Portsmouth survived going into administration twice and being relegated three times in four seasons to re-emerge as a community-owned club. Now they have a billionaire owner and are chasing victory in the Checkatrade Trophy final but that community ethos remains, writes Adam Bate.
Portsmouth became a by-word for mismanagement in football and with good reason. This is still the only club to go into administration while playing in the Premier League. But while the lessons of their dramatic brush with death have not been heeded by others, Pompey are now playing their way up the divisions as a club with a very different approach to before.
They were relegated three times in four seasons at the start of the decade, twice going into administration. But the club was saved by its fans with community ownership helping to stabilise sufficiently to attract investment from Michael Eisner, the former Disney chief. Now debt free, Portsmouth are in the mix for a return to the Championship under Kenny Jackett.
If those on the outside might regard that rise as inevitable given Pompey’s famous fan base, those who lived through the battle to keep the club alive see it differently. As recently as 2013, the situation could hardly have seemed more bleak as the Pompey Supporters’ Trust sought to piece the club back together while relegation to the fourth tier was looming.
Ashley Brown, the chairman of the PST at the time, knows better than most just how precarious the club’s situation was throughout much of that period. “As someone heavily involved in the process who was speaking daily to the administrator, I know that it was just hours away from possibly disappearing forever,” he tells Sky Sports.
“The fans went through 18 months or longer where they were not sure whether there was even going to be a club for them to support in the future. The club was very close to liquidation on a number of occasions. I think some people don’t realise how close.”
The PST launched an acquisition scheme that a number of supporters – henceforth known as the ‘presidents’ of the club – invested in to help underwrite the ongoing costs for the administrator and stave off liquidation. “That was a particular low point,” says Brown.
“But there were so many low points. We went to a high court battle with the previous owners to ensure that we could retain Fratton Park. We jumped through countless hoops with the administrator, the governing body and various authorities just to get to a position where we could successfully bid to save the club.”
That happened in April 2013. Upon gaining control, the PST swiftly appointed Mark Catlin as the new chief executive. A qualified accountant with a track record in the game, it was a shrewd move. Six years on and still in the post, Catlin is now able to reflect on those crazy days and can only marvel at the extraordinary mess that he inherited.
“It was nearly the end of the season and there was so much to do,” he tells Sky Sports. “The club was on its knees. We had no contracted players. We had no kit deal. We had no retail operation, no shop. Nowhere to train. The university were letting us use a pitch when they could spare one, the navy were doing the same. We had no facilities.
“That’s the greatest crime really. There had been no investment into Fratton Park. It was under threat of capacity reductions because of health and safety issues. We inherited a total basket case of a club that needed rebuilding from top to bottom, but there were very little cash reserves and we had two months in which to do everything.
“It was a crazy time having to pull that together and such an achievement to get through it. We ran a successful season ticket campaign, but just getting the season tickets out, with a decrepit system for which the bills hadn’t been paid, was tough. Fortunately, the fans stayed loyal and the staff were brilliant. They rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in.”
Brown remains proud of how everyone rallied around. “We are a club that is famous for its fans and the community spirit was tremendous,” he says. “People very quickly got behind us. So many fans played a part in making sure that this great club survived and not just financially. The camaraderie with the people who were involved was fantastic.”
Of course, the small matter of getting results on the pitch was a different challenge and it is one that took time. “The first couple of years when the club was owned by the supporters it was very difficult on the field,” adds Brown. “Back then, it was only the bare bones of the football club it once was. The club had to completely rebuild.”
It was not straightforward – “You will find that people are more likely to complain about the quality of the pies when you’re at the bottom” – but the books started to balance and in 2017, community owned Portsmouth achieved promotion to League One under Paul Cook.
By that stage, there was already an awareness that investment would be needed to take the club forward. But at least that could be done from a position of strength after promotion.
Romantics might wonder why Portsmouth were prepared to put their faith in foreign investment after all that the club had been through. Eisner himself clumsily suggested Portsmouth were ‘like an abused child’ with understandable trust issues given a list of previous owners that included reprobates, rogues and outright criminals.
It required a wooing campaign by the new owner. “It was a difficult decision but I think the reason why Michael was able to win over the majority was because he was willing to engage, to speak and to be honest,” says Brown. “Even before he bought it, he came to the city and got to know the fans. He came to meetings and went to local pubs.
“I think that was a big thing with Pompey fans, that willingness to get out among the community. That’s what convinced us he was the right person. He has built a clear allegiance with the city, the community and the fans. That’s something that’s missing with a lot of owners, even the ones who do everything right financially.”
There have been no grand promises and that is why Catlin describes Eisner as the perfect fit. “The supporters know there is no hidden agenda,” he says. “They trust Michael. He said at the start that if they wanted a crazy owner who would throw money at it on the pitch then don’t vote for him. He just wanted to carry on the good work that was being done.
“So, while he might not want to invest a million in a player over a three-year contract, he might want to invest a million in an infrastructure project that brings in an extra £150,000 a year that can then increase the player budget self-sustainably. That’s what the whole model is about. It has to be self-sustaining. We want to bring long-term revenue into the club.”
Eisner’s commitment to engage has extended beyond the acquisition process. “It wasn’t purely a PR exercise, we have seen that continue,” says Brown. But at Portsmouth that is now non-negotiable. The culture has changed. “Mark Catlin not only engages with fans up and down the country at meetings but individually on the phone and by email,” he adds.
“It’s a constant process where the club listens to its fans.”
Catlin confirms that he gets regular texts and calls from supporters keeping him abreast of fan issues. He tries to steer clear of the message boards for fear of getting bogged down in it all but he uses Facebook and his wife lets him know what’s happening on Twitter. “It all gives me a good barometer of what is going on in the Pompey world,” he says.
But the beauty of this new Portsmouth is that this is not merely an ad hoc commitment to supporters. Thanks to the PST, such engagement is built into the very fabric of the club. “We put in a whole host of ways to get back and engage with fans and that continues to play right through the club from the executives to the players,” says Brown.
The Tony Goodall fans’ conference is an umbrella organisation with representatives from various supporter groups that meets every couple of months. Catlin attends alongside the commercial director Anna Mitchell and the chief operating officer Tony Brown.
Portsmth vs S’land
March 31, 2019, 2:15pm
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Then there are the ‘presidents’ who helped to save the club. That dialogue continues. There is the heritage and advisory board, set up as part of the takeover, that ensures the team’s colours cannot be changed and that Pompey can never move more than a certain distance away from Fratton Park in the future. And, of course, the PST itself continues.
“We may no longer be community owned but we are still a community club because we are the heartbeat of the city,” says Catlin. “We have kept that community ethos at our core. It is everything we are about. We have some great defined structures at the club and everything that we do is with the community in the forefront of our thoughts.
“We are just keen to keep engaged all the way along. That doesn’t mean that supporters force us to take decisions because they don’t. They are purely there in an advisory capacity and as a club that respects our fan base we do listen to them where it’s feasible.”
It all amounts to a remarkable turnaround for the one time basket case of English football. How far can they go by doing things the right way? Despite a dip in form in 2019, Pompey are up in third in League One and return to Wembley on Sunday, where they face Sunderland in the Checkatrade Trophy final. This is a club with perspective and the bigger picture is a positive one.
“We are in an amazing position, operating within parameters we can afford,” adds Catlin. “I would argue we are one of the best run clubs in the Football League and have been for six years now. We are absolutely debt free and progressing year on year. We have a great manager and a billionaire owner who is looking to invest in Fratton Park in a serious way.”
Serious investment but sensible investment.