Wednesday, 7 March 2012

22. Portsmouth FC

The famous mock-Tudor entrance to Fratton Park, home of Portsmouth FC.
This was to be my Grand Finale, the Crowning Glory, the Wanderer Returns To His Spiritual Home! My plan was to leave Pompey until the very last report on the very last day of this blog. All other clubs could come in no particular order, as circumstance and the fixture lists dictated, but Pompey were always to come last.

But circumstances and worry have brought the trip to Fratton Park forward. Worry that Pompey may never play there again after this match. I had to be there this week, but still I could have left the writing of a report until another time, as it appears there will be more matches yet at the old ground. I could have left it until they actually won a game with me in attendance, but I could have been waiting a long time (sadface).

Behind the Fratton End.
Portsmouth FC (0) 1 v 3 (0) Middlesbrough FC
Saturday 3rd March 2012
NPower Championship
Attendance: 16,770
Admission: £25
Programme: Er, forgot to buy one - oops!
Club shop: Yes. Badges £2.50. Club-branded combs, toothbrushes, rubbers, confectionery, etc.
Colours: Blue / white / red v Red / red / white
National Grid reference: SU6600 / SZ6699 (the only football ground I know of that straddles two 100km grid squares!)

Specks Lane, behind the Milton End.
I've been coming to Fratton Park since the age of five. Years and years of standing and sitting and standing again, with dad, mum, friends, my son and daughter, or on my own. I've been here hundreds of times. I've seen good Pompey sides, I've seen bad Pompey sides, and I've seen a few truly great Pompey sides. They have mostly been somewhere between the extremes (usually around 17th in the Second Division), but it never matters as long as they're just there.

Going to Pompey has been a habit, but mostly an enjoyable one. Sometimes, the actual football doesn't matter - it's the people I go with, or just the sights and the sounds and the smells. Joining in with the communal singing and chanting on the Fratton End can feel like a transcendental religious experience (oh dear, I try to avoid clichés in these reports as much as possible, but sometimes a cliché expresses a thought just about right). Yelling at opposition players (but never one of our own), seeing them respond and personally getting them booked or sent off (red cards for Messrs W. Rooney, C. Ronaldo, Kevin Davies!) - there's a feeling of power, of shaping the event, of being a real part of the experience, rather than just being a helpless armchair critic, raving at a screen. There's nothing like it.

I, personally, have sucked the ball into the net many times at the Fratton End, and it always feels like it was me that scored the goal. When 4,000 other people feel the same way, you can probably hear us bellowing with joy all the way to the outskirts of Southampton. Fratton Park may be a ramshackle throwback, but it rocks more than Motorhead, the Sex Pistols and The Who all playing at the same time in the same place. We turn it up to 12. We make a certain other Hampshire club sound like newly-hatched mute swans.

The Milton End.
But it could be all over soon.

We've had years of greedy management and pampered players, of fake sheiks on the take, take, take. £500,000,000 of Sky TV money cascading over the club, attracting rats, vagabonds and scoundrels galore. All take, take, take. No investment in a new training ground or youth academy. The only investment has been in building their own mansions and buying diamond-studded number plates for their gold-plated Hummers. Just how many luxury bathrooms do you need?

Greedy pigs snuffling out the golden truffles. Prices up, scam the fans, pretend to care. Years and years of it.

We've had no choice. It's a smaller version of the wider world, where City bankers, corrupt politicians, chief executives of tax-dodging mega-corporations and mafiosi are all in it together, all untouchable. They can do whatever they like and we pay for it. It could happen at any football club, and it does. It's just been worse at Pompey than anywhere else.

And then they'll come out with weasel words through the media telling us how innocent they were in our downfall, and some people will believe them. Your club could be next, so enjoy the good times now.

The wall of legends beneath the North Stand...Bradbury, Prosinecki, Berger, Primus...Lauren and Djimi Traore nowhere to be seen.
So, do Pompey stay as they are, or do they give it all up and start again? There are sound arguments for both sides, for example in the comments here and here.

The only way out of administration currently seems to be to allow Balram Chanrai to take over as owner yet again. He claims he is owed £17,000,000, which he would lose if the club were liquidated. He has stated many times that he is not interested in the club - that he is merely an ordinary businessman protecting his assets. The likely outcome after he has paid himself all the parachute payments would be that Pompey would be in the lower half of the Fourth Division in a couple of years and stony broke once again. It is at this point that either someone else will buy the club or it will be liquidated anyway.

At least we would still have Fratton Park for another year or two.

Middlesbrough players warming up before the match. Archibald Leach's South Stand behind them.
Assuming no other buyers are found (and the debts are way too big for the Supporters Trust to take on), the alternative is to deny him his money, liquidate the club and start again. But where would a new club play, both geographically and by status?

Chanrai owns Fratton Park, so it's unlikely Portsmouth City FC (please, please, NOT AFC Portsmouth!) would be able to play there. The most likely new home grounds would be either the United Services ground near Portsmouth Harbour (where Portsmouth's first major club Royal Artillery played, and where the Pompey Chimes were first sung - a spiritual home, if you like), or the athletics stadium at Alexandra Park. Both grounds would need their capacity increased, but that shouldn't be a problem if the council and/or Navy are friendly.

How many people would turn up to watch a new club? Judging by other so-called phoenix clubs, probably around half the current average, so somewhere between 5-10,000 would seem about right.

Where would a new club start? The Wessex League? Well, if a large proportion of the prospective support travel to away matches - and with every match at Wessex League level being a local derby - then up to 5,000 travelling fans per match is quite possible. Would the likes of Stockbridge be able to cope? Quite plainly, the answer is no. Would matches then have to be switched to the nearest stadium capable of holding 5,000 fans? That's a lot of away games to be played at AFC Bournemouth, Salisbury City, Havant & Waterlooville, and, yes, St Mary's (AFC Totton and Eastleigh's grounds are both too small).

The same problem would be encountered at Southern League level, so the lowest place a new Pompey could safely start is Conference South. This would annoy a lot of non-league fans who would resent a brand new club parachuting in above them in the league structure having never played a match, and I can appreciate that, but I think the same criteria would be applied to any big club restarting in non-league. Safety should, and probably would come first in this case.

Of course, a third alternative is that a new club does not start up, and every Pompey fan disperses to watch their local non-league club, with the Hawks, Gosport Borough, Fareham Town, etc, quadrupling their fanbases overnight. Some people will do that (and I strongly suspect a small number have done so already), but I think it's the least likely outcome.

As Adam Ant (nearly) once said, "non-league is nothing to be scared of".

The Fratton End, home to 4,000 of the most vocal home supporters.
The match against Middlesbrough didn't matter. Pompey lost, but not through lack of trying. At least we lost to one of Saints' promotion rivals (wind-up-Saints-face). Our four best players (Jason Pearce, Joel Ward, Stephen Henderson, Greg Halford) stayed behind to clap the Fratton End. We may never see them play for us again, as they could be sent out on loan by the administrator, and they may not come back if we are relegated (or worse). Of course, nobody else wants our highly-paid ex-Premiership "stars", so we're stuck with Tal Ben-Haim and the like until their extraordinary contracts run out.

Pompey Trust members walked around with buckets collecting 50p's. 40,000 of them will pay Dave Kitson's wages for a week. Apparently, he was on the pitch for a bit on Saturday.

Madness, utter madness.

Leaving the North Stand.
As the Fratton End chanted on Saturday: "You greedy bastards, get out of our club", and "You'll never notice how much we love you, until you take our Pompey away".

What a mess. When will it all end?

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