Tag Archives: Football League

We’re all going on a League One tour

Entrance to Fratton Park (Frogmore Road) - geo...

Entrance to Fratton Park (Frogmore Road) - geograph.org.uk - 1266502 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It probably hasn’t escaped many people’s attention that my beloved Pompey were relegated last week, from the Championship to League One – the third tier of English football, for the first time in my lifetime.

The funny thing is, for many clubs you would expect it to be a heartbreaking event. But where Pompey are concerned, it’s very much the lesser of many evils. Firstly, it does represent a chance to clear the decks after our recent financial problems; it might make us more tempting to potential owners; and it might also enable the Supporters Trust to push forward their plans for a fans buyout.

The sad thing is, that it isn’t such a big deal to many of us long-term Pompey fans, as we are well used to ups and downs. For most of us, in any case, supporting a team is not about how well they are doing. Support is exactly that – you get behind the team come thick or thin – not just in the last ten minutes when they are 3-0 up. Looking at the potential fixture list next season – if Pompey survive the summer – we face games at some pretty interesting places. I’m hoping that Exeter stay up so I can take my Devonian girlfriend to an away game in the West Country! But hopefully it will be an opportunity to remind ourselves, and hopefully other people, what football should be about. Having a good time and getting behind your team, and not having to take out a second mortgage to do it.

The plight of Pompey has re-affirmed, for me, that free market philosophy and football just do not mix. Financial fair play rules are a good start, but are they strict enough? And will the laughable fit and proper persons test be seriously overhauled? In the space of five years, Portsmouth has been owned by the son of a Russian-Israeli arms dealer, the worlds only skint Arab tycoon, another Arab tycoon who did not even exist, a Hong Kong businessman who ‘claims’ to have loaned the club £17m, for which no proof has ever been proferred, and finally another billionaire Russian who was arrested when his Lithuanian bank collapsed. All of these people were found to be fit to own a football club by the FA, the Premier League and the Football League.

The problem is, even if Pompey go down the Trust route, the club would never have the muscle to compete all the time every other club is rolling in it – hardly a fair playing field. And the even bigger problem there is the indifference of most of the British public to football finance. Everyody seems to think that it is somehow our fault that Pompey have gone bust. If it is anybody’s fault, it definitely isn’t the fans. The financial culture of football makes it possible that any club could fall into the wrong hands and go to the wall – it’s almost random as to which. The ‘I’m alright Jack’ thing is endemic amongst other clubs supporters, until it affects them. And even clubs that have had problems in the past – Southampton, Brighton – tend to have short memories as soon as things start to pick up again. It’s naive, it’s narrow-minded, and it’s wrecking football.

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The History of Fratton Park

English: Entrance to Fratton Park football sta...

Much as actors can become typecast, one of the inherent risks of a career as a historian is that you end up becoming typecast in the same manner. Of course, specialising in a subject is one thing, but on the other hand, pursuing some slightly diverse fields do show flexibility, and not only that, it keeps things interesting.

With that in mind, and inspired by recent developments with Pompey, I have been giving increasing attention to the feasibility of writing a comprehensive history of Fratton Park, and Pompey’s traumatic search for a new home. I’ve always been quite interested in football stadia – not just in a technological sense, but in the context of social history too. And if you’re looking to study the history of football stadia, Fratton Park probably gives as interesting a case as any.

The plot of land off Goldsmith avenue was originally purchased in 1898, soon after the clubs foundation. In the manner of most late 19th century grounds, a pavillion housed the dressing rooms and offices, and the other three stands were open terracing. The pitch was surrounded by a quaint white picket fence. The first main stand at Fratton was in the south west corner, the origins of the famous mock tudor entrance that is still there today. At the time, the ground was bounded by houses in Carisbrooke Road and Specks Lane, but was open on the north and west sides – parts of Portsmouth were still relatively open at the time, given that urban growth had not completely taken hold. The massive increase in shipbuilding in the dockyard, and the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-45, probably precipitated the building of more houses, which in turn hemmed in the ground. But this was certainly not unusual for the time.

In 1929 the present South Stand was built, by the famous architect Archibald Leitch, and is one of the few examples left of his work. The South Stand featured a small paddock, partly sunk below pitch level, and an upper tier housing the directors box. Sadly, the famous iron lattice work on the facade of the upper tier was covered over in the 1980’s. In 1934 the current North Stand was built, mainly by the income raised from the sale of defender Jimmy Allen. A tier of seating was placed on top of the North stand terracing, which was left largely uncovered. At some point a basic roof was placed over the Fratton End. And that is pretty much how the ground stayed for almost 50 years. In the so-called ‘boom years’ of English football, an unbelievable 51,000 packed into Fratton Park to watch an FA Cup Quarter Final with Derby County in 1949 – still a record attendance.

In the mid 1950’s, the club took the remarkably forward step of constructing one of the first pre-fabricated concrete structures in the country. The ‘old’ Fratton end – as we call it nowadays! – was a remarkable structure, and subject to quite a bit of interest in the architectural community. Unusually, the upper tier provided extra standing space, on top of the existing terraced banking. I actually attended my first football match at Fratton Park stood on the lower tier of this stand in about 1988. Sadly, the stand was condemmed shortly after due to concrete cancer. After a couple of years of dilapidation, the upper tier was taken down, leaving the ‘hump’ of the low tier as a small terrace.

With the rise of hooliganism in football, from the 1970’s onwards, the first winds of change began to blow through football stadia. Steel fences and segregation of fans were introduced. This had the effect of cutting capacity. But stadium disasters at Bradford in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989, and the subsequent Popplewell and Taylor Reports, changed the face of football stadiums forever. Capacities were cut dramatically in the interests of safety after Bradford, and new fire escapes were introduced. But after the Hillsborough disaster capacities were cut yet further, and the steel fences were taken away. The biggest changes were motivated by introduction of all-seater stadia by 1994. With a lack of space, the club could not easily adapt Fratton to seating, and the only option was to bolt seats onto existing terracing – reducing the capacity to 15,000. Almost exactly 50 years before, the same ground had held 36,000 more people.

With the constraints of the Fratton site, the club looked at relocating to a new site at Farlington. Called Parkway, the proposal was for an exciting new stadium, similar in design to Huddersfield and Bolton’s new stadiums; a retain park, and a new train station. The plan was widely supported by most of Pompey’s fanbase and the city as a whole, but the local residents – presumably not football fans – campaigned vigorously against it. The planning application was turned down by the City Council’s planning committee, and then overturned by the full council. The application was referred to the Department of the Environment for a public inquiry, which eventually turned down the plan on the somewhat spurious basis that it would remove important grazing land for Geese. Is it possible that residents in the most affluent area of Portsmouth found an unlikely ally in these feathered migrants?

Stuck in an outdated, vintage stadium, and in financial problems, Portsmouth spent the 1990’s at Fratton Park. There was neither the will nor the financing for any kind of large scale redevelopment. Under the ownership of Terry Venables – whose name is still a swear word in these parts – the new Fratton End was built, a large single tier stand holding 4,500 seats. a roof was also put on the North Stand covering the lower tier, with the stadium having an overall capacity of 19,000. However, Venables did not put the necesarry finance in place, and the cost of these works almost bankrupted the club. But as a silver lining, the new Fratton End improved what was already a famous atmosphere. Famous nights such as a home match against Stockport in 1998, when the crowd sang continually for 90 minutes, cemented this reputation.

When Milan Mandaric bought the club out of administration in 1999, securing its medium term future, thoughts turned once again to the stadium. With the problems of relocation, the immediate plan was to rebuild a new stadium on the Fratton site, along with a retail development on the Fratton Goods Yard land that was being vacated by British Rail. Mandaric, however, dithered. He did not wish to build a large new stadium, that whilst Pompey were in the lower leagues would have swathes of empty seats. The retail development went on, leaving the football stadium behind. Meanwhile, Mandaric began looking at alternative sites, and practically every available open space in Portsmouth was mooted – from Hilsea Gasworks to Port Solent; from Tipner to King George V playing fields in Cosham; even Farlington (again!). Yet nothing happened.

When Pompey won promotion to the Premier League in 2003, Mandaric announced plans for Pompey Village – a 34,000 stadium, turned 90 degrees on the existing stadium, incorporating three new stands, and a retail and residential development. This development gained planning permission, and at one point Mandaric even demolished a wall ceremonially to mark the beginning of work. The wall was later rebuilt. Once again, Mandaric procrastinated. Nothing happened, whilst Pompey stayed in the Premier League for seven seasons, playing in one of the smallest and oldest grounds in the top flight.

Eventually Mandaric sold up to Sacha Gaydamak, without ever delivering on his promise of providing Pompey with a new home. Gaydamak did not like the Pompey Village plans, and forwarded an even more radical plan – constructing a landmark bowl (or bedpan) design on reclaimed land at The Hard. This plan, unsurprisingly, did not get off the ground, and attention shifted towards a new Stadium at land on Horsea Island in Portsmouth Harbour. Although Horsea is miles from a train station, it is close to the M275, and free from any constraints such as local residents or lack of land. However, with the clubs well documented recent problems, the Horsea plan is a distant memory and the club is fighting to survive.

It would be hard not to come to the conclusion that the lack of a large modern ground has cost Pompey dearly. With such a small capacity, and in poor facilities, it has been difficult to grow a fanbase. There are no lucrative corporate boxes, and very little commercial opportunities with a dearth of conferincing venues. A larger stadium would enable the club to cut prices, which would then encourage more to attend. Yet, Fratton Park is loved by the vast majority of Pompey fans. It plays a large part in making the club what it is, when other clubs have been transplanted into bland, soul-less bowl type meccano stadiums.

Complaints from visiting fans abound. Particularly when the Milton End didn’t have a roof. Historically, and socially, how did we go from dockies and sailors standing up on a saturday afternoon off, to cossetted fans whinging about getting wet and a lack of leg room? To what extend do these changing attitudes reflect wider society, and football’s commercialisation? Perhaps as ticket prices have gone up, we have expected more for our money. Whilst this is understandable, it has led to football – and fans – turning their back on the games heritage. I suspect, also, that we have gone soft. I can remember standing on the old open Fratton End, surrounded by weeds, with only rudimentary toilets and one solitary burger van for a couple of thousand people. And you know what? I preferred it.

Given the manner in which Portsmouth is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and its small size and island location, Horsea Island probably remains the only long term option for a new ground, alongside the option of redeveloping Fratton. The option of redeveloping Fratton, however, hinges on the possibility of resolving land ownership issues with Balram Chainrai (who holds a debenture on the ground) and Sacha Gaydamak (who owns much of the land around the stadium). Given its built up location, however, Fratton presents significant transport problems. Personally, I think that Horsea Island is probably the ‘ideal world’ option.

If a club such as Brighton can turn things around – witness their fantastic new Amex stadium at Falmer – then there is no reason not to dream that one day Pompey might not be walking out into a new home fit for such a famous club.

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Pompey – We Will Never Die

Most of my UK readers will probably be familiar with the news that Portsmouth Football ClubPompey – are in dire financial trouble for the second time in three years.

After our owner was arrested and his parent business went bust, we are about the enter administration, are massively in debt with some particularly nasty creditors, and the team are struggling near the foot of the table. For a team that spent seven years in the Premier League, won the FA Cup and were playing AC Milan in the UEFA Cup just four years ago, where did it go so wrong?

For me, the problems began when Milan Mandaric sold up to Sacha Gaydamak. Whilst Milan might have been a self-publicist, and liked the sound of his own voice, he didn’t spend money that we didn’t have. Gaydamak, on the other hand, was nothing but a front for his arms-dealing Russian father, Arkadi Gaydamak. At the time in 2008, we were told that the Gaydamaks wanted to sell up because their portfolio had taken a hammering in the credit crunch.

After a protracted period where the club was up for sale, Gaydamak sold to Sulaiman Al Fahim in the summer of 2009. Yet it quickly appeared that Al Fahim – the so called Donald Trump of the Middle East – didn’t actually have any money. He swiftly sold the club on to Ali Al Faraj, who again we were told was loaded. Yet it quickly transpired that not only did he not have any money, but there was a distinct possibility that he didn’t exist. The club was asset stripped, with players being sold by shadowy ‘representatives’ such as Mark Jacob and Daniel Azougy, under the noses of the then Chief Executive.

Al Faraj – or Al Mirage as he is now known – was thought to have taken out a massive loan in order to fund the club – £17m has been rumoured – from a Hong Kong businessman, Balram Chainrai. Al Faraj defaulted, and Chainrai stepped in and took over the club. He quickly put it into administration. The administrator, one Andrew Andronikou of UHY Hacker Young, somebody who had links with Chainrai. Football creditors were paid in full, while other creditors – such as the St Johns Ambulance and the Pie Company – were only paid a small percentage of their dues. Chanrai then, after having written off a large proportion of the debt, bought the club and became a ‘reluctant owner’.

In the summer of 2011, Chanrai sold the club to Convers Sports Initiatives, owned by Vladimir Antonov. A Russian businessman, it later transpired that Antonov had been refused permission to open a bank in London by the Financial Services Authority due to concerns over his business practices. Yet somehow he passed the Football League’s fit and proper person test. Crucially, Chanrai remained a creditor to the tune of £17m, and held a debenture over Fratton Park.

All seemed hopeful, until just before Christmas Antonov was suddenly arrested in Britain. The Lithuanian authorities had requested his arrest and extradition in connection with his Bankas Snoras. Convers Sport Initiatives promptly went into administration. The administrator? None other than Andrew Andronikou. Remember, Chanrai is still a creditor, and now effectively owns the ground. Without an owner and with no cashflow, Pompey are due to go into administration. With it comes the a ten point penalty, which puts us out of the relegation zones on goal difference only.

Andronikou is due to be appointed as administrator, and is reportedly requesting that interested parties need to prove that they have £100m to invest in the club. £100m? The theory is that Chainrai- through Andronikou – is seeking to drive Pompey to the wall, in order to get his money back. But there is a much bigger conspiracy theory at work. Prior to the credit crunch, the Gaydamaks were involved in a court case over a debt they owed a businessman. Who? None other than Balram Chainrai. The amount? Funnily enough, £17m. Is it possible that either Chanrai pursued the Gaydamaks and chose to target Pompey, or that the Gaydamaks let Chainrai take over by stealth, and Al Fahim and Al Faraj were just stooges, or naive enough to be caught up in the issue?

Whatever happened, Pompey have had five owners in just over three years, who have put nothing into the club, run up massive debts based on the club, and took out all of the incoming cash flow – asset stripping on a grand, but legal scale. The web is now so tangled, it is hard to see how things can be resolved. Such practice is endemic in English football – the Glazer family took over Manchester United for an incredible amount, took out a huge loan based on the club to finance the purchase, saddling the club with a huge burden. Without facing an liability at all for the debts, they then take out money that comes in, and charge consultancy fees and the like.

Where things go from here, we do not know. But it is certain that one of England’s most famous old football clubs will be facing a very bleak time for some years to come. After the home match against Ipswich last night around a thousand of us stayed behind in the Fratton End and staged a protest against the continual mismanagement of the club by non-Football men.

In terms of the link between a sporting or social insitution and the history and identity of a town or city, Pompey has very few equals. We can only hope that whatever happens football will slowly pull itself back from the brink, and Pompey will somehow rise from the ashes.

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