Football: Pride restored to Pompey, owned by people who love it and rising again
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) At Portsmouth's Fratton Park last Saturday, a golden sun shone on the vast car park and scrubs of derelict land to which so many far-flung speculators were drawn, tried and failed to make money, and left an old football club bust.
Formed in 1898, a date marked proudly all around the ground, Portsmouth have been salvaged from their barely believable series of owners and horrors to be majority-owned mutually and democratically by its supporters' trust. They must build again from League Two, having taken over a club still burdened with debts left by those buyers, and just three young players left for the manager Guy Whittingham. Yet at last Saturday's home match against Chesterfield, most of a remarkable 15,999 crowd seemed to be smiling, and Pompey felt like a club reborn.
In Fratton Park's famous mock Tudor approach on Frogmore Road, a plaque is fixed to the ticket-office wall. "On this site once more stands a mighty football club," it says. "We cannot change the past but we can shape the future. Dedicated to all those fans who took a stand and refused to allow Portsmouth FC to die."
In the car park were some teenagers with a cake stall. Sade Seymour and Mercedes Harris, both 17, said it had taken all of the previous day to make them; cupcakes with Pompey-themed icing. They are trying to raise pounds 1,000 so that young Pompey fans can collectively buy a share in the club as part of the trust.
Jake Parker, 16, said: "It's very important to us. It was really horrible before, when the club nearly died, but now we own our own club and it's amazing."
Portsmouth have returned after two long periods insolvent in the last three years and bitter crises under seven owners who eyed making money from English football. Pompey, who play at Cheltenham today, became the only club to collapse into administration while still in the Premier League when, in 2009, the Russian-Israeli owner, Sacha Gaydamak, pulled the funding which had won Harry Redknapp's star-stocked team the 2008 FA Cup on a wave of borrowed money.
The second administration last year followed the arrest for alleged bank fraud in Lithuania of a subsequent owner, Vladimir Antonov, who denies wrongdoing but left pounds 35m debts, plus pounds 17m owing to another former owner, the Hong Kong moneylender Balram Chainrai.
After years of painstaking work raising membership and money, the Pompey Supporters Trust and their partners, 11 local businessmen "presidents" who have invested pounds 1.7m, were almost gazumped by a late takeover bid from the merchant banker, Keith Harris. With his partners, Alan Hitchins, described as a professional investor, and Pascal Najadi, an investment banker based in Switzerland, Harris told the Guardian they were bidding because: "This club deserves to be owned by guys who love football."
The trust emerged victorious from that last blow after Chainrai agreed to release his charge over Fratton Park's haggard stands and settle for a price of pounds 3m. With the club scrambling to start the season, on 29 July came news from Malaysia that Najadi's father, Hussain, had been shot dead. Police initially said it was due to a property deal turned sour, which Pascal disputed, saying his father had been mediating with a group demanding money from a Buddhist temple. Najadi has told the Guardian he is now in Russia, because following "security advisers and my own common sense, I feel safe working and conducting my business out of Moscow".
Some at Pompey point out that had Harris's bid succeeded, with Najadi as a financier, the club could now be plunged into yet another crisis, with an owner holed up in Moscow on security advice. Instead, above the Milton End behind the goal, there is a sign: "Fratton Park, owned by Pompey fans."
The supporters' trust raised pounds 2.3m to finance the takeover, from large and clubbed-together small donations, and the fundraising continues. Iain McInnes, the new club chairman, and 10 fellow wealthy individuals invested pounds 1.7m so the trust, as intended, owns a majority of the club, 58.5%, against the "presidents'" 41.5%. The trust has three representatives elected to the board: the supporters' trust chairman, Ashley Brown, a global asset manager for IBM, Mick Williams, who owns a large Portsmouth plumbers' merchants, and Mark Trapani, group managing director of Snows, a BMW and Mini dealership. McInnes, and two executives at the City investment firm Mondrian; Chris Moth, a lifelong Pompey fan, and John Kirk, represent the presidents as club directors.
Micah Hall, a fan who tirelessly exposed in detailed blogs who the owners were and what they were doing to the club, has been transformed into the club's engagement manager, positively ambassadorial in club suit and tie, tasked with "rebuilding bridges" and showing sponsors the club's name is no longer toxic.
"It feels natural because I have been thinking about this all my life," Hall says of his transition from campaigner to club representative. "I've always wanted the club to be owned by people who love it. That whole battle was about fighting to get us to here."
This progressive mood pervades the club; they are now focussing on what they must do to improve the squad, facilities, and training ground. "We must never forget what happened because we must never let it happen again," said McInnes, an electronics manufacturer and lifelong fan, "but all that has been exorcised. This is a proper football club again, and we're looking forward."
It is far from easy. Under the second administration, handled by Trevor Birch of BDO, Antonov left pounds 8m owing to football creditors, who according to the Premier and Football Leagues' much-criticised "football creditors rule" must be paid in full - Portsmouth have committed to do so over four years. Other creditors, owed pounds 24m, accepted the trust bid's offer of around pounds 1m, although McInnes stressed they are paying small businesses and charities in full.
The bid borrowed pounds 1.6m from Portsmouth council, now repaid, and pounds 1.2m from a local property developer, Stuart Robinson, to help pay Chainrai his pounds 3m. Robinson has bought the car park and adjoining land, which was subject to so many unrealised plans, and intends to build a supermarket on it. Any planning permission is expected to result in him granting some land to the club to finally expand two of the tired old stands, and some money to help do it.
It is extraordinary to think of the Premier League multimillions which washed through - on players such as Lassana Diarra, Sol Campbell, Jermain Defoe, as well as on their wages and agents' fees - and yet have left Fratton Park almost untouched. The south stand is still the 1920s Archibald Leitch classic; arched steel girders and a wooden floor. Brown reflected afterwards on the challenge ahead: "We were made favourites for this division, but nobody here thought it would be easy. We have a plan for the next five to 10 years, and wonderful supporters, but a defeat makes you worry. It's a different stress when you're in charge; responsible for the work needed to rebuild and progress up the league."
They have moved on at Portsmouth, from the awful, existential struggle for the soul of the club to the comparative luxury of worrying about the football. Already they need reminding of the dogged battle they won and their achievement of owning the club themselves.
"Oh yes," Brown remembers, blinking in the sunshine. "We do all feel incredibly proud."
Players who have left Portsmouth since the 2008 FA Cup win
2008-09 nine players leave
Richard Duffy; Lassana Diarra; Jermain Defoe; Adda Djeziri; Jean-Francois Christophe; Nick Jordan; Pedro Mendes; Franck Songo'o; Sulley Muntari
2009-10 18 players leave
Antti Niemi; Asmir Begovic; Younes Kaboul; Mike Williamson; Linvoy Primus; Niko Kranjcar; Jerome Thomas; Glen Little; Sylvain Distin; Martin Cranie; Sol Campbell; Noe Pamarot; Peter Crouch; Glen Johnson; Djimi Traore; Sean Davis; Arnold Mvuemba; Lauren
2010-11 20 players leave
John Utaka; Matt Ritchie; James Hurst; Papa Bouba Diop; Nadir Belhadj; Kevin-Prince Boateng; Marc Wilson; Tommy Smith; Callum Reynolds; Angelos Basinas; Dusko Tosic; Luke Wilkinson; David James; Jon Stewart; Danijel Subotic; Torric Jebrin; Steve Finnan; Omar Alieu Koroma; Paris Cowan-Hall; Liam O'Brien
2011-12 15 players leave
Ryan Williams; Hermann Hreidarsson; Christian Dailly; Nadir Ciftci; Michael Brown; Darryl Flahavan; Peter Gregory; Tom Kilbey; Billy Goddard; Marlon Pack; David Nugent; Ellis Martin; Perry Ryan; Danny Webber; Richard Hughes
2012-13 34 players leave
Mustapha Dumbuya; Brian Howard; Lee Williamson; Lubomir Michalik; Jon Harley; Izale McLeod; Akos Buzsaky; Jack Compton; Josh Thompson; Luke Rodgers; Dave Kitson; Sam Magri; Kieran Djilali; Liam Lawrence; Tal Ben Haim; Ashley Westwood; Erik Huseklepp; David Norris; Jamie Ashdown; Luke Varney; Marko Futacs; Hayden Mullins; Aaron Mokoena; Stephen Henderson; Joel Ward; Jason Pearce; Greg Halford; Lewis Stockford; Lewis Tallack; Kelvin Etuhu; Carl Walshe; Benjani; Ricardo Rocha; Nwankwo Kanu, right
2013-14 10 players leave
John Akinde; Alex Grant; Simon Eastwood; Liam Walker; Gabor Gyepes; Ricardo Rocha; Elliot Wheeler; Sam Sodje; George Colson; Dan Thompson
Portsmouth fans display their usual fervent support for their club, with 15,999 turning up for last week's League Two game with Chesterfield Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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