“We’ve retained the FA Cup for the most number of years consecutively” is a common phrase among the supporters of Portsmouth FC, one of the oldest football clubs in England. Nicknamed Pompey, the club has won a number of major honours in English Football. They were crowned the champions twice and have also been FA Cup champions twice. The club is from the South Coast of England and they contest the South Coast Derby against Southampton. The aforementioned phrase is in relation to the club’s FA Cup win in 1939. After that the FA Cup was temporarily stopped owing to the Second World War. So the club had retained the trophy throughout this period.
Portsmouth enjoyed its most glorious days in the period just after the Second World War winning the league back to back in 1948-49 and 1949-50. The club is one of the five teams to win back to back leagues since World War 2. This period was the highlight in the club’s long history. The club has had mixed fortunes ever since winning just one major trophy of note, the FA Cup in 2008. The period after 2008 saw the club sink to its lowest ebb, leaving one of England’s oldest football clubs on the brink of extinction.
Portsmouth FC highs
Celebrating their Golden Jubilee, Portsmouth won their first ever league title in 1948-49 manager Bob Jackson. Prior to the start of the season, Portsmouth were tipped to be the first team to win the FA Cup and League double. However they were knocked out of the FA cup in the semifinals by an inspired Leicester City. They still managed to win the league in spectacular fashion. This was followed by another league triumph in the 1949-50 season once again managed by Bob Jackson. These two titles remain as the only top flight titles won by the south coast club.
In these two seasons, the club gained a reputation for being a dominant force beating teams with relative ease. In the 1948-49 the club made Fratton Park a fortress winning 18 of the 21 home games and drawing the other three. However they lost 9 times away from home. The club also had the most goals scored and conceded the fewest number of goals in the league across the season.
Peter Harris was the club’s top scorer with 22 goals while Ike Clarke, Jack Froggatt, Douggie Reid and Len Philipps scored more than 15 goals each in a memorable season for the club. They followed it up with another league success in the 1949-50. They secured the league after beating Aston Villa 5-1 on the final day. Once again Peter Harris, Ike Clarke, Jack Froggatt and Douggie Read scored more than 15 goals apiece with Clarke leading the side with 20 goals scored. They were a force to reckon under the management of Bob Jackson during that period.
After these wins, the club slipped into mediocrity and remained oscillating between the top three divisions of the Football League. It wasn’t till the appointment of Harry Redknapp the club re-emerged as a respectable top flight side. Harry Redknapp, in his second spell as the manager managed to bring in players like Peter Crouch, Jermaine Defoe, Sylvain Distin, John Utaka, Nmankwo Kanu, David James etc.
With such an experienced set of players, Portsmouth were slowly forging their re-entry as a top side. Portsmouth won the FA Cup beating Cardiff City at Wembley thanks to a Nmankwo Kanu goal. Pompey also managed to overcome English giants Manchester United in the FA Cup run in. They followed their FA Cup win with another final appearance where they lost to Chelsea, courtesy a Didier Drogba goal. However this promising period faded in no time and the club went on to reach new lows and somehow managed to get back on track.
The 2007-08 season has to be the most memorable one for the club in the recent past. After a commendable showing in league they ended up as FA Cup Champions. Portsmouth proved to be a real threat for the top EPL sides. With David James as goalkeeper, the dependable Sylvain Distin forming a partnership with the legendary Sol Campbell at the heart of the defence, the club had a solid defensive base. Fullback Glen Johnson with his marauding runs added a new dimension to the attack. Lassana Diarra and Niko Kranjcar dictating the game from the midfield and with the efficiency of Milan Baros and Nmankwo Kanu, the Portsmouth team had a solid first team.
The arrivals of Benjani and Defoe provided a boost to the squad. The club went on to win the FA Cup mainly due to its defensive solidarity. In their 6 FA Cup matches the club scored just 7 times and conceding just one goal against Plymouth. They defeated English Champions Manchester United in the quarterfinals thanks to a Kanu goal. Nmanwko Kanu was the most decisive player scoring the winners in the quarters, semifinals and the finals. They faced Cardiff City in the finals with Kanu scoring the winner. It was a memorable season and what followed that is story of shock and despair to the fans who hadn’t expected things to change so quicky.
Portsmouth FC financial struggles
Founded by John Brickwood in 1898, Portsmouth entered the Football League since in 1899. The club has always been associated with financial issues regularly in the last 50 years. In November 1976, the club found itself needing to raise £25,000 to pay off debts and to avoid bankruptcy. With players having to be sold to ease the club’s financial situation, and no money available for reinforcements, Portsmouth were forced to appoint an inexperienced coach, Ian St John, and signed inexperienced young players.
Consequently, they were relegated to the Fourth Division in 1978. Portsmouth were promoted back to third division in 1980, and in the 1982–83 season they became the champions of the Third Division, getting promoted back to the second tier. Under Alan Ball Portsmouth finally succeeding in getting promoted in 1986–87 after failing to do so in the earlier seasons. By the middle of the 1987–88 season, the club found itself in a financial mess and after poor league performances Portsmouth were relegated to the Second Division.
The summer of 1988 saw chairman John Deacon sell the club to London-based businessman Jim Gregory. However the summer of 1998–99 saw financial problems trouble the club, and in December 1998 Portsmouth as expectedly went into administration. US businessman Milan Mandarić saved the club by taking control of it in May 1999, and the new chairman immediately started investing. The club managed to create stability in the next years. The club’s centenary 1998-99 season was sadly a season to forget.
The fall for Portsmouth
Sustained stability from the start of the millennium culminated with the FA Cup triumph in 2008. But what turned out after is a tale of tragedy and disaster. In the season prior to the FA Cup triumph the club had managed to finish in a respectable ninth. The club had England players like Sol Campbell, Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch. Harry Redknapp had assembled a squad with the players being paid astronomical wages. They followed the previous up by winning the FA cup and finishing eighth in the league.
The club had progressed really well and the fans were looking upon the club’s ambitions before disaster struck. Harry Redknapp was slowly transforming a perennially low English club to a team which can have European ambitions. However he spent a reckless amount of money under Russian owners. When the Russian money stopped flowing, the club was forced to sell their top players. Russian owners were forced to sell the club to an Arab businessman Sulaiman Al Fahim in 2009.
Prior to the start of the 2009-10 season, many players left the club and the players who stayed on were overpaid. The club’s stars like Niko Kranjcar, Sylvain Distin, Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch all departed for greener pastures. The club’s finances had hit the rock bottom and it was reported that the club hadn’t paid salaries to the players and the non-playing staff. There was another change of ownership at the club just three months after the previous owners purchased the club. Ali Al Faraj and a consortium took over the club and Avram Grant returned to the club as Director of Football.
Al Faraj agreed a deal with Al Fahin to stake control 90% major holding via BVI registered company Falcondrone. Al Fahim had control over the remaining 10%. But the club was placed on a transfer embargo due to financial problems and the players had not been paid their salaries yet. Grant subsequently took over as the manager. The club was now in administration. By December 2009, the players had not been paid for two months and the club announced that the players will be paid late on January 2010. Their financial difficulties and the failure to pay the players made HM Revenue and Customs to file a petition against the club which docked the club 9 points in the EPL. Coupled with poor league performances the club ended up getting relegated.
During the 2009–10 season, Thai owner Balram Chainrai declared that Portsmouth were approximately £135 million in debt. So to protect the club from liquidation, Chainrai placed the club into administration on 26 February 2010, and the club appointed Andrew Andronikou, Peter Kubik and Michael Kiely of accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young to run the club. But the club reached the FA Finals only to lose to Chelsea. Reaching the FA Cup final meant the club qualified for the Europa League.
But owing to the poor finances, the club was barred from playing in the league. Russian Vladimir Antonov took over the club from Chainrai. On 23 November 2011, a Europe-wide arrest warrant was issued for Portsmouth owner Vladimir Antonov by Lithuanian prosecutors as part of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at Lithuanian bank Bankas Snoras, which was 68% owned by Antonov and had gone into administration earlier. Antonov was subsequently in London on 24 November.
On 29 November 2011, Antonov stepped down as the chairman of Portsmouth after his company CSI entered administration. In the first weeks of 2012, Portsmouth were awarded with a winding up petition by HMRC for over £1.6 million in unpaid taxes. Reports from administrators PKF in April 2012 revealed that Portsmouth owed £58 million with £38 million being owed to UHY Hacker Young, £10.5 million investment to Vladimir Antonov’s CSI remained outstanding, players were due £3.5 million in wages and bonuses for the last two seasons, while £2.3 million was owed to HMRC and, additionally, £3.7 million was owed for general trade.
On 21 April, Portsmouth were relegated from the Championship after a 2–1 loss to Derby County, the first time in 30 years that the club had played at that level. Following Pompey’s relegation, the entire playing squad left the club joining other teams, with the final player, long serving Liam Lawrence, leaving on 10 August 2012. Portsmouth started the 2012–13 season with a 10 point deduction after being told by the Football League that they were allowed into League One with strict financial controls.
Despite the penalty not being immediately applied, it was confirmed in December 2012. On 19 April 2013, Portsmouth exited administration when the Pompey Supporters’ Trust (PST) deal to buy the club was completed. Following Pompey’s second relegation in two seasons, Guy Whittingham was appointed head coach on a permanent basis with a one-year contract. Portsmouth sold over 10,000 season tickets for the 2013–14 season, a record for any League Two club. The club managed to steady the ship and this new ownership gave some much needed stability to the club.
On a historic announcement on 29 September 2014, the club was able to declare itself debt-free after paying back all creditors and legacy payments to ex-players. The news came 18 months after the PST took control of the club. The above period was masked by difficulties on and off the field. Managers were constantly changed and successive relegation had a deafening blow on the club. The club managed to stay in the English League two for three straight seasons.
In the 2016-17 the club managed to win the English League two and the club will play in the English League One in the upcoming season after winning the English League Two. By winning the English League Two, Portsmouth became the fifth team to win all tiers of English League Football after Preston, Wolves, Burnley and Sheffield United. Former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner completed the takeover of the club on May 21,2017. He should hopefully bring Portsmouth back into the footballing map and to a place where they truly belong.
The club’s tales gives us two things. The first one being how poor management can drastically change a club’s fortunes in a short period of time and the second one being how fans can influence the game. Portsmouth would have been extinct by now if not for the fans. The fans had to witness the club’s decline with dismay and shock. They saw the team they loved, the team they adored getting crumble into pieces and becoming a mere shadow of what they were.
But the good thing is they found a way to stop it, which was to take over the club themselves. Portsmouth have somewhat steadied their boat and are now debt free and they should all this to the efforts of the fans and the supporters who ultimately form the backbone of the team. Football is a sport which is nothing without fan support and this heartwarming story of the club’s fans preventing the extinction of the club and also developing it is a tale to behold in the beautiful game.