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The long road back from the brink – what happens after the fans save a football club?

FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES: Portsmouth fans have endured the worst that football has to offer in the past decade or so, but now they can see the light

“The lowest point of the last decade was the second time we went into administration,” former season ticket holder Ben Chandler explained.

“There was basically a meeting to decide if we were going to be shut down as a club. It was touch and go but right at the last minute, we were saved.”

Just ten years ago, FA CUP winners Portsmouth proudly welcomed AC Milan to Fratton Park for a glamour UEFA Cup tie.

A lot of troubled water has gone under Pompey’s bridge since then.

South coast Galacticos

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South coast Galacticos

Three relegations, two administrations, and more owners than most clubs have in a lifetime.

As Lee Brown scored the fortuitous opening goal against the Championship’s QPR this weekend, it was clear the clouds had lifted at this battle-hardened club.

And the deafening noise coming from the Fratton End as the ball looped in was a stark reminder of what kept Portsmouth afloat during the dark ages – the fans.

Not a spare seat in the house

Reuters
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Not a spare seat in the house

Having experienced some of the worst examples of what modern football ownership has to offer in the period after their incredible FA Cup win, Portsmouth’s demise culminated with their lowest ever league finish in 2015 — 16th in England’s fourth tier.

The club entered administration for the second time in three seasons in 2012, but their plummet down the pyramid continued long after that with the League Two nadir not coming until three year later.

Even when the club was basically on its knees, the fans stood strong.

Passion.

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Passion.

Unlike many clubs who see huge rifts between the fans and the owners, Pompey have one of the most impressive groups of supporters in the country.

Even in the doldrums of League Two, Fratton Park would regularly welcome 16,000 vociferous locals.

Just before the south coast club slipped into League Two, the Pompey Supporters’ Trust came together to save it from extinction.

The fans kept Portsmouth alive

Action Images - Reuters
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The fans kept Portsmouth alive

The happiness began to return to Fratton Park as soon as the news broke that the fans would now be in charge of the club’s destiny.

Since that moment, Portsmouth have been treading the long road back from the brink.

Nowadays the club is in rude health.

Over 19,000 people crammed themselves into a shaking Fratton Park on Saturday and the occasion brought back memories of the club’s recent stature.

We spoke to Portsmouth’s head of safeguarding and inclusion Colin Farmery, who led the PR campaign for the fan takeover, and he explained these are the days when Portsmouth as a club is at its very best.

“You drop off the radar as a football club when you’re in League Two and people forget that you even exist.

“These FA Cup days are great because they give you the opportunity to remind everyone what a big football club Portsmouth is.

“We are a club that punches its weight and we want to remind people of our status.

“The FA Cup is supposedly a competition that is dead and buried yet here we are with a full Fratton Park, we’re up for the cup and we’re hopefully going to go all the way again.”

The magic of the cup

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The magic of the cup

The fan-led emergency rescue in 2013 spelled the beginning of the long road back.

Now under the ownership of US businessman Michael Eisner, the bridges that had been previously torched between owners and fans look to be finally repaired.

“The owners and the issues became separate. You can see with the attendances, they still stay high so the fans and the team stayed together but the owners were completely separate,” Chandler told me.

“I think Eisner has been good. He says the right things, his family are part of the club they come to the games and he’s invested a bit of money in the training ground, it’s so far so good for me.”

Farmery adds that the period of fan ownership changed everything at Portsmouth.

“We were community owned and that period really built those bridges that we now have.

“We are under a different ownership now but we, as a club, have tried to maintain that community ethos and fan engagement  throughout.”

Eisner in full flow

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Eisner in full flow

Eisner has installed a heritage board to protect the club’s name, colours, badge and guard and to prevent a relocation to a ground outside Portsmouth city centre – in doing so he cemented his reputation as a man of the people on the south coast.

With the heritage board on side Eisner decided to re-design the club’s badge to improve its marketability, if Leeds’ badge redesign was anything to go by it is a very treacherous task to complete.

Farmery stressed that under community ownership fan engagement was a key pillar of running the club and Eisner has continued that theme.

“Last season Michael decided we needed to change our club crest to make it a brand we could trademark,” Farmery said.

“We actually did a huge consultation with our fans over this change, and you remember the controversy Leeds had with their badge, well ours sailed serenely through and we ended up with a crest that fans feel still represents Portsmouth Football Club but it achieves the objectives of the business which is to protect the brand.

“But you don’t do that overnight, you have to have built that relationship with your supporters to do something like that.”

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Kenny Jackett was appointed in the summer of 2017 after Paul Cook had secured an incredible last day victory to top League Two the season before.

Last year Jackett led the team to an eighth place finish in League One, but the stability and rehabilitation of the club after all the heartache was evident.

These days everything is rosy at Fratton Park, the team are two points behind Luton with a game in hand at the top of League One and have England’s second tier well within their sights.

When I spoke to Matt Shaw, a fan in his twenties, he explained that compared to his dad’s experience as a Pompey fan, he’s had it easy.

“We’ve been in the lucky days as we grew up with success, our dads know it’s been tough throughout the years,” he said.

Everything is in place now for the club to move on from the dark days and enter a new era under Eisner and it’s clear the fans are going to be a huge part of that.

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