Ross Bramble takes a look at the tumultuous history of Portsmouth FC, and why the fan-run club can be cautiously optimistic as to what the future holds with the latest sale approval now in the books.
* * *
Since the turn of the decade, Portsmouth FC have been held up to the footballing community as the sport’s “worst case scenario”. Abusive takeover after abusive takeover, player sale after player sale, relegation after relegation, grand old Pompey were sent in to an almost fatal downward spiral in the wake of Sulaiman Al Fahim’s takeover in 2009. The 2008 FA Cup winners sank from the heady heights of European adventures in Milan to the dark depths of a League Two relegation scrap in the space of just five years.
If any of that had left Portsmouth fans feeling morbid, however, you wouldn’t have known it once inside the walls of Fratton Park. The stadium truly is their church – even in the face of adversity, Portsmouth’s famously passionate, community-spirit fan base rallied behind their players, hoping beyond hope that the good times would come again. Now, after four years in League Two, the clouds seem to be rolling by; despite staying top of the table for less than 45 minutes all season, Pompey are leaving the division as champions – and there’s plenty of cause for cautious optimism.
Of those two words, though, the former is the more prevalent. It was caution that greeted the news of former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner’s planned takeover on the south coast. It was caution that greeted his plans at the fans forum, hosted in Portsmouth’s Guildhall. Even now, caution is the buzz-word when Pompey fans speak of their return to League One.
Much-loved manager Paul Cook, who lead the blues to the top of League Two, departed the south coast earlier in the summer to take the reigns at Wigan Athletic. Kenny Jackett, who achieved so much success in League One across his time with Millwall and Wolves, will be the man to take up his mantel. For most clubs, a new manager, a new owner and a new league would look a daunting task – for Portsmouth, however, it’s an exciting acid test.
For a fan-run club that has been so regularly scolded by millionaire takeovers, Michael Eisner’s acquisition of Portsmouth is a watershed moment for the club. Eisner underwent stern questioning at the fans forum in the Portsmouth Guildhall, standing up against a grilling that, at other clubs, may have looked aggressive. Fans questioned his dedication, the sustainability of his vision, his knowledge of football. To his credit, Eisner weathered the storms with a warm aura of understanding – the American investor recognised the tortured history of Portsmouth and wasn’t looking to make those mistakes himself.
Eisner has made it clear that his administration will not pump hundreds of millions in to the club, saddling it with unassailable debts and obtuse wage structures. His investments will be made off the field, more than on – in training facilities, stadium improvements, youth development. Portsmouth will not rise from the EFL as they rose the Premier League standings in 2009; they will do things “properly”, economically, and with one eye on where they came from.
For many, the jury is still out. Cautious optimism is the flag many have united beneath – but if Michael Eisner is a man of his word, and Kenny Jackett can cast his spell as he did at Millwall and Wolves, Portsmouth FC may just be on the brink of a long overdue second-coming.
Follow Ross on Twitter at @rossbramble