Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Portsmouth FC: A Spirited Comeback from an Ownership Catastrophe

Posted on 30 December 2020 by Charlie Gordon

Between 2005 and 2011, Portsmouth’s boardroom dragged a proud club to the brink of non-existence.

After Sulaiman Al-Fahim was imprisoned for stealing £5m from his wife to make his first down payment on the club, Pompey eventually fell into the hands of Vladimir Antonov.

As TaleOfTwoHalves summarises: “Portsmouth had already been through two fake sheikhs and a busted businessman, now the debt collector was handing the club over to a Russian gangster.”

Sure enough, five months taking over Antonov was the subject of a European arrest warrant for a series of financial crimes. With Pompey in over £100m worth of debt, they were plunged into their second administration in three seasons.

Financially ruined, Portsmouth plummeted from England’s top-flight to the fourth tier in just three seasons.

Eventually, it was the fans who steadied the sinking ship by buying out the club in 2013.

Now vying for promotion in League One under the ownership of popular figure Michael Eisner, Pompey are in the midst of a most remarkable transformation.

Well-known fan John Westwood, recognisable by his tattoos, bell and stove-pipe hat worn home and away, provides fascinating insight into Portsmouth’s spirited fightback from ownership injustice.

Courtesy of John Westwood, aka Pompey John

Business Becomes Personal

The wounds of such a turbulent period are still felt by Pompey fans who naturally feel wronged by those behind the scenes.

Westwood said: “The Premier League and the FA are both accountable – neither of them did fit and proper tests. They’re the governing body and they allowed these people to run our club, and they didn’t take any responsibility for it when it went all wrong. We were just left for the wolves and the vultures to pick over.”

The fit-and-proper-person test was introduced as a means of assessing prospective football club owners in 2004, but only recently as more clubs encounter financial trouble has it been thrust into the limelight.

Back when Pompey were nearing rock bottom, the test was still in its infancy, at least relatively speaking. By 2012, a series of unfit owners had brought the club to within a hair’s breadth of liquidation.

“I’m not a violent person but if I could get those people in a room on my own I would punch them all in the face. They were disgusting, they treated a passion and a city with disrespect.

“I was in a very bad place. It was like someone had put a member of my family on a life support machine. It became personal, it became family and I will hate them for the rest of my life,” he said.

Bonds Forged Through Hard Times

From the glitz and glamour of Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford in 2010, Portsmouth’s first away game in 2013 was a 2-2 draw at Accrington Stanley.

The financial woes at Fratton Park resulted in points deductions and player strikes which had consigned the club to domestic freefall. Amazingly, the die-hard Pompey fans continued to generate a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ which brought them even closer to the club they love.

Westwood said: “There’s two things we’re proud of here: the dockyards and the football club. But it’s the club that makes the place tick.

“When we were in the Premier League it was all about money, the man in the street didn’t seem to matter anymore. There were lads I used to see at Fratton Park who had been going for over 20 years, they had lost jobs and relationships over Pompey and after three years of being in the Premier League they stopped going because they didn’t feel part of it anymore.

“It all became so sanitised. The passion for football comes from the man in the street, he’s the one who will be there through thick and thin.”

Of course, when Pompey fell on hard times it was still all about the money, but for the purpose of survival rather than greed. In 2013, the Pompey Supporters Trust made Portsmouth one of the only fan-owned clubs in the country.

“The spirit of that club is incredible,” said Westwood. “We are the 12th man if any club ever deserved that accolade.

“When the fans bought the club it was a breath of fresh air. We felt part of the club again, we felt as though we had an input. We did something magnificent.”

Portsmouth – The Fall And Rise

Embed from Getty Images

The Pompey Supporters Trust owned the club until 2017. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, backed by a venture capital group, has since taken over with the aim of restoring the club’s success before selling for a large profit.

Of course, these financial incentives may make some Pompey fans wince, but at least they are now led by an owner with a level of legitimacy and competence.

Portsmouth currently sit second in League One, seemingly on a charge back up the English Football Leagues. For Westwood, this provokes mixed feelings.

“If we never went to the Premier League again I wouldn’t care. But there is the other part of me that wants to go back and stick two fingers up to them because they didn’t help us.

“If we had been one of their iconic clubs like Manchester United or Liverpool, they would have bent over backwards to help us but they couldn’t wait to get rid of us.

“Now we have found a fantastic owner in Eisner who wants to do it right – he wants to service the club’s debt, he wants to expand the club because that’s in his best interest, but he won’t plunge us into debt again.”

Of course, all eyes will be on Eisner given Portsmouth’s recent ownership history: not just fans, but the FA and Premier League too given their poor treatment of Pompey when they were passed from punter to incompetent punter just a decade ago.

This being said, their time in the lower leagues has brought the club closer together. The community around the club is buzzing as always and they were awarded EFL Community Club of the Year for 2017 and 2019.

Portsmouth’s commendable fanbase seem happy with Eisner’s work so far, although potential  success to come could present a moral dilemma if ‘the man in the street’ again gets left behind.

As for Westwood, he has pledged to be there no matter what. When your middle name is ‘Portsmouth Football Club’ and the badge is tattooed all over your body, that is unlikely to change.

The highs and lows of running an antique book shop during the week bear striking similarities to his experience of supporting Portsmouth during the past decade:

“I’m thankful to have both things in my life: the football and the books. I had to sell my flat to keep the shop going so everything about the club and the shop resonates together. It’s all backs against the wall but I love them both.”