Tag Archives: premier 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 debts hit £119m

So according to a report published by the administrators, Portsmouth Football Club’s debt levels now stand at £119m, and could rise even further.

Several issues jump out from the report.

The people I really feel for are the smaller creditors – the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who are owed money, ranging from a few pence to thousands of pounds. Most of them are prominent local businesses – caterers, shopfitters, florists, plant hire companies, and such like. If Pompey’s debts to them have to be written off, several at least may go to the wall. The knock-on effect locally may well be huge. Even if debts are paid, may companies have already got a lot of un-welcome publicity.

Yet the FA and Premier League have to shoulder part of the blame, for creating an industry where football debts have to be paid up first. This means that non-footballing creditors are seen as of a low priority. People like players, former owners, agents like Pini Zahavi, are not going to go bankrupt over Portsmouth’s state. But several smaller businesses may well do.

The report also puts beyond doubt the assertion that those running the club did nothing to solve the problems. OK, so players were sold. But PFC were still living extravagantly, spening money they didnt have, knowing full well that a time might come where businesses may go bust because of it.

The FA’s role in all of this is also rather odious. It is not good enough for people like Richard Scudamore to shrug their shoulders at the mess. OK, so financial mismanagement was taking place, but how was it allowed to go on? Why were there no checks and balances? In all probability, because all Football Clubs – and Football itself – run in the same way. It just so happens that Pompey are the first club to go to the wall.

It does seem as well that the football authorities are not overly concerned by the fate of Pompey. A small, provincial, unglamorous club, you cannot help but feel that they cannot wait for us to disappear, having never wanted us in the limelight in the first place. West Ham are probably in a far worse position than Pompey are, but no-one would dare make them – darlings of Fleet Street – go into administration. ’66 and all that, you see!

As for the issue of European qualification, its also clear that the FA do not want Pompey in Europe, and that other clubs have lobbied to make sure that it does not happen. Funnily enough, if Pompey are not allowed to enter the Europa League, Liverpool are one of the teams who stand to qualify instead – fancy that!

All this shows just how rotten the institution of English football has become – corrupt, ill-scrutinised, insolvent, bent on success, and centred on the big, rich and glamorous clubs with everyone else there to make up the numbers.

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Where Pompey went wrong

With todays news that Portsmouth Football Club has entered into administration, I’ve been thinking back over the past few years to how Pompey have ended up in this sorry state.

The irony is that the club has now gone full circle since it went into administration in the late 90’s, under the reign of the Gregory family. Then Milan Mandaric saved the club from administration. Although Mandaric may have been seen at the time as tight with funds, looking back, he did not spend money that we did not have. Mandaric always promised that he would not leave Portsmouth without building a new ground, and until Pompey were in the Premier League.

Pompey eventually managed to get promoted in 2003, after Harry Redknapp managed to put together a first class team with loan signings, free transfers and free agents. After managing to remain in the Premier League for 2 successive seasons, it should have been the time to consolidate and develop sound foundations at the club. Pompey have a huge catchment area and the potential to fill a 30,000+ stadium. But Portsmouth is a small city, and Mandaric encountered problems finding both the finance anda suitable site for a stadium.

In 2006, however, Mandaric agreed to sell Pompey to Sacha Gaydamak. This is where things get seriously murky. Although Gaydamak was at the time painted as a wealthy Russian in the same vein as Roman Abramovich, in fact it seems that much of his fortune came via his arms-dealer father. Gaydamak junior has a string of failed business ventures behind him.

To begin with Gaydamak bankrolled a returned Harry Redknapp’s spending spree. Clearly with a 20,000 stadium, these infated wages and transfer fees were not sustainable on the clubs income alone. This is surely the problem with football clubs being owned by rich owners – all the time they are there, all well and good, but without sound business practice once they are go serious problems come home to roost.

Supposedly Sacha Gaydamak decided to stop funding the club in 2008, only months after the club won the FA Cup and qualified for Europe for the first time. Ostensibly this was due to the credit-crunch, but as Gaydamak’s funds were not really his own anyway, it seems that his father had decided to claw back his money. In hindsight, it seems that Gaydamak wasnt even investing his own money, but was taking out massive loans. When he left, he left his debts behind. We might have won the FA Cup, but it was like buying something on a credit card but not paying it off.

Gaydamak sold the club to Sulaiman Al Fahim, who then sold it to Ali Al Faraj. Both owners who clearly had no idea about running a football club and who had no money to invest. In the end Al Faraj defaulted on loan repayments, and the club (and ground) were taken over by Balraim Chainrai. And today, Pompey are in administration.

If anything, surely it is amazing that it has taken this long for a Premier League Football Club to go into Administration. Since the advent of Sky TV and the Premier League, English football has on the whole been operating on unworkable business models. Football Clubs used to be exactly that – Clubs. After the gradual transition into businesses, business principles should have come into play – outgoings should not be more than income, for example. Sound foundations are important, not short term success. But Football is still imbued with the Thatcherite principle that success is everything, and is worth abandoning your principles for.

There have been calls for a rich owner to come in and save Pompey. Surely that is short-sighted. After all, isnt it the rich owners who have caused this scenario in the first place. Being owned by foreign, disinterested businessmen is surely not good for the long-term of the football club and the city. In Germany many clubs are still clubs, where the fans are members and collectively control the club.

Football has changed. Supporters are more customers now than anything else. They may feel that the club belongs to them, but the cruel fact is that they have virtually no involvement in the club.

The Football world needs to sit up and take notice. Or Pompey will not be the last.

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