The Last Word: The spirits of Pompey past can heal us all
We can learn from the struggle for the soul of Fratton Park against a succession of charlatans
Sunday 21 October 2012
The stench of the slurry tank permeates football, once again. The brutal opportunism of an unreconstructed hooligan correlates with reflexive racism, which taints a financially incontinent industry that has lost its moral compass.
Problems loom, from Sheffield to Serbia. Yet occasionally, just occasionally, football has a cathartic power, a significance out of proportion to its status. Just ask Bob Beech, who attended his first Portsmouth home match for 18 months yesterday. For the first time, since he refused to renew a season ticket he had held since 1985, he felt his entrance fee was going towards a good cause. His £20 will not dent a debt spiralling beyond £60 million, but, in his words, "it was an investment of the heart".
Beech is co-founder of SOS Pompey, the protest group which spawned the Portsmouth Supporters Trust, which is on the verge of football's largest fan buy-out. He is not naïve enough to believe one of sport's great crusades is complete, but the venality of the individuals who hijacked his football club was not an immediate issue.
Beech was transported back to 16 March 1974, when, aged eight, he pestered his father John to take him to Fratton Park for the first time. They stood on the Milton End, with his brothers and cousins, as Portsmouth beat Hull 3-1.
Supporting a football club is a kaleidoscopic experience. Fragments of memory coalesce, and have their relevance renewed. Yesterday, on his return to that decrepit ground, the man remembered the boy.
On the walk home, his father told tall tales of groundsman Duggie Reid, who guarded the pitch with the intensity of the military policemen who swept through local pubs, collecting punchy squaddies and sailors. Reid was an inside forward known as "Thunderboots" for scoring 29 goals in the first of his 10 seasons at Pompey. John Beech was a contemporary, a former Portsmouth youth-team keeper who cherished memories of Thursday-afternoon games against the first team.
He summoned the ghost of club legend Jimmy Dickinson on a regular basis as the years slipped away, and watching Portsmouth sustained the bond between father and son.
Why does one man's reverie matter? Why should Portsmouth FC's plight resonate beyond a blue-collar city which, as a south-coast settlement with a northern mentality, produces fans who are loyal, loud, and sensitive to the slights of history?
Put simply, a club's betrayal by a succession of owners, executives, managers and administrators is a reminder that football clubs are infused by the spirit of the people who invest their time, money and emotions in them. The game can be a source of collective pride, rather than a platform for the dregs of society.
Without Beech, and his friend Brendon Bone, who helped establish SOS Pompey, the succession of charlatans who passed through Fratton Park would have been able to shred the fabric of an entire community.
The protest group, formed in the Shepherds Crook, the closest pub to the ground, are media savvy. Their banners – "Fit and Proper?... Say No to Loan Sharks… If they play on the streets, we will watch from the pavements" – are articles of faith. Beech, a local cabbie, organised a concerted email campaign which crashed the Football League's system. When the Premier League detected a plan to picket their offices, he was ushered in to see a four-man delegation headed by the chief executive, Richard Scudamore.
When news filtered through on Thursday that the Trust had been named as preferred bidders for Portsmouth, he thought of two people: his father, who passed away just before the 2008 FA Cup final, and Charlotte, his 15-year-old daughter, who succumbed to an asthma attack on 26 April 2009. Sometimes, you see, football really is a matter of life and death.
Clean up this new 'Dirty Leeds'
Play with fire, and you run the risk of being burned. The rebirth of 'Dirty Leeds' was an avoidable accident waiting to happen.
The relevant authorities will deal with pondlife on the pitch, and the climate created off it, by a club which markets its outlaw mystique.
I appreciate that, as someone who follows and understands the ethos of a club like Millwall, I'm vulnerable to criticism here, but enough is enough.
It is up to everyone involved to recalibrate, consider the pain in the voice of Dave Jones, as he rationalised unconscionable abuse from Leeds supporters.
Neil Warnock could have been more empathetic to a fellow manager and, in retrospect, may cringe at his observation that Chris Kirkland "went down like a ton of bricks" when assaulted.
The team he is creating, at a club hamstrung by the exit strategy employed by chairman Ken Bates, is a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It is driven by the incoherent aggression of El-Hadji Diouf, who has never been better described than by Warnock himself, who, in another life, referred to him as a "sewer rat".
It is defined by the spiteful provocations of Michael Brown, the poor man's Mark van Bommel. It is unworthy of an admirable, yet flawed, manager.
The Sports Personality of the Year award is a meaningless bauble, wilfully misrepresented as the jewel in the crown. Expect the BBC to plumb new depths of smugness and shameless self-promotion in the next six weeks. Ignore manufactured "news" if you can.
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