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Portsmouth Resurfacing: Can Pompey Rise to the Top Once More?

Having dropped from the Premier League to League Two in four seasons, Portsmouth are about to take a pop at promotion. We spoke to a former player about their chances.

by Will Magee
12 May 2016, 4:11pm

PA Images

While many football clubs have suffered from financial mismanagement in the past, few can claim to have gone into administration twice in two years. Unfortunately, come early 2012, that's exactly the situation Portsmouth found themselves in. In February 2010, Pompey became the first Premier League side to fall into the hands of administrators, with debts of up to £135 million. The nine-point penalty they incurred as a result condemned them to certain relegation.

This was barely two years after the club had won the FA Cup, while UEFA Cup games against Wolfsburg and AC Milan were fresh in supporters' memories. Come October 2010, Portsmouth issued a statement claiming that the club was on the verge of liquidation and close to being "closed down" entirely. This particular cataclysm was avoided by some last-minute wrangling between main creditor Alexandre Gaydamak and new owner Balram Chainrai, and the club came out of administration hours after a deal was struck.

Though that might have seemed like the end of a particularly dark period in Pompey's history, things were only about to get worse for the south coast club.

On 1 June 2011, Russian businessman Vladimir Antonov completed a takeover of Portsmouth through Convers Sport Initiatives. On 23 November, a Europe-wide arrest warrant for Antonov was issued by Lithuanian prosecutors as part of an investigation into asset stripping at Bankas Snoras, a national bank under his ownership that had gone into temporary administration. Latvian authorities then suspended operations at another of his banks, Latvijas Krājbanka, for similar reasons. He soon found himself arrested in London, and on bail.

After Lithuanian prosecutors made moves to freeze Antonov's assets, Convers Sport Initiatives went into administration. Antonov resigned as Portsmouth chairman, and by January 2012 Portsmouth were issued with a winding-up petition by HMRC over £1.6 million of unpaid taxes.

This is where the real disaster began for Pompey. On 17 February, they went into administration once more. 10 points were deducted from the club, and they were duly relegated from the Championship. Portsmouth now owed considerable sums in wages and bonuses to the players, as well as collective debts elsewhere.

READ MORE: We Spoke To The Charlton Fans Leading A Revolt Against Their Club's Owners

Following their relegation, the entire professional playing squad left the club. They were forced to start the League One season on minus 10 points owing to ongoing financial troubles, and with barely a team to field. By the end of the campaign, Portsmouth had been relegated again. They had sunk like a stone to the bottom tier of the Football League and – unless a drastic solution could be found for their fiscal situation – they would soon vanish altogether.

At this point, there was only one thing for it. The club was in desperate need of a lifeline, and it was thrown one by the fans. With liquidation looking like a distinct possibility, the Pompey Supporters' Trust entered into talks to secure fan ownership. Having raised a phenomenal amount of money, an out-of-court settlement delivered the club into the hands of the supporters. Portsmouth became the biggest fan-owned club in the country, and plans to restore the club to its rightful place could begin.

While their first couple of seasons in League Two produced little to celebrate on the pitch, the club did at least manage to avoid relegation to the Conference. Results gradually improved as the team managed to shake off their ingrained losing habit, and Portsmouth stabilised behind the scenes. Attendances remained steady at around 16,000 despite limited success, making Fratton Park by far the best-attended ground in the fourth tier.

Paul Cook has helped to turn things around at Portsmouth // PA Images

This season, with veteran manager Paul Cook at the helm, Portsmouth have secured a sixth-placed finish and a play-off semi-final against Plymouth Argyle. They could be on the brink of attaining League One football, and their first promotion since 2003. If Portsmouth can indeed resurface from the murky depths of irresponsible ownership, it will represent a huge victory for the supporters who have fought so hard to keep their club alive.

When I speak to Johnny Ertl, a spokesman for the Supporters' Trust, the sense of optimism regarding the club's future is palpable. A former Austria international who made 88 appearances for Pompey between 2012 and 2015, Johnny was invited to join the Trust when he retired from professional football last summer. Personally affected by the club's plight during his time on the south coast, he was more than happy to give something back.

READ MORE: Harry Redknapp Joins The Central Coast Mariners, And It's A Total Disaster

"It was very difficult to handle back then" Johnny says of the club's battle to stave off liquidation. "Two relegations in three years was very difficult, and the people who suffer most are the fans. We had owners from abroad, they didn't know much about the town and everything else. Now, the people running the club really do care about it. That's the most important thing."

Johnny admits that the transition to fan ownership presented its own challenges. "It was difficult, too, when we came out of administration," he says. "The perspective at the club changed a lot. We thought that we needed to get promoted as soon as possible, but we weren't ready. We have learnt a lot over the last three years, and you can see the progress we've made so far.

"We are fan owned, and one of the few clubs in the Football League who can say that. That's really a great achievement. We have our own training ground, the stadium belongs to us. Now we're working on different goals, like how we can really improve everything within the club at this point."

Johnny Ertl now works with the Pompey Supporters' Trust // PA Images

Having recently spoken to AFC Wimbledon supporters about the ability of the fan ownership model to work in the third tier, I ask Johnny whether he thinks Portsmouth can continue to thrive as a supporter-owned club should they attain promotion. "The fan-owned model absolutely works in League One, but the question is whether or not it works in the Championship," he tells me.

"There's a huge leap between the leagues, a huge gap. That's why we're working behind the scenes to create a future investment model for the club. In the Championship – and we've got to be realistic, that's where a club like ours needs to be – there's a gap, and we need to figure out how to close this gap in wages and everything else. We can only raise so much money, and it won't be enough to be a regular in the Championship.

"Other clubs at this level don't have such huge support. We really are a big fish in a small pond in League Two. We will be okay in League One, but in the Championship we might find it harder. We need to work together behind the scenes, with the fans, to make a model that can be sustainable and successful.

READ MORE: Passion, Progression And The Future Of Fan Ownership At AFC Wimbledon

"This is the key. We need our heritage to be protected. With something like the 'Hull Tigers' or Cardiff changing their colours, we don't want that. We are in a good position as a fan-owned club, and we'll always want a say in what is going on."

Judging by current crowds, Portsmouth would be somewhere in the middle of the Championship attendance table. If fans expect the club to compete in the second tier, Pompey may have to compromise on fan ownership to some extent. However, there seems to be little appetite for handing the club back into the hands of a multimillionaire. The club's future is dependent on the Supporters' Trust striking a balance between maintaining a majority hold on the club, and seeking responsible investment from the outside. Still, that's a problem for the future. In the present, promotion is the priority.

"Yes, definitely!" Johnny replies, when I ask if he thinks Pompey can succeed in the playoffs. "We're hopeful, we're hoping we can achieve promotion. If we didn't think so, that would be wrong. We have high expectations as a football club, we have a really strong side, and I think promotion is definitely achievable," he says.

Portsmouth have come a long way since the Supporters' Trust took over. There has been a momentous change at the club, a transition from imprudent spending and unmanageable debt to sound, collective decision making among the fans. Unlike the disastrous regimes of the past, the Supporters' Trust is directly accountable to those who care most about the club. If they can walk the tightrope between accountability and external investment, there's no reason that Pompey cannot rise to the top once more.

For more information on the Pompey Supporters' Trust, follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

@W_F_Magee

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