After 14 months in administration and an alarming slide from the Premier League to League Two in just five seasons, Portsmouth fans thought they'd seen it all. But, as Rich Edwards discovers, the south coast side are on the verge of new lows...
It’s almost a year since Portsmouth emerged from the longest administration in Football League history to become the biggest community-run club in the country.
At the time it was hoped the takeover would usher in a new era of stability and success at one of English football’s most dysfunctional clubs. The reality has been somewhat different.
Last Saturday afternoon, Portsmouth slipped to their eighth home league defeat of the season – only Wycombe and Exeter have lost more – and moved one step closer to a trapdoor that could soon deposit them in the Skrill Conference Premier. On Tuesday night that eventuality crept ever closer with a dismal 3-0 defeat to Rochdale at Spotland. Under 48 hours later the hapless Richie Barker was given his marching orders just 108 days after being handed reins at Fratton Park.
Just six years after winning the FA Cup and entertaining AC Milan in the UEFA Cup, Portsmouth could soon be looking forward to a local derby against Eastleigh – a prospect that will no doubt leave Southampton fans doubled up in laughter. So how on earth did it come to this?
PORTSMOUTH LEAGUE POSITIONS
- 2009/10: 20th, Premier League
- 2010/11: 16th, Championship
- 2011/12: 22nd, Championship
- 2012/13: 24th, League One
- 2013/14: 22nd, League Two
A glance through the comments section of the Portsmouth News website gives some indication of the issues now facing a club which doesn’t appear to be happy unless it’s flirting furiously with disaster.
“The board are losing the fans. Suicidal. We can’t stop them from ruining our club. And what an irony, after they saved it a year ago,” reads one post.
Others bemoan a lack of communication from those running the club, and a large percentage berate the now departed manager, who the majority believed was clearly not up to the job. That may or may not have been the case, but with the threat of relegation in the south coast air, there’s a distinct whiff of mutiny among one of the most populated fan bases outside the Premier League.
“It's heads and hearts isn’t it?” says Dan Wood, a season-ticket holder for the past 13 years. “We love players who throw themselves around. We loved Chris Burns because he was a brickie from Cheltenham and played like a brickie from Cheltenham.
“We go with our hearts - that’s why Guy Whittingham was given the (manager’s) job. But eventually you have to realise that you can’t just give roles to people because they have an affinity with the club.
“We’ve tried to professionalise it with a sensible approach and the appointment of [Richie] Barker. But Pompey fans hate that - we love to see the team going gung-ho. We don’t care if we concede four because we’ll score five. That looked like it might happen under Whittingham. Now we can’t buy a goal.
“Hopefully with him gone that will change – but with Pompey you just never know.”
We don’t care if we concede four because we’ll score five. Now we can’t buy a goal
That toothlessness in front of goal is why Pompey currently find themselves embroiled in such an unseemly scrap for survival. In their first 10 League Two games this season they scored 17 goals. In Barker’s 20 matches in charge, they’ve scored a paltry 11. Only once under the former Crawley and Bury boss have they scored more than once in a game.
It’s a wonder that Portsmouth fans are still awake, let alone able to raise dissenting voices at the dull approach directing their club towards the ultimate ignominy of non-league football.
It would be unfair to lay the blame for this malaise squarely at the feet of Barker – a man who always appeared intent on letting the world know that the players at his disposal were not good enough – because, in truth, losing has become an unwelcome habit at Portsmouth since they first hit the skids in the months after their first FA Cup win since 1939 (in 2008).
The legacy of Pompey’s now-not-so-glorious days in the Premier League is still severely impacting the finances of the original casino club.
Back in September the Portsmouth News broke the story that Pompey were still paying an eye-watering £6.72 million to 25 former players, among them the man who has become synonymous with the club’s profligacy, Tal Ben Haim. The Israeli defender is reportedly slated to receive £1.6m from Pompey over the next three years, as the exorbitant wages paid by previous Fratton Park regimes continue to bite the Trust-owned club squarely in the backside.
“Nothing was done from the Premier League years. Nothing,” spits John Kimbell, a spokesman for the Pompey Supporters Trust (PST). “You go to Fratton Park now and you might as well be going in 2002. There’s no new stand, nothing has changed. The sad reality is that, I think, a week of Tal Ben Haim’s wages would have paid to sort out drainage problems at the ground.
Nothing was done from the Premier League years... nothing
“That’s the kind of thing that we are having to deal with – how can that not have been done? That’s the sort of thing that we’re helping to put right, which is what a lot of people don’t realise.”
On the pitch, though, it’s the players who have performed like drains, and that’s something – whether Pompey fans like it or not – the Trust can do little to influence.
“Sadly a crisis on the pitch is quite normal,” says Kimbell. “It’s something that we’ve been seeing for the last five years. I don’t think anyone would have thought we would be in this position at the start of the season but this is now the reality, this is where we are.”
In a season of almost unrelenting misery on the pitch, the shining light, not for the first time, has been the fans prepared to pay their hard-earned cash to trudge wearily through the archaic Fratton Park turnstiles every week.
Portsmouth’s average attendance of 15,215 is twice that of any other side in League Two. The fourth-tier stragglers boast more than 10,000 season ticket holders, suggesting that the notion of a supporter-owned club was one these long-suffering fans hadn’t hesitated to buy into.
The worry now, of course, is that relegation will see that figure fall off a cliff – and push the club into a fresh financial crisis. So what message does Kimbell give to those who are thinking of binning their season-ticket renewal form, rather than filling it in?
“If they want to go back to the situation we’ve been in, fighting for our lives and worrying about whether there would even be Portsmouth Football Club, then don’t buy a season ticket,” he declares. “If you don’t want to go through that then please buy one; it’s the lifeblood of the club and we need to rely on every possible income source to keep the club afloat.”
Conference football would be unthinkable. But with seven games to go, that trapdoor is uncomfortably close.