Portsmouth rely on Mandaric for more seasons

Nationwide First Division: Chairman who witheld the pay cheques steels himself for long haul to prosperity
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The Independent Online

Football takes a perverse pleasure in defying men like Milan Mandaric. But for how much longer? When he stopped the £700,000 monthly pay cheque to his overblown playing staff 10 days ago, the chairman of Portsmouth unearthed a surprisingly strong seam of support inside the game, from fans fed up with watching overpaid players taking money for nothing and from financially wearied chairmen tired of picking up the tab for mediocrity.

Football takes a perverse pleasure in defying men like Milan Mandaric. But for how much longer? When he stopped the £700,000 monthly pay cheque to his overblown playing staff 10 days ago, the chairman of Portsmouth unearthed a surprisingly strong seam of support inside the game, from fans fed up with watching overpaid players taking money for nothing and from financially wearied chairmen tired of picking up the tab for mediocrity.

The programme notes of Simon Jordan before the match against Portsmouth at Selhurst Park last Tuesday caused ears to ring in both dressing-rooms. "I listen to rubbish from players stating they are committed and want to play in the Premiership... yet when it comes down to it and you look at our performances you are forced to question the integrity of their words," the Crystal Palace chairman wrote. "As paymaster of the club I expect to see my players totally committed week in and week out rather than just when they feel like it... I have to say I empathised with him [Mandaric] totally in stopping the players' salaries."

In his unpretentious office at Fratton Park, Mandaric is still bewildered by the furore. In business, if an employee consistently fails to do his job, then he goes. Why are footballers so different? "Of course, I knew I was against the law stopping the cheque, but where is the law on the other side? We hear all about the rights of the players, but where are the rights of the club or the supporters when they have paid £15 of their hard-earned money? I was about to transfer the money from my bank that day and I thought, 'No'. Instead, I rang the bank and said, 'Stop the money, I've got a problem here'. I wanted to call for some attention from my players and give them a message. I don't understand. This is the only industry – and I have been in a lot of industries – where you sign the contract, go away and think you've done the job.

"We lost to Leyton Orient in the Cup 4-1, it was embarrassing. I sat in my apartment and didn't come out. I just watched television. You go to a game like West Brom [0-5] and their team are passing our players like they weren't there. I have driven here for three and a half hours, paid the gasoline, supporters have paid for their ticket and my players, who are wearing my club's uniforms, are not really trying. You lose against a team who are more talented and skilful than you, that's OK. But to lose because you didn't have the heart..."

The tap root of Portsmouth's ills lies buried beneath decades of incompetence. Mandaric was a nine-year-old kicking a ball on the streets of Novi Sad in eastern Serbia when the club last won the championship. Since the late Forties, in a hotly contested field, Portsmouth have been comfortably the worst-run club in the land, ricocheting crazily between false hope and inevitable disaster, a sleeping giant searching in the dark for a wake-up call. Those of us who have followed the club's fortunes to the brink of penury have become hardened to emotional extremes. But there did seem genuine cause for optimism when the Croat-born Serb decided to indulge his long-time passion for football by buying Portsmouth, thereby compromising every single one of the principles which had made him a fortune in Silicon Valley.

Two and a half years on, with Portsmouth hovering once again above the relegation zone, a beleaguered manager (his fourth), debt rising by £1m every two months, a playing staff the size of the Dallas Cowboys and a venerable old stadium, Mandaric decided enough was enough. He came to sort out the trouble for himself. So he fidgets in his chair, his frustration evident in every sigh and gesture. He knows he should have walked away, as all his business friends advised him to do, as he had done with Nice, his last club. But something, an itch located closer to the heart than the head, kept him coming back and, last week, with the announcement of Peter Storrie's arrival as chief executive came the outline of a three-year plan and a pledge of commitment from the chairman himself.

"What we need to do here is end the speculation that I am leaving," he says. "All my life is made up of challenges. I did not have a lot of financial support when I was young. I come from a poor and limited country, but it was a community where you worked hard and supported each other. I never really thought about it until now, but maybe that's one of the reasons I relate to this city and the supporters. At Nice, they were interested in blue skies and the sea. Here, they love the football club. Their value and trust are very important to me and I say I'm not going to leave here until I really can leave a positive mark on the club. It will cost me a lot of money, and a lot of energy and commitment, but I'm saying now it will take me three years to achieve the things I want to achieve here."

A brief glance at Mandaric's own history suggests that this is more than verbal brio. The last company he owned, Sanmina – named after Sandra and Yasmina, his two daughters – is valued at $7bn on the Dow Jones Index. By the time he was 26, he had turned a bankrupt state car plant into one of the most profitable businesses in Yugoslavia. The authorities, though, were less than impressed by his capitalist ways.

Mandaric left for Switzerland, then America. Gary, Indiana, his first home, was not the America of his dreams, but California was. In 1971, he set up the Lika Corporation, manufacturing computer components; three years later, he was running seven factories. Mandaric sold Lika to Tandy in 1980 and founded Sanmina and the San Jose Earthquakes in the then burgeoning National Soccer League. It is the cv of a man who does not suffer fools.

The link with Pompey was made through the Portsmouth midfielder, Preki, a friend and fellow Serb, who invited Mandaric to Fratton Park. But not even Mandaric could have anticipated quite what a dilapidated hulk of a once great club he was getting in return for his £5m. "To be honest, I bought a really poor club," he says. "We have nothing, we don't even have a ground for the training." Alan Ball, Tony Pulis and, most brutally, Steve Claridge have been sacrificed in the quest for a quick fix, while Harry Redknapp's appointment as director of football only served to undermine the confidence of Graham Rix, the manager. "My dream team," laughs Mandaric. "I am not dreaming about them any more."

The arrival of Storrie, Redknapp's old friend at West Ham, hardly strengthens Rix's power base. "I never said Graham only had two games or two weeks or whatever," counters Mandaric. "Graham Rix is the manager today and he's there to get the job done and while he's there, I'm going to give him support. I'm unhappy, of course, but the first guy who knew that was Graham Rix."

The close season will bring drastic cuts in the squad and the wage bill and it will take all of the chairman's persuasive powers to talk Robert Prosinecki, the one harmonious chime amid the discord, into keeping his boots on for another season. "Pompey was at the same stage as many of the troubled companies I have picked up and turned around," Mandaric adds. At the age of 63, this latest resurrection will be the most challenging of them all.

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