How Not To Run A Club: Portsmouth

Play up Pompey

It’s May 2008, the Players and Staff of Portsmouth Football Club are ascending the steps of Wembley toward the Royal box to lift the FA Cup, England’s most prestigious club trophy.

For Portsmouth and their fans, it was the culmination of a decade long roller-coaster ride, starting with administration in December 1998 and takeover by Milan Mandaric in May 1999. Mandaric was not a patient man and expected results almost instantly, the first of a succession of Managerial changes under his ownership came in December 1999, with Portsmouth struggling at the wrong end of the old Division One.

Alan Ball making way for Tony Pullis, long before Pullis’s heroics with Stoke City, Tony was tasked with making sure Portsmouth didn’t drop into England’s third tier. Despite Pullis ensuring exactly that, he was placed on leave during the 2000/01 Season. Tony would later explain it was down to poor relations with Mandaric, Pullis was replaced by Player/Manager Steve Claridge.

Doing so would prove to be a disastrous decision as Portsmouth once again languished at the bottom of Division One, come February 2001 it was Steve’s neck on the chopping block, this time the change in management was the catalyst for improved form and Portsmouth survived thanks to a final day victory over Barnsley, with Huddersfield failing to win their game.

The start of the 2001/02 season brought about more change and Mandaric’s demands for Portsmouth to improve and break into England’s top tier became ever more obvious. He brought in Harry Redknapp as Director of Football, Redknapp later wrote in his autobiography, Always Managing, regarding the contract he had signed.

“You ask anyone, I’ve never been great at negotiating my contracts, often I just signed a bit a paper, asked how much I’d be paid and when my first day was. The Director of Football contract I signed with Portsmouth was a bit of pay cut compared to managing, but it did have a rather nice bonus included. Mandaric was offering me 10% of the profit from player sales, to supplement the lesser salary”

Redknapp’s responsibility as Director of Football was purely to recruit the best players, within the budget, that also had the potential to be sold on for a tidy profit. First on Harry’s list was veteran playmaker Robert Prosnecki, typical ‘arry. Sign players that could turn a profit was his remit, and the first player brought in under Redknapp’s watch was a 32-year-old Midfielder, it would prove an inspired choice.

Prosnecki was praised at the end of the 2001/02 Season for saving Portsmouth from relegation to Division Two for the second time in as many seasons. His solitary goals against Stockport and Forest determining the destination of all three points, whilst a hat-trick against Barnsley stole two points from fellow relegation contenders. Ultimately Barnsley were relegated, and Portsmouth survived by a margin of four points.

One other player Harry signed that year was Peter Crouch from QPR. Redknapp confessed in his book that Manadaric wasn’t convinced by Crouch’s ability and was reluctant to make the deal.

“Harry, he’s got to be the worse footballer I’ve ever seen. He can’t run and he’s not strong enough for someone of his size”

Eventually, Harry twisted Milan’s arm and he opened his chequebook, Crouch moved to Portsmouth for £1m and proved Mandaric wrong instantly. His 18 goals that season played a massive part in Portsmouth’s survival too, with equalisers against Wolves, Wimbledon, Walsall and Burnley and game-winners against Sheffield Wednesday, Manchester City and Coventry.

Peter was moved on for a tidy profit shortly after the close of that very season, Aston Villa willing pay £5m, a £4m return on Mandaric’s original investment, minus Harry’s £200k commission. I know what you’re thinking £200k isn’t ten percent of £4m as promised in Redknapp’s contract. Unfortunately, by the time Crouch was sold Harry had become Pompey manager, Harry surrendered his position as Director of Football and had to sign a new contract, his percentage was reduced from ten down to five per cent of transfer profit, and he didn’t even realise until the commission from the Crouch sale was deposited.

This would both be a bone of contention between Redknapp and Mandaric, but also used as evidence in Harry’s favour in the now infamous Rosie47 Court Case, in which Mandaric and Redknapp were accused of financial crimes, Harry wouldn’t be convicted based on the defence that he just wasn’t clever enough to pull it off, his own words, not mine.

The 2002/03 Season represented Milan Mandaric’s 4th Season as Chairman, and he was starting to grow restless of Portsmouth inability to capitalise on his investment into the club. With Redknapp having a full season as manager ahead of him, Harry played the market well, as he always has done throughout his career, and brought in some great experienced players, mixed with some up and coming young talent.

Several of Harry’s acquisitions that Summer would prove both instrumental to Pompey’s future success, but also go on to have great individual careers. A 20-year-old Nigerian striker by the name of Yakubu Aiyegbeni was bought in on loan from Maccabi Haifa, Yakubu would later sign permanently for £4.75m, becoming one of Africa’s great footballing exports along the way.

Matthew Taylor from Luton and Vincent Pericard from Juventus completed the trio of U21’s to join the ranks, but it was the old guard that came with them that would play just as big a part. Paul Merson, Tim Sherwood, Arjan de Zeeuw and Shaka Hislop all joined on free transfers and at an average age of 33 years old between them, brought a lot of experience and a winning mentality.

A Few Sales Short of a Ship

The 2002/03 Division One Season would finish with Portsmouth top of the table, accumulating 98 points and scoring 97 goals, finally, Milan Mandaric got the return he wanted on his investment, Portsmouth would be playing Premier League football again for the first time in 15 years.

Harry Redknapp along with assistant Jim Smith guided Portsmouth to a respectable 13th place in their first year back in England’s top tier, Yakubu making good on his permanent switch from Maccabi, scoring 16 goals. The 2003/04 season is notable for Arsenal’s invincibles, but it almost didn’t happen. Pompey were 1-0 up against the Gunners thanks to former Spurs striker Teddy Sheringham, but it took a controversial penalty decision in Arsenal’s favour to level the game and maintain their undefeated streak.

The 2004/05 season was where it all started to go wrong under Mandaric’s leadership, despite a good start to the season and a famous 2-0 victory over Manchester United, a boardroom bust-up between Milan and Harry over the appointment of Velimir Zajec as Director of Football, forced Redknapp to walk out on Pompey in the November. The teams form dipped drastically, only just escaping relegation back to Division One with a few games to go. Incidentally, Redknapp joined rivals Southampton shortly after leaving Portsmouth, they were not so lucky and were relegated after West Brom completed their great escape by beating Portsmouth 2-0 on the final day.

Alan Perrin, the man who replaced Redknapp, failed to get Portsmouth firing and on November 24th 2005, a year to the day after Harry left, Perrin was sacked with just four wins in 20 games. Sensationally it was Redknapp that would return to Fratton Park, but it’s no coincidence that Mandaric sold the club barely a month later to Alexandre Gaydemak, the clubs finances had been hugely mismanaged by Mandaric, with the club owing nearly £60m to various financiers. Alexandre became the new guarantor for the existing loans and immediately bankrolled a Winter transfer window that saw the arrival of nine new players.

Amongst the new arrivals was Pedro Mendes, who along with new club record signing Benjani helped Portsmouth escape the relegation zone on the penultimate day of the season, losing just once in nine games.

With Gaydemak’s financial clout, Harry was able to put together a very competitive squad for the 06/07 season, signing veteran players that otherwise would have been outside of the previous wage structure, Harry signed David James, Glen Johnson, Sol Campbell and Andy Cole. This season would also see the beginnings of a now legendary partnership between manager Redknapp and Midfield maestro Niko Kranjcar, Kranjcar convinced to join Pompey by one Robert Prosnecki.

Portsmouth finished in the top half of the table for the first time ever in the Premier League, just 2 points behind Bolton and the Europa League spots. Nwankwo Kanu finished the year as the clubs top goalscorer with 12 goals, another of Redknapp’s veteran signings during the Summer, the former Arsenal man signed a one year deal initially but would go on to make 120 League appearances over five years for Portsmouth prior to retirement.

We know how the 2008 season ended, with Pompey lifting the FA Cup, and much like Portsmouth’s triumphant Cup run, the stock market crash of 2008 took many by surprise, not least one Alexandre Gaydemak.

Gaydemak was forced to remove all funding from Portsmouth as a result and in a bid to pay back creditors, the club were punished twice over, having to sell their most valuable assets and highest earners. With the club now £68m in debt, and with no way for Alexandre to pose as guarantor on the loans, he was forced to sell.

The Billionaire With no Money

Alexandre brokered a deal to settle the clubs debts in cash and relinquish control of Portsmouth to Sulaiman Al-Fahim, an Abu Dhabi property developer who claimed to have wealth nearing £3 Billion. Al Fahim came to Gaydemak’s attention as spokesperson for Sheik Mansour, who in the same Summer had purchased Manchester City, it’s thought Portsmouth was of consideration by Mansour, but the attraction of owning a club in a busy Business hub proved a more tempting prospect, oh what might have been for Pompey.

The deal to buy out Portsmouth for £70m, with Gaydemak only receiving £2m after debt settlement, was agreed and signed in July 2008, but when the source of Sulaiman funds started to become unclear, the deal remained on hold until he could make the first payment of £5m. Sulaiman finally made this payment and became the official owner of Portsmouth in March of 2009, by the time this had happened though Redknapp had left Pompey again and many of the clubs star players had been sold on, with the ones that remained going weeks sometimes whole months without being paid.

It didn’t get any better for Portsmouth either, as Sulamain was found out to be a fraud and was arrested for stealing £5m from his wife to make the initial down payment on his purchase of the club. Prior to being sent to Prison, Al Farhim was able to broker another deal to get Portsmouth the finances it desperately needed to not only stave off the administrators but to stop the club being liquidated altogether. Falcondrone a business registered in the British Virgin Islands and financed by Ali al-Faraj had little interest in owning or running a Football Club, however, the club also owned the deeds to developmental land around the ground, which was of interest. Al-Faraj struck a deal with Al Farhim and Gaydamak to purchase the club and thus the land surrounding it, Gaydamak walking away with a paltry £1 after settling the existing debts after interest.

Okay, so now Portsmouth have a stable and well-financed owner once again, their run of bad luck has come to an end? Wrong, it would turn out that al-Faraj’s wealth was far less than he claimed, his purchase of the club was partially financed by a £17m bridging loan from Balram Chanrai’s Portpin Ltd. Needless to say, al-Faraj was unable to keep up the repayments to Balram, as well as run a Football club and develop land and so defaulted on the loan.

His company, Falcondrone and therefore Portsmouth FC now belonged to Balram, Chanrai immediately put the club into administration in an attempt to re-finance its £135m debts and despite on the field success, in which Portsmouth incredibly reached the 2010 FA Cup final, Portsmouth were relegated to the Championship. Rubbing salt into the wound The FA sanctioned Pompey with a nine-point penalty and UEFA prohibited Portsmouth from taking their rightful spot in the 2010/11 renewal of the Europa League as FA Cup runners-up to Champions League qualifying Chelsea.

Portsmouth did well to survive the Championship starting with such a disadvantage, unsurprisingly they occupied the bottom position for a number of weeks, before finally finishing 17th. The squad had gone through a massive overhaul, gone are the days of Crouch, Defoe, Lassana Diarra and Kevin-Prince Boateng, replaced by David Nugent and Greg Halford. Yet again it wasn’t just the squad and management team that saw big changes.

Antonov Trouble

There were just 213 days between Balram Chanrai completing the Football League’s fit and proper persons test in October 2010, and him selling Portsmouth to Vladimir Antonov in June 2011. Portsmouth fans were growing tired of the club being palmed off to the next incompetent businessman, they’d already been through two fake Sheiks and busted banker, now the debt collector was handing the club over to a Russian gangster, if it hadn’t of actually happened, nobody would have believed the story.

Vladimir Antonov had a shady past in the eastern blocks banking administration, that past caught up with him very quickly after becoming Pompey Chairman. A European wide arrest warrant was serviced on November 2011 at Antonov’s London Office, where he faced allegations of asset stripping of a Lithuanian Bank that had gone into administration a week earlier, his company CSI also went bust not long after and HMRC was knocking on Fratton Parks door to settle a £1.6m tax bill. The club went into administration for the second time in two years and there were genuine fears that this time it would result in full liquidation, the financial situation was far worse than the administrators feared with club owing in excess £160m to creditors, players, staff and trades.

The 2010/11 season ended in relegation to League One and a 10-point penalty for going into administration, which was appealed and dispensed until December 2012.  Balram Chanrai once again attempted to buy the club but pulled out shortly after a Fan Ownership proposal was tabled, led by former Chief Executive Peter Storie. Upon relegation to League One the entire playing staff left the club, having not been paid for close to 6 months, with no players, no staff and no money The Pompey Supporters Trust officially took ownership of the club prior to the 2011/12 season.

Heart and Soul

Portsmouth did their best to attract players and a manager to the club, but on a fan owned budget of contributions and sponsorship’s they were only able to bring in the best Non-League had to offer, and fill the squad out with their academy players. For those that played League One football that year, Pompey’s demise was the best thing that ever happened to them, for the supporters less so. Just 4 years previously they’d lifted the FA Cup and played at some of the biggest stadiums in Europe, and now they were watching their beloved team get beaten 5-0 by Swindon.

Pompey went on a record 23 game winless streak that season, the players just simply unable to compete at that level. For some, it was the first time playing professionally and for others, it was the first time they’d played anyone over the age of 18. Pompey finished rock bottom of League One and for the first time in their history, Portsmouth FC would be relegated to the fourth tier of English Football.

In a space of 15 years the club had experienced more highs and lows than most could expect in a lifetime, more bad luck than anyone could wish upon their worst enemy, yet somewhat poetically one thing remained the same and it was that same thing that ultimately saved them from extinction altogether; the fans.

The one group of people who never stopped believing in the club, followed them with as much heart and soul as any group of supporters out there. Some might call the Pompey faithful the best supporters in the world.

Bouncebackability

After five long years in League Two, Portsmouth finally found themselves promoted back into League One as Champions in 2017, in the off-season the PST (Pompey Supporters Trust) voted in favour of accepting a bid by former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, acting on behalf of a venture capital firm Tornate Company. Eisner’s proposal was open and honest, in which Tornate plan to invest heavily, help the club back into the Premier League whereby the clubs value will increase exponentially and be sold, ethically, for a huge profit.

The club also signed a three-year kit deal with Nike, changed the club crest and brought in 15 new players either transfers or loans. No surprise then that they finished 8th just five points outside the playoffs.

They’ve started this season in fine fettle too, without loss in their first five games and currently third in the table, could we be witnessing a revival of the south coasts blue brand?

Only time will tell.