London, Rochdale, Portsmouth. Wembley, Spotland Stadium, Fratton Park.
Three places and as many stadiums may not be enough to tell the history of a decade, but they can be useful to understand recent years at Portsmouth Football Club, marked by downfalls and the will to get up on their feet. And if you scratch beneath the surface of what happened in South England, you’ll notice how this story is one which is worth telling.
But who could have predicted that on 17 May 2008? It was the day of the FA Cup final, eventually won by Portsmouth with a goal by Nwankwo Kanu. From there, the decline began and things got difficult for the club: nine different managers in seven years (not to mention interim coaches), three relegations between 2009-10 and 2012-13, several debts to their name and the ghost of bankruptcy. Maybe even something more.
“The club was spending more money than it could possibly earn, expenditure was out of control, not just on players but right across the business. We were passed from poor owner to poor owner, huge debts and zero leadership.
The club very nearly disappeared for good, and had it not been for the fans it almost definitely would have.
This quote doesn’t come from an average fan, but from long-standing Pompey supporter Ashley Brown, so passionate to follow the club even on Asian tours. Ashley Brown isn’t simply a fan: he has been the chairman of Pompey Supporters Trust (PST), an organisation founded in December 2009 which is the very reason why the club wasn’t disbanded, as well as making sure Portsmouth could eventually find a good owner. In August 2017, the trust voted to hand the club over to The Tornante Company, headed by Michael Eisner, former CEO at Disney. A negotiation that lasted two months and was followed, approved (by 93,6%) and entirely managed by PST.
And since Portsmouth are now in safe hands, it’s interesting to look at what could lead to such achievement, that is the great work of PST’s 2,300 shareholders, who were crucial to avoid a nearly done bankruptcy.
In March 2012, the trust published its will to buy the club from their administrators, only to seal the deal one year later, in April 2013. Thanks to individual donations of 1,000 pounds each, the club even cleared its debts in 18 months, paying back all creditors and outstanding wages to former players.
An amazing feat, to put it as Johannes “Johnny” Ertl, the Austrian man who played the last three years of his career in Portsmouth and then became the captain of the club: “I didn’t expect (the stint in Portsmouth) to be so important, but I wanted to stay in England (Ertl previously played four seasons in Championship with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United, editor’s note), because for me (this experience) was unfinished business. It was a difficult time at the club, but it was such an amazing club: for me, it became a second home and it was a key-chapter in my life. I can proudly say I was part of it.“
It wasn’t an easy journey: other than financial issues, results on the pitch came to pile more misery on Portsmouth. As said before, the club even risked to leave the professional world, falling to the 4th division for the first time in 33 years.
Yet, the stability given by PST and the renewed confidence in Portsmouth made everything easier.
Pompeys stayed four seasons in League Two, but they won the league in 2016-17 and they now have a more solid situation than in 2013. To thank the support from PST, in December 2016 the “Wall of Fame” was unveiled, a big plaque in the rear of the North Stand featuring the names of the 2,300 PST’s members who helped saving the club, as specified by Ertl: “There was a point when I started to convince the rest of the Trust board that perhaps the fans could buy it and run it: many people ridiculed us at first and it took a long time convincing not just fans, but also media and politicians, slowly building our credibility. There were so many ups and downs over effectively a 18 month struggle. It was an incredible privilege and honour, but you do feel the full weight on your shoulders with the responsibility of the well being of the club. It shows what an amazing job has been done turning the club around that we can attract top businessmen like Michael Eisner. Personally I believe Pompey could have gone further under fan ownership, but the important thing is that it is the fans who decided who their next owner would be.“
With Michael Eisner at the helm, Portsmouth can now face the future with optimism and reach high levels again. It’s hard to achieve back-to-back promotions, but it wouldn’t be the first time. Despite this, the impression is that everyone is focused on a slow and steady rise.
“I think now it’s too early (for a return in Championship),” said Ertl, who was a PST board member for two years after retiring. “I don’t think it’s necessary to push now for an immediate promotion: we just achieved a promotion from League Two and finishing mid-table this year could be a success already. Why I joined PST? Because I wanted to see different perspectives of the club, how it works. And it was a really, really great time for two years because I was part of it. We developed strategies; we set up the sell of the club, then we hosted the meetings and I was involved in a lot of interesting projects. You won’t find a lot of clubs such a passionate fanbase like PFC: when you’re with them, you just see how much PFC means for the community.”
London was the place of glory, where Pompey conquered the FA Cup and booked a place in Europe. Rochdale represented the fear, as in March 2014 the club was two points away from facing a descent into the 5th division after a 3-0 away defeat. Portsmouth has been and always will be Pompeys’ home, the one which hosted the return of the boys guided by Kenny Jackett to League One in August 2017.
History just started over, but an interesting chapter has been already written by the city, the club and their fans.
Cover photo ©SBNnation.com
FA Cup 2008 photo ©Portsmouth.co.uk
Pompey Supporters’ Trust photo ©Portsmouth.co.uk/Sarah Standing
The other photos in the article ©Twitter