by Tom Nash
Many reasons were given,
But none totally convince,
As to why Pompey
Almost ceased to exist.
Was it Redknapp’s expensive binges
Backed by Gaydamak?
Or was it all hungover
From the reign of Mandaric?
I have a simple solution,
It occurred at Wembley,
Almost exactly half-an-hour
After a goal off Kanu’s knee.
Something had to give,
Big David Nugent
Subbed on for John Utaka.
The mayfly, that most romantically fated of insects, spends the majority of its life under the surface of the water. After going through several months feeding on decaying flora and fauna; moulting numerous times – going through change after change; they emerge in to the sun. After one final metamorphosis, they dry their wings and take glorious flight. Their mouthparts, however, are not functional, and their digestive system is full of air. They cannot feed. They have but one day to make their mark, to fulfil their purpose, and then they are gone. Their bodies fall down into the water again.
In fairness, there’s a rather special bit of silverware that will forever bear the legend ‘2008: Portsmouth FC’. Whatever has happened to the club since that day in May, and whatever will happen in the future, that engraving will endure. Ask ten Pompey fans how they feel about Harry Redknapp’s double tenure carousel, and you’ll probably get ten different answers. I’d think at least six or seven wouldn’t be repeatable in polite society.
Portsmouth Football Club have a great history and a set of proud and passionate fans. For the years that they enjoyed the huge exposure of the Premier League, Pompey fans’ reputation was beamed into a hundred million households. Despite the tumbledown nature of Fratton Park, the atmosphere of the ground provided a culture shock for many of the Premier League’s pampered superstars – not that Portsmouth didn’t have stars of their own.
In Redknapp’s first spell with Portsmouth he brought them up to the Premier League by using youth team players such as Matty Taylor and Gary O’Neil and by breathing life into the careers of seasoned campaigners such as Steve Stone and Paul Merson, adding Teddy Sheringham and Patrick Berger to that crop once they’d reached the top flight – funded by the millions of Milan Mandaric. Pompey had surfaced, but there was more change to come before they would stretch their wings.
Redknapp objected to the appointment of a Director of Football, Velimir Zajec – no doubt remembering that his own appointment in the same role above Graham Rix, his predecessor, had been unsuccessful. Duly, Redknapp left and was succeeded by Zajec, albeit briefly. Redknapp re-emerged as manager of fierce rivals Southampton, going from being a Portsmouth hero to rather less than zero in one sweep of a fountain pen on a contractual agreement.
Sending Pompey fans into ecstasies of schadenfreude, Redknapp proceeded to take Southampton down and, less than a year later, Harry was back at his “spiritual home”. Alan Perrin had kept his seat warm and had struggled. Redknapp’s second coming was the subject of some investigation due to unusual betting patterns, but there was a far greater gamble about to be taken – one which would bring the club to its knees and close to collapse.
Mandaric moved on, no longer willing or able to fund a club that had exceeded his ambitions. He sold his stake at the club to Gaydamak, a man with supposedly far deeper pockets, and the Premier League had its second Russian owner.
If Redknapp’s acquisitions in his first tenure were shrewd, some of his buys in his second stint were quite the opposite. Portsmouth found their very own Russian sugar-daddy in the shape of Alexandre Gaydamak, whose fortune apparently had “absolutely nothing to do” with his shady arms-dealer father Arcadi Gaydamak, oh no. What transpired in terms of ownership in the years to come would make Gaydamak appear entirely saintly and transparent.
With Gaydamak bankrolling the operation, Redknapp signed some wonderful players for the club; big names, England internationals amongst them. Players such as Yakubu, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch (again), Niko Kranjcar, Lassana Diarra, the evergreen Kanu and Sol Campbell also gracing the team sheet. Plans were drawn up to either redevelop Fratton Park or build a completely new stadium. One of the ideas put forward would have had them playing right down on the waterfront, the jewel in the expensively rejuvenated docklands area.
The city was on the up, and the football club was to be the talisman of that ascendancy. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the naval city though, flirtations with relegation and famous great escapes meant that there was never a dull moment, most notably during the record setting 7-4 victory over Reading. Portsmouth fans had plenty of opportunity to display their famous courage and passion. A few men, including Pedro Mendes will never have to put their hand in their pocket in any bar in Guildhall Square. Ultimately though, they rode out the storms and remained in the top flight.
At the same time, with the benefit of hindsight of course, there was something not quite right. In 2007, Portsmouth unveiled two new signings that would become emblematic of the financial lunacy that the club was being built upon. David Nugent, international one-cap wonder, signed for £6m only to be effectively ignored, John Utaka signing for £7m and reportedly being paid £80,000 a week.
Utaka’s debut goal was outstanding, a solo effort running most of the pitch before rounding the keeper at pace and slotting home. But £80,000 a week? That’s an enormous figure for a club of Portsmouth’s size to pay any player. Also consider that, whilst he was their record signing, he was far from being the biggest name at the club, no doubt there were several others on similar wages. At the time though, it must have been an incredible time to be a Portsmouth fan, as Harry assembled a squad that just ten years ago would have been unimaginable.
Portsmouth had long been considered a grim northern town transplanted to the affluent south, but no longer. Its dockyards, once thriving, then dilapidated, had been transformed into a bustling centre of commerce – Gunwharf Quays, with it’s million pound penthouses and the beautiful Spinnaker tower. The city was buzzing and, with Southampton’s relegation, they were the top dogs on the south coast – the first time since the 1960s that Portsmouth had played in a higher division to their hated rivals. The mayfly had undergone its metamorphosis and was now to fulfil its potential.
Their run to the FA Cup final was by equal measure fortuitous and ruthless. A quarter-final at Old Trafford was expected to be a formality for Manchester United, but was ultimately settled by Sulley Muntari’s penalty, slotted beyond the despairing dive of stand-in keeper Rio Ferdinand. Van der Sar had been injured and Tomas Kuszczak sent off conceding the penalty. From the semi’s, Portsmouth could be considered favourites due to so many upsets in the competition. Portsmouth were to have their day in the sun, pitched against Championship side Cardiff City at Wembley.
The match itself was no classic. Kanu’s winner came from a poor cross by Utaka which was spilled by Cardiff’s goalkeeper onto the knee of the mercurial Nigerian. Pompey held on for the win.
After the achievement, however, came the crushing reality. Redknapp again abandoned his ‘spiritual home’, this time for Tottenham, and – to use yet another nautical analogy – the first rat had left the sinking ship. Gaydamak, like Mandaric before him, decided that Portsmouth had gone far enough on his money. Let’s not forget that both men were outstandingly successful businessmen who, bewitched by the glitz and glamour of football club ownership, had made increasingly poor business decisions.
The stadium plans were pie in the sky, the club simply didn’t have the fan base. Millions had been spent on players, and a huge wage bill added weekly to the massive mountain of debt that the club had accrued. Just a few months after recording their FA Cup victory, Portsmouth were in deep trouble. The club had been saved previously by fans passing around buckets for donations, once being bought for a pound. This was by far and away the worst situation the club had ever been in financially. Players went unpaid for months, the official website had to be shut-down to cut costs, and those players of any resale value were flogged as much for the transfer income as to lessen the wage bill. Utaka stuck around for another season.
Despite the crippling debt, or perhaps as a result of it, Portsmouth found themselves in their first ever European competition. Despite assistant boss Tony Adams being promoted to manager, no-one gave them a chance, although AC Milan found themselves 2-0 down at Fratton Park before coming back to draw 2-2 in what must have been one of their more puzzling European games.
Adams didn’t cut it and he was replaced by Paul Hart, who himself was replaced by Director of Football Avram Grant. Whilst the managerial merry-go-round was happening, even stranger things were going on in the boardroom as Gaydamak struggled to find a buyer. After several false dawns, Arab businessman Sulaiman Al-Fahim bought the club in August 2009 only to turn out to be a ‘billionaire’ without any money. The Premier League withheld television money, the Inland Revenue issued a winding-up order. Debts were announced at £70m not including the tax bill. Al-Fahim, having apparently bought the club on the same basis as the Emperor’s new clothes, sold up to another unknown Arab financier, Ali Al-Faraj just a matter of weeks after buying the club.
As the turn of the decade approached, Portsmouth Football Club appeared to have no future at all. In February 2010 yet another take-over took place, new owner Balram Chanrai placing the club into administration with the automatic penalty of nine league points virtually guaranteeing the club’s submergence once again.