clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Be Careful What You Wish For: A Lesson from Portsmouth FC

In the midst of supporters' meetings and takeover bids, there are lessons to be taken from our new friends on the south coast

I want to tell you a story.

A story of a football team, riddled with tens of millions of pounds of debt. Of a playing staff whose wages went unpaid. Of a winding up order issued due to unpaid taxes. Of relegation, administration, asset stripping and the fire sale of footballers on high wages. Of Trevor Birch and of Tal Bem Haim. And no, it isn't about Bolton Wanderers, but it teaches us one hell of a lesson: that new owners aren't necessarily good owners, and that fan power really can defeat the riches of club owners.

This is the story of Portsmouth Football Club. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

Our story begins at Wembley, in the sunshine of May 2008. Nwankwo Kanu's 38th minute goal was enough to secure Portsmouth their first trophy since 1939. All seemed rosy: Harry Redknapp's Premier League team, assembled at little cost in terms of transfer fees, but an astronomical wage bill, could look forward to the future in the top flight. Later that year, they would face AC Milan, and witness the magic of Ronaldinho, who kickstarted a late comeback, rescuing a 2-2 draw from Fratton Park.

Fast forward to May 2009. Pompey, in £70m of debt, were put up for sale by then owner Alexander Gadyamak. A group of supporters had set up the Portsmouth Supporters Trust - a group dedicated to giving the fans of Portsmouth a voice. In time, they would become much, much more than that. A buyer was found: Sulaiman Al-Fahim, who'd made his money in the real estate industry of Dubai. £60m poorer, Al-Fahim was never to be seen on the south coast, wages went unpaid, and high earning playing staff (Peter Crouch, Glen Johnson, Sylvain Distin) were sold. By February 2010, the club was served a winding up order over more than £2m of unpaid taxes. They were relegated from the Premier League in May 2010.

In October of the same year, the club announced that "it appears likely that the club will be...liquidated by the administrators". The club had apparently been saved once more, this time by Vladamir Antonov, who headed a takeover by Conver's Sports Initiative. Antonov, reportedly worth $300m, was a Russian banker based in London. It soon became known to Pompey that Antonov was not all he seemed, and a European arrest warrant was sanctioned for the stripping of assets of a Lithuanian bank.

The club had entered administration in November 2011 due, once again, to an unpaid tax bill.

By May 2012, the club were in administration, guided by Trevor Birch. Although the club's board supported the bid offered by Balram Chainrai's offer, Birch supported the bid headed by the Portsmouth supporters Trust (PST), which had raised £4.1 million from wealthy fans and ordinary supporters (2,400 fans who had pledged £1,000 to support the Trust's bid for the club).

In July 2012, the closure of the club appeared a real possibility, and the PST began to prepare plans for a "Phoenix club", known at the time as Plan B. At this point, ex-Wanderer Tal Ben Haim was still a Portsmouth player, earning £36,000 a week. Luckily for the club, Ben Haim left in August of that year. The fire sale of Ben Haim, and other high profile playing staff, ensured that the closure of the club was no longer an immediate threat, but the long term future of the club was far from secure.

October 2012. Trevor Birch, impressed by the efforts and financial plans of PST, declares their bid the preferred offer in the eyes of the club's administrators. On 15th November of the same year, Portsmouth Supporters Club bought the club. Although their on-field issues would continue, it was the start of the club's long term recovery. Now in League One, the club went 23 games without winning a league game, and were relegated with the help of a 10 point deduction from the Football League.

Life in League 2 began in similar disastrous fashion - on 27th March 2014, Portsmouth were just 2 points away from the Football League trap door, and there was a very real risk that Pompey would disappear from the attentions of football fans in England. Andy Awford took over as caretaker manager, and the team won 5 games in a row, finishing 13th and securing their status in the Football League.

Today, Portsmouth sit 4th in League 2, taking 44 points from 25 games. A return to League One seems highly possible, and Chairman Iain McInnes wants to see the club in the Championship by the 2019/2020 season.

McInnes, and PST Chairman and current board member Ashley Brown, spoke candidly and fluently about the journey of Portsmouth Football Club since the dark days of 2009 at the Bolton Wanderers Supporters Trust meeting last Wednesday.

It's taken the club nigh on 6 years, but it is now a club to be proud of. Owned by the fans, solvent and successful on the pitch, Portsmouth Football Club is the UK's Supporter's Trust success story. But with it comes a grave warning.

I will not speak of the bidders currently vying for ownership of Bolton Wanderers, but I will say this: there are rogues out there, people who claim to be saviours when in fact they simply desire to line their own pockets. Unfortunately for Portsmouth, they have fallen foul to this on more than one occasion. Let us not make the same mistake. Trevor Birch, who worked so hard to see Portsmouth fall into the right hands, must do it here at Bolton. On the pitch, it may involve relegation and a loss of our favourite players, but we could well end up with a club to be proud of.

A club like Pompey.

As for Portsmouth, I wished Mr McInnes all the best for the season to come, and let him know that we'll let them finish second behind us in League 1 next season. Here's to the future. Let's hope it's positive.