Portsmouth’s flirtation with glory in the early years of this century peaked on 27 November 2008, around 9.15pm. Already FA Cup holders, they were hosting Milan – seven-time European Cup-winners Milan – at the heritage site that is Fratton Park.
With 15 minutes of the Uefa Cup tie remaining, Kanu converted Glen Johnson’s cross to give Pompey a 2-0 lead. In response Carlo Ancelotti, then Milan coach, brought on Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato to replace Kaka and Andrei Shevchenko.
As they joined Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Gianluca Zambrotta on the pitch, the home support, inspired by the Rossoneri’s red-and-black striped shirts, chorused: “Are you Bournemouth in disguise?”
This was not a compliment. Bournemouth were 23rd in League Two, on -1 points after a pre-season deduction for going into administration and seemingly headed for the non-league game they had already had an embarrassing brush with. Shortly after Pompey played Milan, Bournemouth were also knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans.
Pompey were tilting at the stars, the Cherries were in the gutter.
Today the pair meet in the competition’s fourth round, with Portsmouth no longer in any position to mock. The South Coast clubs have swapped places in the intervening years, Bournemouth rising to their highest league placing, Portsmouth slumping to their worst.
Back in 2008 Milan recovered to draw 2-2, accelerating the end of Pompey’s only European sortie, but it transpired the rot had set in long before Ronaldinho’s free-kick sparked Milan’s fightback. The array of stars gathered by Harry Redknapp – including Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell, David James and Peter Crouch – were costing money the club did not have.
Redknapp had quit well before the Milan tie, Tony Adams taking over. His was the first of many brief managerial stints as bills went unpaid, players departed and a whirlwind carousel of owners began. Owner Alexandre Gaydamak, who had arrived in 2006, ran out of cash four years later after his father, Arcadi, whom many suspected bankrolled the venture, encountered difficulties that ended with a French jail term for money-laundering.
Ownership passed from Sulaiman al Fahim to Ali al Faraj to Balram Chainrai, before going into administration, the 10-point deduction making relegation inevitable. Another Russian, Vladimir Antonov, bought the club only for it to return to administration (prompting another relegation) when the holding company went into liquidation and Antonov became the subject of a European arrest warrant following a bank collapse in Lithuania.
By 2013 Pompey were in the fourth tier for the first time since 1980, but rock-bottom brought relief in the form of a fan-led takeover. The club is now owned by a combination of wealthy individuals, all longstanding fans or closely connected to the club, who own 51.5 per cent, and the Pompey Supporters Trust, which owns the balance, worth around £2.75m.
As other clubs have found, being fan-owned does not solve everything. Despite huge backing from the terraces – or perhaps because of it, as this brings a pressure many lower-level players are unused to – the team continued to flounder and the turnover of managers was unabated. Last season Pompey came 16th, the club’s lowest finish since joining the Football League in 1920.
“It became commonplace,” said one fan, “to have 80 travelling fans on the Milton End from Accrington, Morecambe, Fleetwood, etc, cheering a win at Fratton in front of 15,000-plus home supporters.”
Johnny Moore, a supporter for half a century and a club employee since 1998, said: “I began to fear we had not stopped plummeting, and wondered where we would end up and what would happen to the club. People, me included, expected too much in the euphoria of the trust taking over, but they had taken over a really sick patient.”
Ashley Brown, chairman of the trust and a club director, confirmed: “We took on a club that was a real mess. Tens of millions of pounds had gone through it, but it was a shell of a club in a decrepit stadium. We had no players, just a few kids.
“To the naked eye there is not much difference, but we have done a huge amount on the basics. The ground has been re-wired, holes in the roof filled, and we’ve redone all the toilets to a post-Victorian standard. There never used to be hot water in most; there is now. We’ve also re-done the lounges and installed new floodlights.”
Just as significant is the return of the training ground to Portsmouth. Under Redknapp the club trained at Eastleigh, on the fringe of – horror of horrors – Southampton. That ended when the club went bust, leaving the school whose pitches they had hired £41,000 short.
This was just one of many embarrassing debts, including those to the St John Ambulance, the University of Portsmouth Student Union and various local businesses. Most had to settle for the paltry percentages agreed by successive Company Voluntary Agreements, 20p in the pound in 2010, 2p in the pound in 2012.
“Where possible we helped out charities and so on,” said Brown, “but if we had had to pay all the debts the club would not exist. Local business suffered. It took a while to win back their trust and there will be some who don’t want to deal with us. But we now pay our bills on time, which is a lot better than never paying them, and firms are coming back to take hospitality.
“People are beginning to realise we are a different club now – certainly the fans do. Three years on they still sing ‘we own our own club’. There is a belief we are something different. Portsmouth people have always felt different, edgy, particularly for the South. This is something to be proud of. If we get promoted you will see a jubilant city.”
It might well happen. Paul Cook – “a manager who is respected for knowing what he’s doing, as opposed to being a popular ex-player,” said one fan – was lured from Chesterfield in the summer. Aided by a youth system that flourished under Andy Awford throughout the bad times, Cook has built an attractive team that is challenging for promotion. “The football reminds me of the Bobby Campbell era,” said Moore.
Neil Allen, chief sports writer at the Portsmouth News, has covered Pompey for 15 years. He said: “There has been some dreadful football, dreadful players and wretched owners, but now the fans are optimistic that they can achieve something.
“I remember being in the courtroom reporting one of the winding-up orders. There were fans there. I thought, ‘they shouldn’t be in a courtroom, they should be on the terraces cheering the team’.”
Allen, who was banned three times under previous regimes, added: “For nine years I didn’t speak to the person running the club, be it a chairman or owner. They were very secretive – it turned out for good reason. Now there is a different approach, there is transparency.”
Many involved in the club admit they wondered where the money was coming from but, said Allen, “when a team is doing well no one wants to read negative stuff.” Conversely a new book by Allen, Played Up Pompey, on fan favourites, is selling well as supporters seek to recall the good times.
Among the subjects is Sylvain Distin, who is expected to play for Bournemouth today, one of many recent high-profile signings by the Dorset club. Moore looks at Bournemouth, also bankrolled by a Russian of few words, Maxim Demin, and with lower gates than Pompey, and wonders “what will happen if people lose interest?”
The answer is someone at the club might find themselves in the painful position Moore was in during the last administration when “I would come out of the office after another stressful day and be surrounded by cameras and people wanting to know what ‘the story’ was. It was intrusive. They didn’t always seem to realise real people’s lives were affected.”
But ask Pompey fans would they trade the glory years for a decade of financial security marking time in the Championship, and they pause. “I’d not swap the FA Cup win for anything,” said Moore. “So few teams win it. My dad saw them win in 1939. To see them win at Wembley was special.”
Brown agreed. “Would I give up the FA Cup? That’s tough. I’ve followed Portsmouth all my life and never thought I’d see us at Wembley once, never mind go five times and win the FA Cup.” But, he adds: “I don’t believe the two have to be linked. We didn’t have to roll the dice quite as dangerously as we did. There were some crazy decisions.”
Now the club is being run in saner fashion. Today’s tie sold out in three hours. The good times may not be back just yet, but the hope is.Reuse content