How Portsmouth Fell Into The Sea

Having just given up a two-goal lead, the fans at Fratton Park applauded the Portsmouth players scattered around the pitch, which amazed the Italian visitors AC Milan. “This is why we love English football.” 

Despite squandering an epic win against the Rossoneri that would surely echo in the halls of the club’s history, Portsmouth fans celebrated their club’s ambition and fight in earning a point, having just barely made it to the 2008-09 EUFA Cup (now the Europa League). They didn’t secure three points, and only collected four before falling out after the group stage, but Portsmouth proved to be a tough club, despite having to compete with the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka.

This fighting spirit and a never-say-die attitude has been evident throughout the history of Portsmouth FC, despite it’s limited success. An FA Cup triumph in 1939, repeat First Division titles in 1949 and 1950, and another FA Cup title in 2008 are the club’s greatest accomplishments; they’re not a glorious club with a long history of success and the financial backing to attract world-class talent. Pompey, as they are known, have the heart of a small club, although this type of club is swiftly dying in the world of modern football.

Portsmouth has been told numerous times to go away and die, to fall into the sea and become another forgotten club. The past eight years have been incredibly hard for Portsmouth, but it looks like they may have hit rock bottom, suffering through numerous financial struggles that sent the club into administration more often than most clubs can bare. Now sitting fourth in League Two, they are putting up a fight to get promoted back to League One, and the club’s finances are getting in order.

Portsmouth’s decline started with Harry Redknapp. (Of course it did.)

In March 2002, Harry Redknapp took over as manager, with the Championship side facing relegation to League One. They survived, and by the end of the following season, Portsmouth were celebrating their admission into the Premier League, the club’s first foray into the top flight since the 80’s. The club were competing in the Premiership, but weren’t having a lot of fun doing it; Redknapp left the club because he wanted to buy Bournemouth, apparently, but then became manager for local rivals Southampton.

Dirty Harry came back a year later, and the club finished 17th, one spot above relegation to the Championship. As Pompey fans were well aware, you got a close shave with failure and success with Redknapp. In January 2006, Portsmouth ownership changed as Milan Mandarić sold the club to Alexandre Gaydamack for £47m; this would signal a swift rise in Portsmouth’s financial state, although it would soon come crashing back down. Turned out well for Mandarić though, as he made a cool £42 on the deal. Got charged with tax evasion too, but that worked out.

During that same winter, Portsmouth would go on a spending spree unlike the club had ever seen, buying big names such as Jermaine Defoe, Glen Johnson, Peter Crouch, and Benjani. Looking like a club on the rise, Portsmouth would finish ninth in the Premier League. The following year they would finish eighth, earning that unforgettable spot in the UEFA Cup the following season, along with earning their second FA Cup title and first trophy in nearly three decades.

2008 was a fine year; Portsmouth were building their side, attracting major talents and plans of expanding Fratton Park were taken up on multiple occasions.

Well, until Harry left again. In October 2008, Redknapp left Portsmouth for a second time, just a month before the Rossoneri would make their way onto the pitch at Fratton Park. If he had stayed, would they have won? Would the club’s descent have occurred at all, or been as rough?

Some Pompey faithful couldn’t have been happier he left.

Tony Adams, Redknapp’s former assistant took over, although his appointment would send the club hurtling towards failure, as he lost half of the 22 matches he was in charge of, winning on just four separate occasions. He was quickly dismissed that same season, and with team on the brink of relegation, former youth squad coach Paul Hart assumed position as manager. You’d think that would be a poor choice, but the guy saved the club from the drop, earning a place in 14th.

Things were turning sour in Portsmouth, but at least they knew their youth system works.

Despite remaining in the Premier League for another campaign, Gaydamack had had enough, and accepted an offer of £60m from a ghost man by the name of Sulaiman Al Fahim in May 2009. Supposedly worth loads of money, this guy was seen as the first step in Portsmouth’s salvation; little did anyone know, Al Fahim was full of shit.

His tenure was short, but his legacy has left a dark cloud over Portsmouth that has taken a long time to get rid of – with the club in debt from it’s expenditures (many staff and some players hadn’t been paid at all in late 2009), the club was forced to sell the acquisitions that promoted the club to the Premier League. Peter Crouch and Glen Johnson were sold for a combined £44m, and Jermain Defoe was sent back to Spurs to rejoin Redknapp (and Crouch) at White Hart Lane.

The money Al Fahim made fans believe was available never existed, and realizing that he’d suddenly been put in charge of a real football club and not some bogus holding firm, he got out quickly.

Surely stressed beyond belief, Portsmouth were not out of the woods just yet.

Enter Ali al-Faraj, a supposedly wealthy guy who at first thought he bought Portsmouth from Mandarić only to discover Al Fahim had been awarded the club, but then ended up buying out Al Fahim anyway. You’d think that this mess would end with al-Faraj, that he would provide the south coast club with a solid financial base, but oh no, he was insolvent as well.

When your owner never visits the workplace, you know something is wrong.

In February 2010, yet another owner (the fourth in a year!) purchased the ailing club, but fans and the club must have remained skeptical; who’d ever heard of Balram Chainrai? If you think he’s some football-crazed foreigner, think again – Balram took over the club simply because Portsmouth had failed to pay him back for loans he gave the club, when al-Faraj was still in charge. This wasn’t out of the good of his heart, this was out of the hole that was in his wallet.

Due to the club’s financial crisis (debt for the club reached £135m at one point), HM Revenue and Customs filed a winding-up petition in late 2009, which basically means that Portsmouth had no other choice but to liquidate the club. Fortunately, the petition was then dropped in March 2010, but because the club entered administration, the Premier League instituted a 9-point deduction. Better have nine fewer points than one fewer club, right?

Barred from buying new players and facing crippling debt, the state of Portsmouth FC in 2010 was not looking good. With the club nearing liquidation and certain death, Chainrai put the club into administration, which saved the club while also ensuring it’s relegation to the Championship.

Hey, at least Pompey reached the FA Cup Final that year!

Late 2010 was especially hectic for Portsmouth FC, as a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) was proposed. This would allow Portsmouth to pay back the loans it owed creditors at a rate of 20p per pound; this was then appealed by HMRC, an old frenemy of the club. If HMRC won, the club would have been dissolved and would no longer exist, but the CVA was agreed upon in August 2010, saving the club, although it entered administration yet again.

Now in the Championship and with a new manager in Steve Cotterill, the club were at their wit’s end; with just enough players to make a first team squad, Portsmouth looked destined for relegation but managed to stay just far enough from danger, finishing 16th in 2011.

After the dreadful campaign ended, Portsmouth were on the selling block again, this time to a Russian businessman based in London. Once again selling to a foreigner without ties to the club or community, Portsmouth were clearly fighting for their lives, and would take any helping hand.

This desperation would bite them again.

Summer 2011 saw the club make it’s first transfers since the ban was imposed more than a year before, and they picked up four new players, although none of them were going to change the fortunes of the club. Benjani returned to the club in August, but was complete garbage; he left the club again after his one-year contract expired.

In October, Portsmouth saw their thousandth change in staff, as Cotterill left to fill in Nottingham Forest’s empty managerial position, meaning unknowns Stuart Gray and Guy Wittingham were put in charge. Great.

The following month a new manager was announced, as Michael Appleton took over, but subsequently lost his first match to Watford, 2-0. Like the club needed that right now.

But wait, it gets worse. Much, much worse.

You remember our Russian pal, Vladimir Antonov? Well, he got arrested.

6th owner since the millennium began, and he’s not the first, second, third, or even fourth one to do something that would hurt the club. When can Portsmouth catch a break?

Antonov’s Lithuanian bank Bankas Snoras had gone into administration (nice!) and he was charged with asset stripping, which doesn’t involve naked money. With prosecutors ready to freeze his assets, Antonov’s Convers Sports Initiatives was also put into administration, and on November 29, 2011, he left the club.

Apparently he wasn’t Mr. Moneybags either, as Portsmouth were dully handed another winding-up petition, still owing money to the Queen. With accounts frozen, Pompey were put into administration for the second time in as many years, and a man by the name of Trevor Birch was in charge of finding a new owner, one who actually had money.

With the club docked ten points, their status as a Championship side was highly questionable – not just due to poor form, but the club was on the verge of collapsing altogether. That spring, administrators in charge of the case discovered that Portsmouth still owed a sum of £58m, a figure that surely made fans shudder, knowing their dear club were on the brink of utter failure after repeated disasters.

In May 2012, Portsmouth were relegated to League One, the first time the club had been in English football’s third division in more than a quarter of a century.

If that wasn’t bad enough, just about every player left the club in the summer, and Pompey were to start the coming campaign with -10 points. Yeah, negative points.

That winter, with the administrators still in search of a suitable owner, Chainrai put in another bid to buy the club, although to everyone’s benefit, the Pompey Supporters Trust put pen to paper on November 15 to take control of the club. With caretaker manager Guy Whittingham in charge, along with a lackluster squad led to a 23-game winless streak, a record for the club, one that surely isn’t celebrated on it’s anniversary.

In April 2013, the PST had officially taken over the club from administrators after a deal was reached with Chainrai. Even with the club in better hands, the future of the club was still uncertain; starting a new season in the fourth division, Portsmouth hired Whittingham on a one-year contract, but he was relieved of his services in November as the team sat in 18th in the league. After a rapid and embarrassing collapse, the club had finally hit the bottom of the abyss.

The 2013/14 season was largely a disaster for Portsmouth, but they were able to escape yet another fall, this time to the Football Conference, a relegation that would surely finish them off. Having avoided that setback, the club was finally able to take a breath.

In the early fall of 2014, the proudest day in the club’s recent history occurred: Portsmouth was debt-free! It took so many changes in ownership and involved so much trouble and hardship for the club, but less than two years after the Pompey Supporters Trust took over, the debt was gone.

If it wasn’t for a collection of local supporters, Portsmouth would likely cease to exist, after all the failures of foreign owners who had no connection with the port city or the club. It took more than money to save the club, it took hard work and attention to detail, as the PST finally solved the club’s chronic financial problems.

Today, Portsmouth sit fourth in League Two, surely destined for the promotion playoffs, if they don’t qualify for automatic promotion. With their finances in order, the club can finally return to what it does best: provide entertaining football in an iconic footballing ground.

Next time players of a calibre like Ronaldinho make their way into Fratton Park, it won’t lead to tragedy.

 

 

 

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