War Heroes, Wheeler-Dealers, Fake Sheikhs and Consulting Detectives on the South Coast of England
With a name like Pompey, you’d expect Portsmouth FC to have a dramatic rise followed by a swift downfall, akin to their triumvir namesake. However, the fortunes of the coastal club are much closer to the ebbing and flowing of the tide. With not one but two tired attempts at picturesque introductions, let’s take a trip to the former potato field on which Fratton Park stands and examine the club’s history.
Portsmouth’s founding date of 1898 was preceded by several amateur outfits, comprised of soldiers, sailors and dockers of the seaside town. One of those teams, Portsmouth AFC, drew the interest of a young doctor who had opened up a practice. Due to the fact that it was not very successful, the doctor began playing cricket and football as a goalkeeper for the amateur outfit under the pseudonym AC Smith.
Apart from his love of sports he also started writing fiction under his real name, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. With the sport gaining popularity in the town and several teams coming and going, a true attempt at forming a football club was made on April 5, 1898, under the name Portsmouth Football and Athletic Company Limited, which immediately acquired the aforementioned potato field.
The team tasted immediate success in the Southern Leagues of English football and by the 1920s they had braved financial issues, the Great War and had adopted their now famous crest. The moon and star motif comes from the coat of arms off the town and are believed to date back as far as the time of Richard I. From 1921 to 1928 the club climbed from the Third Division to the First and despite initially struggling they reached the 1929 FA Cup final, where they lost to Bolton Wanderers.
With the club consolidating their top-flight status another lost FA Cup final followed in 1934 before they finally won the trophy in 1939. The game which saw them defeat Wolverhampton Wanderers 4–1, was dubbed ‘The Gland Final’ by the press– a reference to ‘monkey gland’ testosterone injections – used by both teams (and others) that season. Sadly, the team’s new dawn of success was interrupted by a new World War, which saw Portsmouth’s naval base become of utmost importance.
The town and the base itself became the headquarters and main departure point for the military and naval units destined for Sword Beach on the Normandy coast, as a part of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings. Bernard Montgomery, the mastermind behind the Allied victories in North Africa, by then a field marshal, was heavily involved with the preparations for the D-Day landings. Naturally, this meant that he visited the Portsmouth base on numerous occasions and he became interested in Portsmouth FC, with his headquarters at Southwick House being located just on the outskirts of Portsmouth.
The club appointed Montgomery as honorary club president in 1944 and started recruiting players from the Royal Marines and sailors that had been stationed there after the war had concluded. The effect of these new appointments were back-to-back league titles in 1949 and 1950, and the red socks are still worn today, which Montgomery suggested as a mark of respect for the sacrifice of the British servicemen during the war.
Their success and modernization meant they played the Football League’s first-ever floodlit evening game and a new stand made of prefabricated concrete and steel was constructed. Their upward trajectory would however take a sharp downturn, which would last from the early sixties to the early two thousands. In this time two solitary top-flight seasons would be counterbalanced by a spell in the fourth tiers and numerous flirtations with bankruptcy.
At the turn of the millennium after a brief spell where Terry Venables had bought the club for £1, new chairman Milan Mandarić took over the club at the recommendation of his friend George Best. Under the new sporting director and later manager Harry Redknapp, experienced players like Paul Merson and Tim Sherwood were brought in to help the youngsters of the club brave the promotion battle. During their first spell in the Premier League, Teddy Sheringham was added to the roster. This allowed Pompey to gain stability in the top tier and Mandarić would capitalize on his investment, selling the club to Franco-Russian businessman Alexandre Gaydamak.
At a time when mystery Russian billionaires were a fan’s dream, the Pompey faithful were ecstatic to see funds pumped into the club. Harry Rednkanpp’s reputation for savviness in the transfer market skyrocketed with the club signing a blend of promising players unknown outside of England and more experienced veterans, who could still cut it in a mid-table side. Benjani, Glen Johnson, Sol Campbell, Andy Cole, Niko Kranjčar, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch are all still prominently featured in their Portsmouth shirts, whenever someone wants to evoke the mid-2000s and the atmosphere of English football.
This atmosphere saw mid to lower-table clubs slowly push into the limelight usually occupied by the big four, with the riches of the Premier League slowly starting to trickle down the table. In 2008 Portsmouth seemed to be the ones who could capitalize on this situation and join the big boys, with a competent manager, a rich investor and an FA Cup in their trophy cabinet. But as we all know, there are always bigger and more financially stable fish in the sea, with one of them, Tottenham snapped up Harry Redknapp.
In the subsequent two years, Portsmouth’s heavy investment came back to haunt their owner, as the world was preparing to weather the global financial crisis. Redknapp would take Defoe and Crouch to his new club, as a fire sale ensued. Part of the fire sale was the club itself, as Gaydamak and his father’s financial empires were starting to crumble as more and more reports were coming out outlining their involvement in the illegal arms trade. As another mark of the times, the shady Russian owner with links to the arms trade in the Angolan Civil War was to be replaced by an even shadier Middle Eastern owner.
Sulaiman Al-Fahim, was a hitherto unknown figure, reported to be anything from a confidant of the Abu Dhabi royal family, having helped them in their takeover of Manchester City, to an outright sheikh who would bring Champions League football to the South Coast of England. In reality, he is an Emirati television personality and self-styled doctor, despite no records existing of him having earned his Ph.D. His six-week-long ownership of Portsmouth was cut short by his indictment for stealing £5 million from his wife, to fund the purchase, as no respectable creditors would touch him with a 5-foot pole.
In stepped Ali al-Faraj, another mysterious multi-millionaire, who was ready to save the club. Incredibly, after getting burned by the last so-called sheikh, this one managed not only to make the burns even worse but also to rub salt into them. After a video of him emerged, where he stated that he in fact had no money and his purchase of the club was a hoax, reports emerged that he had defaulted on his payments to his creditors.
The same creditors who offered him a £17 million loan, were represented by Balram Chainrai and his company Portpin Ltd. Chainrai, who is a Hong Kong businessman, took over Portsmouth and immediately placed them into administration. Remarkably, despite their best players exiting the club like a bunch of schoolchildren when the final bell rings, the club somehow reached the 2010 FA Cup Final, where they lost to Chelsea. Meanwhile, the club’s ownership situation would come full circle, with another Russian businessman taking over in 2011.
Vladimir Aleksandrovich Antonov, was actually a convicted fraudster, operating under the guise of a banker, accused and convicted of fraud, asset stripping and grand embezzlement with an outstanding Europe-wide arrest warrant. As Portsmouth were facing bankruptcy with unpaid wages and taxes and the Pompey Supporters Trust were taking over the club, reports emerged that Ali al-Faraj was never actually real and was a puppet created by several investors who were looking to recoup money from the Gaydamak family by asset stripping the club.
The club has since clawed back ground from the depths of League Two, and in 2017, after much vetting and investigation, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner became an investor. Portsmouth are still in League One, but looking much healthier, breaking ground on a new training facility, with a real billionaire at the helm. They missed out on a spot in the promotion playoffs by seven points, finishing eighth in the table.
The ordeal of their ownership has reportedly forced the Premier League to reevaluate their ownership practices. However, as the ownership of Newcastle, Sheffield United and Manchester City shows, this only applies to the question of your assets and funds being real. This does not apply to whether or not you are leading a despotic regime guilty of oppression, discrimination and in the case of Saudi Arabia the murder of thousands of innocents and a humanitarian crisis.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Joe Giddens – PA Images