Back in Black
The realisation in the summer of 2012 that Portsmouth FC – then in the vice-like grip of a second administration in as many years – might no longer have existed was rammed home inadvertently.
Photographer Stuart Roy Clarke is without peer for purveying classy 35mm images, shot on his trusty vintage Canon, of the way football in the UK is, was and, perhaps, always should be. Such is his reputation that he had been commissioned by the National Football Museum in Manchester to stage an exhibition of his beautiful Homes of Football series, as a way of celebrating the 138 clubs that make up senior football in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
For the event a special image had been commissioned, with the name and home ground of every club melded into one of those now-ubiquitous word shapes – this one the outline of the UK.
But there was one significant omission.
You see, St Mary’s and Southampton butted up against The AmEx and Brighton, in the space where Pompey should have been; there was no mention of ‘Portsmouth’ or ‘Fratton Park’. The first winners of the FA Cup – and only league champions (1949 and 1950, look it up) – from south of London had been wiped, literally, off the football map.
At the time, conspiracy theories abounded: proof positive the Leagues Football and Premier were intent on dealing with their recidivist financial non-fair player once and for all. By the time the exhibition was up and running, poor old Pompey would be no more. The truth, however, was more prosaic. It was merely a proofing error (albeit a fairly sizeable one), a fact a red-faced Clarke confessed to me when I gently teased him about it a few months later at a Supporters’ Direct event. Mistakes happen, after all.
Low points were many and varied as a supporter of Portsmouth Football Club between 2009 and 2013, as the toxic legacy of the club’s bright but all-too short-lived brush with the Premier League played itself out. Some, perhaps, were deserved – we’d enjoyed the glory of winning at Wembley, so now was the time to suck up the other side of the success coin – but Clarke’s inadvertent snub fell squarely into the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ category. I’d seen a football world without my club and in many ways it felt like the nadir. We may have been on the brink of extinction in that period, but this was the only time we truly disappeared from view.
This story came back to me in September last year, when Clarke’s name popped up on a press briefing as the official photographer for Sport England’s ‘City of Football’ project. For one of the cities in the running – along with Manchester and Nottingham – was Portsmouth.
Yes. You read correctly. Portsmouth.
And although we missed out on the ultimate accolade – not to mention the £1.6 million of funding that came with it – which eventually went to Nottingham, that Portsmouth was even on the podium signalled a quite remarkable transformation in the club’s reputation.
To be fair, Portsmouth has always commanded respect in football’s community circles. Pompey in the Community, the now-independent charity that runs projects for various youth and adult groups in the city, picked up the Family Club of the Year award during our spell in the Championship, as well as the South West Community Club of the Year gong at the 2012 Football League Awards.
Well-deserved though these accolades were, they were powerless to prevent a handful of snide remarks – as the second period of administration got underway – about local small businesses and charities that had been diddled out of their cash. But community spirit was the bedrock which helped turn Portsmouth around. And which, moreover, rallied to reimburse the charities that had lost out.
Led by the Pompey Supporters’ Trust – an organisation forged in the teeth of the first financial crisis of 2009-10, at a time when fake sheikhs and convicted fraudsters were pillaging the club – the frustrations of fans, sick to death of what was being done in their name, finally found a focus.
With the backing of Supporters’ Direct, a community shares plan was hatched. By the summer of 2012, more than 1500 fans had pledged almost £2 million to the cause. A dozen wealthy supporters subsequently chimed in with another £1.5 million, and a community football club project was born.
By the time Pompey were bought from the administrators, as the nine-month standoff with former owners Portpin came to an end (the latter blinking and shaking hands on a £3 million deal), a High Court judge prepared to deliver a verdict on the community bid. Around £4 million of working capital had been raised in the year since the launch of the project, and during a hectic first summer 10,500 season tickets flew out of the door. We had secured the highest average attendance in League Two before a ball had even been kicked.
On the field, however, things proved much tougher, and by the end of March Pompey were staring the Conference – England’s fifth tier – in the face. Only a last-minute equaliser for Wimbledon at Northampton Town kept the club from slipping into the League Two relegation zone.
At many clubs, the well of community goodwill might have been dry by now. But reinvigorated by the appointment of club stalwart Andy Awford as Caretaker Manager, Pompey went on a seven-match unbeaten run that saw them well clear of danger by the time the last day of the season came around. A further 500 season tickets were snapped up last summer as hope sprang eternal.
Oh, and in just 62 days during the close season a crowd funding campaign raised £250,000 for a couple of new pitches for the club’s academy – at a training ground built on the back of a further £750,000 raised in equity. Those who scoffed, at the time, that fans ‘could never run a club’ and that the Pompey project would collapse in a little more than a few months are now left eating their words.
Harry Redknapp is seen by many – perhaps a little unfairly – as the principal architect of Pompey’s demise. When he was at Fratton Park, if administrator Andrew Andronikou’s somewhat dodgy estimates were to be believed, the club owed almost £140m. At the end of September 2014, however, Pompey announced it was finally debt-free; a final tranche of around £8m of legacy debts to former players had been cleared 18 months ahead of schedule.
’Arry, of course, is now the boss at Queens Park Rangers. On one Saturday afternoon back in September, around the same time that Pompey made the historic announcement, Fratton Park attracted more fans for a League Two fixture than Loftus Road could muster for QPR’s Premier League clash.
Would I swap places? Not on your life.
Because fan ownership is doing something right. What football needs now is more of it.