Simon Hart: Pompey's fan-owners admit to making errors but their passion can conquer all
Life Beyond the Premier League
Wednesday 16 April 2014
Alan Knight saw plenty during his 801 appearances in goal for Portsmouth but the explosion of joy at Fratton Park a year ago this weekend, during a 3-0 win over Sheffield United, was as vivid as anything he experienced as a player.
Portsmouth had been relegated to League Two days earlier but this was a celebration of something bigger – of ownership of the club finally passing into the supporters' hands. "I have had some great times at Pompey but that was a very unique atmosphere on the back of the club being saved," recalls Knight, now a club ambassador but then in the dug-out as goalkeeping coach.
It is 12 months since the Pompey Supporters' Trust (PST) took charge of a club that had suffered two administrations in three years and last night at Fratton Park, the trust met to reflect on a first year of mixed fortunes. As Ashley Brown, PST chairman, tells The Independent: "If you look at what's been achieved off the pitch, lots of people would recognise the improvements. It's just unfortunate how we've been struggling on the pitch."
Portsmouth's average attendance is 15,218 yet those loyalists have seen the 2008 FA Cup winners flirt with relegation to the Conference before a run of three straight wins under Andy Awford, the caretaker manager. Awford came in after the decision to sack first Guy Whittingham – a former fans' favourite – in December and his replacement, Richie Barker, last month. Brown concedes that their "first management appointment was perhaps a bit too romantic" while Barker "just didn't gel with Portsmouth". Hence the call to Awford – another old boy "that everybody can unite behind" – who has removed the fear factor that was inhibiting the players.
For Brown, a fan-turned-director, sacking managers is just part of the learning process. An IBM global assets manager, he adds: "Football thinks it is unique and should be run differently from any other business so coming from a corporate world into the free-for-all that seems to exist in football is a shock."
The trust comprises 2,300 shareholders who raised around £2.3m for a majority stake in the club and has three members, Brown included, on the Portsmouth board. The other board members come from the 11 "presidents" – local businessmen – who hold the remaining 49 per cent share, a group including club chairman Iain McInnes and Stuart Robinson, a property developer planning to build a supermarket on land he owns around Fratton Park. This second group raised an initial £1.7m and have invested £500,000 more for ground improvements to increase capacity to around 20,000 for next season.
For Brown, a key to fan ownership is to remember where you came from, hence a pricing policy that means cheap replica shirts – £24.99 for junior sizes – and £1 cups of tea. Taking the club's catering back in-house has boosted revenues – "hospitality has been virtually sold out," adds Brown – and according to club media consultant Colin Farmery, Portsmouth are "running ahead of budget this season", meaning they have paid off more quickly some of the £9m left owing to creditors.
Farmery, who confirmed that the club were also close to signing a long-term lease on a site for a new training ground, was in Paris this week speaking about fan ownership to French supporters and, for Knight, the fans who saved Portsmouth are an example to all. "These guys with a passion for the club have brought it back [from the brink] and fair play to them. Some people have given them grief but they have put their money where their mouth is. It has been a big learning curve – for everyone from chairman down – and we've made mistakes, but as long as we are honest about that and vow to get it right then everything should fall into place."
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