Just over five years ago, Portsmouth went into administration for the second time in three seasons. They faced a winding-up petition by HMRC, and owed considerable sums in wages and bonuses to players and various other creditors. Having been relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2009-10 season – the nine points docked on account of their financial situation hardly helped – they were relieved of a further 10 points in February 2012 and duly demoted from the Championship. Following that swift second relegation, the entire professional playing squad left the club, and they were forced to start the 2012-13 campaign in League One with -10 points because of their ongoing fiscal struggles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they suffered a third relegation in four season, and so ended one of the most dramatic collapses in the the history of English football.
With Pompey now in the basement tier of the Football League, a deal was finalised for the Portsmouth Supporters' Trust to take control of the club in April 2013. After several years of owners who ranged from deeply questionable to utterly disastrous, Portsmouth were now the biggest fan-owned club in the land. That's where many outside observers stopped paying attention, and the collective shock of the south coast club's fall from grace began to fade. What followed, to the untrained eye, was three unremarkable seasons in League Two where the club was often mired in the lower-mid table. This season, Portsmouth have secured promotion with three games to go, which has at least got a few people talking about their endeavours on the pitch again.
Of course, the four years since Portsmouth resorted to fan ownership have seen massive achievements off the pitch. Not only is there enduring relief that supporters managed to raise the funds necessary to save the club, there is also huge gratitude from the community for the preservation of Fratton Park and the fact that – against the odds – the club are debt free. Portsmouth's new owners had repaid around £7 million to the club's creditors by September 2014, clearing their debts two years ahead of schedule and just over a year after taking over. They now represent a credit to the fan ownership model and an example of how it can be done successfully, though none of it could have been achieved without the highest attendances in League Two – with a season average consistently around 16,000 – and a crowd who have refused to dwindle week on week.
Portsmouth's success as a fan-owned club is exactly why reports of a potential takeover have raised eyebrows, at least among those who have continued to follow the club's progress. Even among those who only paid attention to the club's years in the wilderness out of grim fascination, the news that former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner wants to buy the club has piqued the curiosity once more. Not only is Eisner a businessman with a global profile, he is also a stupendously wealthy man who could look to furnish Portsmouth with some serious investment. It is a far cry from the dark days when Pompey were subject to covetous glances from a motley crew of Dubai real estate moguls, stockbrokers and disgraced businessmen, back when they were on the brink of dropping down to League Two.
While the potential of massive investment in the club might seem like a no-brainer, Eisner's interest in Portsmouth does throw up numerous important questions. First and foremost, the majority of Portsmouth fans have to be satisfied with his final offer, the details of which have not yet been made available to the public. There have been reports that Eisner plans to remove fan representation from the board, which given the views of fans polled by the Supporters' Trust may well be a sticking point. According to the Trust's official website, a poll on the potential takeover suggested that 86% of fans believe it is important that the Trust retains a share of ownership, 94% think it is important for the Trust to retain at least one seat on the board, and 95% would like to see a supporter consultation group established, at the very minimum.
In the case of a club owned by the community, there is also the fundamental question of whether any price is high enough to justify its sale. Especially for a club that has been driven to the precipice of oblivion by capricious owners and private interests, the value of having a club run by the fans, for the fans, cannot be overstated or easily equated to a sum of money. While there is no suggestion that Eisner himself has anything other than decent intentions for the club – with a reported net worth of a billion dollars in 2015, his business acumen also seems fairly sound – it would not be unprecedented for a decent owner to eventually sell to a terrible one. Once Portsmouth is back in private hands, it will be extraordinarily difficult to return it to fan ownership, and ultimately the supporters will have signed the club's future over to someone else.
With supporter-owned AFC Wimbledon currently doing well in League One, there is also evidence that the fan ownership model can work at the level to which Portsmouth are about to be promoted. That said, Wimbledon are a very different club to Portsmouth and operate in very different circumstances, making it difficult to draw direct comparisons between the two. While Wimbledon started from scratch in 2002 with infrastructure more suited to their position, Portsmouth have an old ground to maintain in the form of Fratton Park, and may need investment in their stadium and facilities that cannot realistically be furnished by the supporters. Theirs is a complex position, and their response to Eisner's final offer will be made with a whole host of future challenges in mind.
One man who has a fair grasp on those challenges is Colin Farmery, a spokesman for the club and fan of almost 50 years standing. He helped to run the communications campaign for the community bid that saw the Supporters' Trust take charge, was on the Trust board at the time of the takeover, and now works for the club as Head of Safeguarding and Inclusion. As such, he has seen the club's decline and resurrection from both an outsider and insider perspective, as he is keen to state when speaking to VICE Sports over the phone. While confidentiality agreements stop members of the Trust from talking about the details of Eisner's bid for the club, Colin does provide some insight into how fans and Trust members see the situation as things stand.
"Clearly, with Mr. Eisner, we have someone who is a credible potential owner," says Colin. "It's certainly a testament to the fan ownership system and the job that we've done at Portsmouth Football Club over the last four years, and there's been a huge amount of work that's gone into the club. When we first took over in 2013, what effectively we inherited was the husk of a football club, which had been hollowed out by the disasters of the previous five or six years. We were in a situation where we were almost starting from ground zero, really. It's probably fair to say that we underestimated how hard it would be to get out of League Two, but what we have managed to do in the last four years is put down some very solid foundations, clear our legacy debt early and make sure we own Fratton Park outright, as well as land to the north of the stadium which could be vital to the redevelopment of the ground.
"We've got a long-term lease on the training ground with the City of Portsmouth, we've invested over a million pounds in the facilities, and we've also raised a quarter of a million pounds for additional pitches at our training ground and academy through a crowdfunding campaign," Colin goes on. "Basically, we've done a huge amount of work to put down the foundations, and this season what we've seen is a lot of our plans coming to fruition. The football team have won promotion to League One, which is a fantastic achievement in itself, but we've done that off the back of a break-even budget and we've not been able to spend any more than we earn. We're a well run community club and, off the field, we're seeing the fruits of what we've sown, so I think it's no surprise that someone like Mr. Eisner is looking at Portsmouth as a pretty good investment opportunity at this stage."
So, if the club has achieved so much while run by its supporters, why is it now the time to cede control to a private overseas interest with no real emotional investment in Portsmouth? There are several considerations to take into account here, as Colin explains. "It's all very well when you're doing relatively well on the pitch as a fan-owned club," he says. "Portsmouth are still capable of attracting 16,000 or 17,000 fans in League One or League Two, but at the end of the day if Portsmouth ended up stagnating in the lower divisions I think we might very quickly see those gates go down, maybe to even less than 10,000. The fan ownership model could potentially become unsustainable, not because of fan ownership necessarily but because if we don't invest in the product we could potentially end up with a less successful team, which could drive attendances down."
Portsmouth fans proved themselves to be doggedly loyal even when they were in the League Two doldrums, though one might fairly counter that they cannot rely on that Blitz spirit forever. "The bottom line for me as a Pompey fan is that, historically, Portsmouth has always been a club that at the very least competes in the Championship, and tries to be in the top flight," Colin says. "We've won the FA Cup twice, we've won the league title twice and we've reached five FA Cup finals, so we are a relatively big club in terms of English football. You struggle to see how, in getting back to that level, the fan ownership model is going to generate the funds required to take Portsmouth into that again. That's not a criticism of fan ownership – far from it – and in fact it's more of an indirect criticism of the model that English football has more generally. For Portsmouth, though, we are where we are, and it's quite a fundamental choice the fans have to make."
Whatever the merits and drawbacks of fan ownership, this is more than just a philosophical crossroads for Portsmouth fans. "The question is not whether or not Portsmouth Football Club needs more investment, it does need more investment," Colin adds. "The other big challenge Pompey face is developing our infrastructure. Fratton Park has one stand which is 90 years old and another which is 80 years old, so to bring the stadium up to the standard required for an aspiring Premier League club – which most of our fans see us as – will require investment in the tens of millions of pounds. To make that kind of investment will almost inevitably require an adaptation of our current ownership model."
When considering Michael Eisner's offer, there will be immediate practical factors for Portsmouth fans to consider. While there has been a collective emotional investment in the fan ownership model, supporters will have to decide whether they can feasibly maintain and upgrade Fratton Park without some outside assistance. Ultimately, the benefit of Portsmouth being fan-owned as it stands is that those supporters will have the final say on the decision, and that they will be able to make themselves heard. Should Eisner successfully convince them to hand over the club, he will hopefully appreciate the time, love and effort they have poured into preserving Portsmouth, and so understand that he is the custodian of a club whose community represent its true heart and soul.