of fans is often criticised, but tribalism is only a warped form of familial love. When Portsmouth were relegated to League Two, 10,000 season tickets were sold. When Portsmouth were promoted at Notts County last Monday, 4,366 supporters made the journey and carried the club’s players off the pitch.
The notion of fan ownership is an attractive one, but the reality is long hours poring over difficult decisions. Portsmouth sacked club legend Guy Whittingham in November 2013, seven months after the takeover, and also parted company with Richie Barker (after 20 matches in charge) and Andy Awford (55). The ideal of a club run as a paragon of passion is romantic, but easily misleading. That only raises the stage on which Brown, Trapani and others deserve to stand and receive the applause, not just from Portsmouth supporters but the wider game.
“It’s certainly no easy ride,” Brown, the Trust’s chairman and club director says. “At Portsmouth we achieved it with the help and assistance from so many people helping out in an incredibly diverse number of ways. For those who are really in amongst it, it becomes all-consuming and it can be a tough ride. I do feel for the fans working at clubs such as [Leyton] Orient and Coventry, because I know how tough it can be.
“Yet I was always sure we could do this. We have an amazing set of fans who I was sure would support their team both home and away. This made a huge difference as we were working to rebuild the club. We were all in it together.”
The most historic announcement of all came on September 29, 2014, when Portsmouth were officially able to declare themselves debt-free after paying back all creditors and ex-players. From being the club non grata of the Football League, Portsmouth are leading a new way.
— Portsmouth FC (@officialpompey) April 17, 2017
“This was a positive message to the wider football world, not just our own fans,” says Brown. “Many people were skeptical about whether or not fan ownership could work but, alongside a number of other high-profile fan-owned clubs, we helped to prove it can. People had to start taking us seriously after that announcement.”
Manager Paul Cook and his coaching and playing staff should not be overlooked when handing out praise. Cook took over a team that had finished 16th in League Two in 2014/15, two years after the Trust had taken ownership, and some supporters would be forgiven for having thought that League Two had become Portsmouth’s natural ceiling.
Yet Cook has won 43 of his 88 league games in charge, and recovered from play-off semi-final heartbreak in 2016 to secure automatic promotion to League One.
There is no doubt that the meaning of this promotion is felt more keenly than anything that has come before. Gone are the FA Cup finals, gone are the league games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, gone is hosting AC Milan in European matches at Fratton Park. But that ruinous period eventually left Portsmouth at rock bottom. This is different; this is real.
“In many ways it is more emotional, yes, because of what we went through to get there,” Brown says. “To share this moment alongside people who you’ve been in the trenches with over the last four years makes it that little bit more special.”
For so long, Portsmouth were the example to avoid in how to run a football club; now they are the example to follow. The Football League is an increasingly choppy sea with high-profile shipwrecks, but this is a shining beacon. Portsmouth may exist in a different world to the one they temporarily called home, but you ask any of those 4,366 supporters at Meadow Lane whether they would have it any other way.