FA Cup final: Death and glory

As Portsmouth prepare to meet mighty Chelsea in the FA Cup final this weekend, lifelong fan Ian Burrell wonders how his beloved club became so brilliant – and so broke

I am standing at the scene of a bloody murder: Number 11, High Street, Old Portsmouth. "In this house," notes the wall plaque, which I walked past hundreds of times as a child, "George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was assassinated by John Felton, 23 August 1628." The death of the playboy Buckingham is described with rather more imagination by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers, where Felton, an English army officer, carries out his dastardly act with a dagger concealed beneath his doublet. "Traitor!" cried the Duke. "You've killed me ... "

The assassin was taken to London and hanged at Tyburn. But his name has been given to the adjoining building, Number 12, High Street, Old Portsmouth. And here on the outside wall is a second plaque, commemorating the opening chapter of another extraordinary story, one that lately has had enough dark intrigue to rival the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu; a tale of haughty ambition with shadowy characters and broken promises, where passion and swashbuckling exploits in defiance of the odds may not be enough to avert a final tragic demise.

The plaque on Felton House reads: "On April 5 1898, a meeting was held in this building to found Portsmouth Football Club." At that gathering, five local sports and business figures agreed to buy a plot of land on which to build their new stadium, now one of the most ancient in English football. Fratton Park, during recent seasons, has provided the national media with a subplot to rival the star attractions at the top of the Premier League table. Within nine months Portsmouth has had four owners and is seeking a fifth. Debts reported at "£20-25m" at the start of this season are now in excess of £138m, in spite of the sale of most of the club's star players.

Glory and shameful farce have come in equal measure. Less than two years after becoming the first small city club in two decades to win the FA Cup, Portsmouth has suffered the ignominy of becoming the first in Premier League history to go into administration, incurring a penalty deduction of nine points that helped consign it to English football's second tier. And yet, bizarrely, on Saturday the club known throughout the game as Pompey will return to Wembley, its ragtag and relegated squad having achieved the near-impossible by defeating a succession of Premier League rivals to become the first club to reach the cup final while insolvent.

I have followed Pompey for 40 years. I was born a couple of miles from the ground and watch each home game from the halfway line. To reach the old stadium from Felton House, head north up the High Street past the site of the original Portsmouth Theatre, which inspired the city's most famous son when writing Nicholas Nickleby. Charles Dickens, born in a Victorian house a little north of the theatre, used the playhouse as the setting for the outlandish performances of Vincent Crummles and his troupe of travelling actors (The Blood Drinker, The Fairy Porcupine, The Infant Phenomenon), a group no less colourful and eccentric than those who have presumed to run Pompey in recent times.

Turning east along Elm Grove, we pass the spot where Arthur Conan Doyle practised as a doctor. The Scot was a pioneer of association football in Portsmouth, keeping goal for the town's eponymous amateur side in the early 1890s, just ahead of that meeting in Felton House when the professional club was formed. As he waited for patients to arrive at his surgery, Conan Doyle began writing fiction and it was on this site that Sherlock Holmes was invented, introduced to the world in the story A Study in Scarlet. How many Portsmouth supporters yearn now for a Sherlock and a Dr Watson! More than 18 months after the club's finances first started to unravel, they are no nearer the detailed investigation that might solve the mysteries behind Pompey's undoing.

Walk on a little from where the amateur goalkeeper Conan Doyle wrote those words, and as you head towards Fratton Park you come to Campbell Road and Lorne Lodge, where Rudyard Kipling spent a large and unhappy portion of his childhood in the 1870s. He later described the city, with its battleship timber stored in the harbour, as being "unchanged in most particulars since Trafalgar". Even now this island city, more densely populated than anywhere in the British Isles outside Inner London, is largely defined by the Royal Navy and the football team.

So Pompey's meltdown has been difficult to bear. A team that that held the FA Cup during the war years, were English Champions in successive seasons in 1949 and 1950 (when Viscount Montgomery of Alamein was club chairman) and were chosen, along with Arsenal, to represent England by playing at Brazil's Maracana stadium in its opening year in 1951, should not have been so besmirched. Some supporters suspect that one recent owner, who never visited Portsmouth, does not actually exist. Another writer associated with the city, HG Wells, whose similarly miserable experiences as an apprentice at Hyde's Drapery Emporium, a mile west of Fratton, inspired the novel Kipps, is of course famously the author of The Invisible Man.

But as Kipling stated in If, adverse conditions can give rise to greatness. If anyone has been able to keep his head "when all about you are losing theirs" it has been Portsmouth's Israeli manager Avram Grant who has had to provide leadership to a group of players whose wages have been repeatedly unpaid. Grant has been denied the transfer funds he was promised by the owners when he took the job, and forbidden from other transfer activities by embargoes imposed by the football authorities. He has been harassed by the tabloid press over his fondness for a Thai massage. Despite all this, he has maintained not only his personal dignity but a positive attitude within the dressing room. Relegation has seen no let-up in effort on the field, while the FA Cup has produced heroics.

After a slice of good fortune helped to see off Championship side Coventry City in the third round, Premier League Sunderland were deservedly beaten in the fourth. An emphatic victory at local rivals Southampton in round five saw Grant celebrating on the pitch in front of the Pompey fans, with whom he has built a deep bond. When another Premier League team, Birmingham City, were vanquished in round six, Grant put his feelings into words. "You can break many things but you can't break our spirit," he said. "Some things in your life you never forget, and this is one of those moments. This club deserves more than anyone to be at Wembley because the players and fans are victims of things done by others."

At the Portsmouth end of Wembley at the semi-final, a large blue flag was flown with Grant's face and the message "Avram Grant: The True Spirit of Pompey". As manager of Chelsea, Grant was ridiculed for his supposed deathly demeanour. Pompey has brought him to life. As someone who has led out a side at the Champions League final and managed the Israeli national team, he might easily have deemed Portsmouth too back woods for his ambitions. But at the last game of the season – and possibly ever – at Fratton Park, banners were unfurled with the Star of David and the plea "Please stay Avram: Shalom". Of course he couldn't make promises with the club's existence in the balance but he grabbed the microphone again, just the same. "If anyone in the world wants a lesson about passion, commitment and loyalty, Fratton Park is the place," he said.

As for the manager's gripes over the lost points, I'm not so sure. The rules are clear enough: you go into administration, you pay the penalty. More points may be deducted next season in the Championship. So be it. Whingeing isn't really the style in a city that has faced centuries of threatened French invasion and 67 raids by the Luftwaffe. Away from the football field, Portsmouth is virtually impregnable; the Round Tower, the Square Tower, Southsea Castle, Fort Cumberland, the bulwarks and ramparts, the rows of gun emplacements built by Lord Palmerston on the hill above the city and the network of island sea forts protecting the harbour.

After the semi-final win over Spurs, T-shirts appeared for sale outside Fratton Park with the slogan, "Pompey: the club that won't die". That's more like it. The Tottenham victory was all the sweeter for having been achieved against the former Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp, who led us to the Premier League in 2003. "Avram 2 Redknapp 0", as the shirt had it.

The cost of the players Redknapp introduced after promotion, with the blessing of his friend Peter Storrie, the chief executive, and the owner Sasha Gaydamak, are part of the reason why the club is now bust. The brilliant but self-serving Harry, who twice walked out on Pompey, claims to be mystified by the club's current financial woes. Unlike Grant, he never understood the fans and barely acknowledged the club even had a history before his arrival.

Many modern football fans will take a similar view as Portsmouth disappear off their radar into the Championship, or maybe into oblivion. Commentators may have thrilled at the pulsating atmosphere generated within Fratton's narrow confines, and praised Pompey's attractive play during seven years in the world's richest league, but the club's absence will have no impact on the marketing strategies at Sky Sports and ESPN. The Premier League is dominated by the moneyed clubs of London and Manchester, with even the famous Liverpool teams now struggling to keep up. Beyond the Big Four – all of them global concerns – and the half-dozen clubs with a national support that aspire to challenge them, there is a vast financial gulf.

This is the problem for the 30 or more community-based historic institutions that genuinely deserve to be known as "great English football clubs" and who make this country's professional structure so much richer than those of the other major European leagues. These clubs – from Derby County to Sheffield Wednesday, Cardiff City to Portsmouth – are central to the cultural lives of the towns and cities they represent.

That doesn't mean such clubs have the right to chase success with abandon. Onwards from Kipling's house to the side streets of Fratton, where Cup final flags hang once more from the terraced houses and the Spinnaker Tower can be seen rising in the distance above the harbour. A symbol of the city's recent ambition, that monument too was nearly disastrous, going way over budget.

The tower's design recalls the sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab hotel in Dubai and as such is a cruel reminder of Sulaiman Al-Fahim, the Emirati property speculator who bought the club in August but turned out not to be rich after all. He sheepishly sold out to one Ali al-Faraj, apparently another wealthy Arab, who similarly failed to invest. Farcically, the club was taken on by Balham Chanrai, a Hong Kong-based Nepali with no obvious connection to Portsmouth or desire to own the club long-term. Curiously, many of those hovering around the boardroom have had past dealings with Arcadi Gaydamak, the shady, arms-dealing father of Sasha.

It is a tangled web and doesn't appear to owe much to football. But for the diehard fans at the Golden Eagle, the pub I visit before games, there is only one option: to support the team in royal blue in whatever league it finds itself. Next season, provided the administrator keeps the club breathing, that will mean visits from the likes of Preston North End and Sheffield United; famous enough names to satisfy any real fan. I still haven't forgotten those wet boyhood nights outside Fratton Park in the late Seventies, selling matchday programmes as Pompey were relegated in bottom place from the old Division Three. And I still remember celebrating the 2008 Cup Final victory in front of the Bobby Moore statue with family and friends (picture). So I'm not complaining.

Across Goldsmith Avenue, once a refuse-strewn canal, the distinctive gabled Victorian frontage of Fratton Park, the ground's original pavilion, stands at the end of a row of terraced houses like a beacon of worship. The mock Tudor building bears the date when the club was founded at that 1898 meeting in the High Street. For home games I sit alongside my father on the North Stand, where I first watched Pompey as a six-year-old. If the club folds it would be rebuilt by the fans but would almost certainly have to abandon its home and rent a pitch from the non-league side Havant & Waterlooville.

Let's hope it never comes to that. This Saturday we get to go back to Wembley, where Avram Grant will attempt to beat impossible odds and stop his old team Chelsea from achieving their first league and cup double. Back in 1949 Pompey were fancied to become the first English club to achieve such a feat but blew their semi-final against second-flight Leicester City. Dad was at Highbury to witness that painful encounter and we need an upset like it now.

With Pompey, as in all the best stories, you never really know what will happen next. Someone should write a book about it.

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