During the late 1990s then Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric would frequently describe his club as a “sleeping giant”. Sitting in the North stand of Fratton Park it was never immediately obvious to me what he meant by that. In those days, Portsmouth was a perennial First Division struggler with a dilapidated stadium and an open-air away stand. Passionate though Portsmouth’s fans are, attendance at matches hardly suggested a wealth of new supporters to cheer the team to the next level either. In some respects, Portsmouth seemed to be exactly where they should be.
Then Mandaric did something that seemed to change the fortunes of the club. After a number of failed managerial signings and false dawns, he hired the wily and experienced Harry Redknapp. Say what you like about Redknapp, but he has always had an uncanny ability to build good teams. Using his connections, he was able to bring a new and higher quality calibre of player to Portsmouth. It was a rag tag bunch of players nearing the end of their careers and diamonds in the rough that Redknapp polished. Suddenly we were watching Paul Merson, Patrick Berger and Steve Stone. Anything seemed possible and Mandaric’s ambition became a reality with promotion in Portsmouth’s first season under ‘Arry.
There was no reality check in the Premier League either. The Redknapp formula for success proved to be equally effective at this higher level and he quickly built Portsmouth into a respectable outfit. For Manadric however, the ceiling of his resources had been reached. And this is where Portsmouth’s problems began, because the Premier league is a billionaire’s playground and Mandaric is a mere millionaire. He sold the club to Alexander Gaydamak and set in motion a series of events that were to doom Portsmouth. Initially at least, Gaydamak’s false dawn was as bright as can be. He poured money into the club and for the first time Portsmouth got hold of players in their prime. Players like Lassana Diarra and Jermaine Defoe came at a cost in their salaries but immediately elevated the team.
That side that seemed to be where they belonged in the First Division? They were now finishing 8th in the Premiership and even winning the FA Cup. Plans were made for a new stadium to be built on reclaimed land in Portsmouth harbour to hold 35,000 fans. While Portsmouth fans were basking in unprecedented glory, the club had secretly become the poster child for an unsustainable football team. If the rumours are true, during this ‘golden era’, Portsmouth was spending 90% of its income immediately on player wages. One of the more ridiculous stories states that winning the FA Cup actually cost the club money because it triggered a number of outrageous bonus pay-outs to star players like John Utaka (joke). Ironically, the Gaydamak era was by no means the low point of this story.
Gaydamak’s farcical exit, shrouded by tales of arms deals and criminal convictions in Europe, triggered a sequence of events that could scarcely be believed by fans. In might seem like I’m glossing over this period but that is simply because it would take a dissertation to fully explain the motley bunch of fake Sheiks and larger than life characters who proceeded to take over the club, subsequently be exposed as frauds, and then leave promptly with the club in worse condition than when they arrived. It scarcely mattered what the players coming in and out of Portsmouth on a revolving door of short term loans did. The clubs fate was sealed in the boardrooms of the FA as 10 point deductions crippled season after season. What I will say is that Portsmouth became living proof that the FA’s ‘Fit and Proper’ test for new owners of football teams failed miserably to protect Portsmouth from these owners. The cycle was only broken by the purchase of the club by a fans consortium this year.
So what can the saga of Portsmouth tell us about football in the 2010s? This is the era of the foreign owner. There are success stories. You won’t hear many complaints in the blue half of Manchester or Chelsea. But these owners are not true fans of the teams they buy. What are the clubs to them – toys? A hobby? A fad? There is precious little protection for the teams if their sugar daddies decide they’ve had enough and want to spend their money on something else. And here’s the rub – football is a mugs game if you want to make money. Just this week Chelsea announced astronomical losses, which proves that you really do need money to burn to be successful and happy in this game. Owners can quickly get cold feet as they are forced to pump their hard earned millions into a sinking ship or a failing team.
The problem is that football exists in such a rigid system that the only way to break in to the top echelon consistently is to spend recklessly. If you gave me the choice between Abramovich or David Whelan I’d choose Abramovich, high risk and all. Whelan will protect Wigan, will love Wigan, but he will never be able to win the league with Wigan. In ten years Chelsea might be a wreck after a financial meltdown, but their fans will never forget the glory years they have enjoyed in recent history. Portsmouth shot for the stars, got close, and have massively fallen to the ground. They are a cautionary tale to other teams who think they can ignore the business aspects of a club in return for an unsustainable product on the pitch.
So what next for Portsmouth? The concept of a fan run club is something that people in Portsmouth are extremely proud of. For me, it’s a system built for a small club with minimal outgoings. It caps the ceiling of this new look Portsmouth. Ultimately, if Pompey ever wants to get back into the Premier League, they will need more than a highly limited pot of cash. And whoever decides they want that responsibility, they’ll need new training facilities, a stadium overhaul and a whole load of new players. If anyone wants a sleeping giant to buy, I know exactly where you can find one.