Football: No club has a divine right to be in the elite any more

Olivia Blair on the pain and pleasure (mostly pain) of following Portsmouth
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Pompey Chimes probably rang out with extra gusto on Tuesday after beleaguered Portsmouth beat Wolves 3-2 to haul themselves off the bottom of the First Division, but I bet they had a hollow ring to them.

It's a sad statistic that a tie which, in its postwar heyday would have attracted around 50,000, drew just 8,042 - 2,660 short of Pompey's biggest gate this season - and even sadder that the majority left the ground buoyant just because Pompey had recorded their fifth win of the season.

It's a far cry from the good old days of 1939, when Pompey beat Wolves in the FA Cup final and went on to win back-to-back championships the following decade before Wolves gained the ascendancy. But then, misty- eyed nostalgia is par for the course when you're a sleeping giant, and they don't come much more gigantic than Wolves, or more somnolent than Portsmouth.

"Sleeping giant" is one of football's more enduring cliches, if only because few ever actually wake up and most have inferiority complexes caused by perennial underachievement. It took a combination of Kenny Dalglish's acumen and Jack Walker's millions to rally Blackburn, and the "Messiah", no less, to rouse New- castle (although one wonders whether Kevin Keegan will have quite such a stirring effect on sleepy Fulham).

It's also a term which is rare beyond English football. True, Torino (the Manchester City of Italian football) and Genoa both fit the bill, languishing as they are in Serie B. But in the Netherlands and Spain, for example, the game has traditionally been dominated by just a few teams and very few Davids have ever seriously challenged the Goliaths. In Scotland, where the championship has left Glasgow just 12 times in 50 years, Dundee are the closest thing to a sleeping giant, if only for the 40,000-plus crowds they drew during their 1963 European run.

In English football, however, sleeping giants are as constant a feature in the game as, er, four divisions, three-up-three-down, and two halves; among them, (in addition to Wolves and Portsmouth) Birmingham, Burnley, Fulham, Huddersfield, Manchester City, Blackpool, Charlton, Preston and, arguably, West Bromwich and Carlisle.

But does a sleeping giant ever cease to be a sleeping giant? Probably not, since the potential and the fan base will always be there; it's the money that's so often lacking, and these days that's a pretty big lack.

It's the reason, for instance, why Birmingham, Wolves, Fulham, and even Charlton and Huddersfield, are now deemed bigger clubs than Portsmouth, whose record transfer fee paid remains pounds 650,000 (for Gerry Creaney), who failed to pay their wage bill last month, and who still have one boot firmly rooted in the past.

To be fair, that's partly due to the restrictions on the redevelopment of Fratton Park, which is the sole option currently open to the club after plans for a new stadium on the city's outskirts were torpedoed by the Department of the Environment, and they couldn't agree a price with the owners of the only other possible site, a nearby vacant goods yard. But they've made the best of a bad job: the capacity is up around 17,000 and at least it looks like a football ground again with the completed stand at the Fratton End and the north terrace covered. But the Milton End is a redevelopment non-starter since it backs on to houses, while the South Stand hasn't changed much since 1926.

Of course, the Terry Venables saga has muddied the waters. The promised potential investors - and El Tel's appearances at the training ground, allegedly - have been as rare as league points, while the World Cup qualification campaign has shorn the team of its numerous Australians, and wannabe Jamaicans, Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson.

However, the malaise at Portsmouth is no recent phenomenon. Call it perennial underachievement, call it what you will - it's been the same old story ever since my dad took me to my first ever game in 1976, in which Pompey were looking for their first home League win (and this was in January). They got it, but were relegated to the old Third Division in May, and slipped down to the Fourth two years later.

By 1983 they were back in the Second Division, and even hit the heights in 1987, but the flirtation lasted just one season. In short, it seems - and this probably hurts for a club with strong naval associations - that when the waters get choppy, Pompey simply haven't got the sea legs.

Having said that, at least they have come closer to glory than any of the aforementioned sleeping giants, namely when Jim Smith steered a side containing the likes of John Beresford and a prodigy called Darren Anderton to within a John Barnes free-kick of the 1992 FA Cup final. But the heart of that team was ripped out and sold on, and it was back to the status quo.

Never mind status quo; it now appears that Pompey's future could rest on the persuasive powers of Brian Howe of Bad Company fame, an exiled Portsmouthian who's trying to encourage an American millionaire to invest in the club.

But it's still pie in the sky, and the proposition is hardly an attractive one. Twenty-five years ago, the then chairman John Deacon talked about restoring the club to its rightful place among the elite. But as sleeping giants know only too well, no club has that divine right any more, and in Pompey's case it's First Division safety that's the goal. The cry must surely be not play up Pompey, but wake up Pompey.