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Paid Up Pompey, Pompey's Paid Up!
It may not be one of the most attractive fixtures in the English football calender this weekend but certainly for fans of Portsmouth, and people who have followed the Premier League for many years, the away trip to York City in the fourth tier of English football certainly represents a milestone.
It is somewhat ironic that their first meeting at York was almost 40 years to the day. Back on September 29th 1974 the two sides met for the first time in the Old Division 2. Back then the Old Division 2 was actually the second tier of the league structure, as its name would suggest, rather than how it is set up now.
In that game Portsmouth lost, 3-0. This game will represent much more than a score line though and win, draw or lose I think the Pompey fans will be in one of the best moods they have been in for a long time.
The two time League winners, in 1949 and 1950, have had a torrid time over more than a decade of administrations and relegations with no clear sign there would even be a club left at the end of it, never mind some sort of recovery possible.
Founded in 1898 by a local brewer it was the Centenary year, in 1998, when cracks started to appear. A year earlier, ex England Manager Terry Venebles, had bought the club for $1.50 but failure to win promotion to the Premiership that season saw them enter the next in financial difficulty.
In December 1998 the club would go into financial administration. A potential savior, in Milan Mandaric, stepped in. He initially saved the club with the deal and then began investing to make the club competitive, surviving relegation only as the last day of the season came and went. The investment continued for the next season and, under new Manager Harry Redknapp, Portsmouth were promoted to the Premier League.
Lower mid table finishes in the first few seasons saw Portsmouth establish themselves, somewhat, as a Premiership side before Redknapp jumped ship for Southampton, an argument with Chairman Mandaric the cause. A year later, and two more Portsmouth Managers, and he was back then, in 2006 and under new ownership, Portsmouth overhauled their side.
A top half finish in the Premier League the next two seasons and an FA Cup win in 2008 had papered over the cracks which had been there for all to see. Questions were not being asked by the right people and maybe, had the Financial Fair Play rule been in affect back then, Portsmouth’s entry into the following years UEFA Cup may have been in doubt. As it was, the progress was celebrated rather than questioned.
Redknapp left again during that European season and the unknown, at least managerial wise, Tony Adams took charge. Adams had a great career with Arsenal and was a great Captain but I am not really sure how much of a chance he had to succeed with the state the club must have been in when he took over. Redknapp, much like Ferguson, albeit in different ways, bailed on their clubs at the right time to leave them as the hero and the next guy as the villain.
Between 2009 and 2013 the club went into further Administration and were forced to sell their top earners. Finances had dried up and the reality that a Premiership club had not paid some of their players and staff brought the seriousness of the situation to light.
That following January, due to an embargo placed on future transfer activities, the club could no longer buy players. It wasn’t long into January when the club announced that some players might even be allowed to leave for free, and without compensation to the club. Due to the contract giving the players the right to terminate their agreement upon non payment with two weeks notice.
The club was spiraling out of control and a nine point penalty, imposed for entering administration, was bad enough but also came the news that the club was $200 million in debt.
The points tally meant the club were relegated at the end of the 2009/10 season and in 2011, despite getting the club out of the courts and out of administration, contract complications decimated the squad further.
November 23rd 2011 the level was stepped up a notch when a European arrest warrant was issued for the owner, Antonov. He was arrested in his office, his assets frozen and, despite a club statement assuring the fans as business as usual, the club was issued a winding up order by HMRC for close to $3 million in unpaid taxes soon after, which resulted in administration, again, a month later.
So that, of course, saw them drop another division, which would be the lowest point they had played at before. Despite the dire situation, at least they were heading into the new season, something which wasn’t certain for the second half of the previous. Due to the situation, the entire professional playing staff left, as did manager Michael Appleton, leaving Guy Whittingham as caretaker Manager and a minus10 point start. A 23 game winless streak saw the side relegated yet again into their current League, League Two.
At this point a Supporters Trust, a long time trying to wrestle control of their club back, finally succeeded a year and a half ago. Since then they have appointed ex player Andy Awford as Manager and his five wins from five games became the clubs longest winning streak in over three years and, in turn, ensured it would at least stay in this Division for another season.
Now, this week, the club announced that it was now completely debt free, having paid back all creditors and even ex players. It is a dramatic turnaround in the 18 months the supporters trust has been in charge and although it signals the club are heading in the right direction it doesn’t mean the end of the hard work and struggle at the club.
In Europe only a few seasons ago, winning the FA Cup and being in the top half of the Premier League are all recent memories, but will not be near futures for this club. A phoenix from the flames story it may be, but for the passionate supporters of Portsmouth, just to have a club which is debt free and operating on (as Manager Andy Awford said) ‘a level playing field’. It means that they can now pay transfer fees for players, without first seeking approval, and with them currently 8th in the League, a promotion run may not be out of the realms of possibility.
It will certainly be interesting to hear the noise of the supporters again gracing the top flight one day soon with the oldest football chant still around, and now that they've paid up they can start chanting even louder, ‘Play up Pompey, Pompey play up!’