Portsmouth FC: Betrayal of fan ownership or a golden opportunity?

Roger Johns writes a guest piece on ex-Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s proposed takeover of League Two champions Portsmouth…

When Michael Eisner first appeared over the horizon a fellow Pompey fan posed the question “betrayal or golden opportunity?”  

I have held off from answering until now but, having read a lot of what has appeared in the media (both mainstream and social) and listened as best I could to Mr Eisner’s recent charm offensive to community shareholders and Portsmouth Supporters Trust (PST) members at the Guildhall, I now say betrayal; on a number of fronts.

The Club Board.

Firstly let me say that I think they have done a pretty decent job of running the club day to day. They’ve made mistakes here and there but who doesn’t? However, part of the job of a Chief Executive and their supporting directors and staff is to plan for the future.  

It now appears that those plans went no further than waiting for the first apparently reasonable offer from a potential sugar daddy and the chance to get back into their comfort zone of rich owner, fans no more than punters putting money over the counter.  Where was the research into alternative ways of raising funds?

I know of no other business (other than one on the brink of insolvency) whose answer to needing to fund capital projects is to sell the business lock, stock and barrel to someone else. The usual answer is properly planned borrowing in one form or another.  

And before the “but we are debt free” brigade get on my back the crucial phrase here is properly planned not some seemingly bottomless pit of money used to prop the business up day to day with no thought for future development.

Instead what we got was an endless stream of propaganda telling us that fan ownership is unviable. That the previous projection of it being able to take us to the Championship was suddenly being downgraded to mid table League One at best.  

That Fratton Park is falling down and we need to spend a minimum of £5m with hints that we need to raise the money immediately even though the work needs to be done over several years. I know of two clubs in Germany with very similar fan bases to ours who have completely rebuilt their grounds with no dilution to fan ownership.  

I’m sure there must be others all over Europe. Has anybody bothered to contact those clubs to ask how they did it? It appears not. Closer to home has anyone even spoken to AFC Wimbledon or FC United of Manchester?

We also have the revelation that our Chief Executive apparently believes that fan ownership either can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to work. I believe his words were something along the lines of it’s like working in handcuffs.

And finally, the announcement that PST shareholders will no longer get any discount on season tickets. I may be a cynical old sod but this reads like – we don’t need you anymore so piss off – to me.  

The Presidents

In addition to the PST shareholders there is a group of 16 individuals, known as presidents. Each has invested a substantial amount into Portsmouth Community Football Club Limited and between them they hold 51.52% of the shares. All bar one are Pompey fans and were fortunate enough to have the means to invest more than any individual PST shareholder.

I used to think they did it not just because they are Pompey fans but also because they believed in fan ownership as the way to run the club then and in the future. I didn’t think they regarded it as a short term loan, but it seems I was wrong.  

I now hear that they want their money back but are negotiating hard with our potential new benefactor to hold onto the perks and privileges they had as presidents. Rather gallingly, I understand that when it came to voting on the removal of the community shareholders discount on season tickets the presidents’ vote was in favour. I feel particularly betrayed by this.

The Supporters Trust

Some time ago I was told that a member of the Supporters Trust board had been detailed off to look to Europe for alternative ownership models for running a professional football club.

I even offered to make some introductions if necessary. I’m not pretending to know any Presidents of German clubs (the equivalent of our Chairman/woman role) but I do know some people who do. I didn’t really think the trust board member needed any introductions in European football but the offer was there.

Since then neither I nor, I believe, anyone else has heard a dickie bird about this. Did it happen? If not, why not?

Much like the club board wanting to rely on a sugar daddy, it seems that the trust board’s plans for future funding stretch no further than asking people who have already given (and I use the word advisedly) what for most people is a substantial amount of money to give more.

Indeed, on social media last week one message was “If you vote NO then the expectation is that you will be willing to put your hand in your pocket in the coming years to finance the club” and yet nothing seems to be on offer other than more community shares, ie another gift to the club.

Where is the research into other means of funding? At the very least some sort of bond issue offering investors a return on their outlay. Interest rates remain at their lowest for decades.

If we were able to offer something attractive we wouldn’t have to rely on our fan base alone but could attract anyone looking for a decent place to put their money for a few years.

Instead we are being asked to choose between a rock and a hard place.

A significant number of Pompey fans

Until recently the song “we own our own club” could be heard ringing out around Fratton Park even though with home fans averaging around 16,000 per game and the total number of shares in the club coming in at 5,673 (including the presidents’ holding)  large numbers of those singing actually didn’t.

How quickly things change. Now we read accusations of selfishness and overinflated egos if we don’t want to sell out to the first person to come along waving his wad.

In my experience it is those who contributed nothing financially in our darkest hour who are shouting loudest to sell up. Perhaps another message board poster was right when he asked whether “Portsmouth is really a city with undue deference to authority and to those with status or wealth”. There is a lot of barrel chested bravado about but maybe, like Ronnie Corbett, we know our place!

All of us

Shortly after the trust and the presidents finally got the keys to Fratton Park I went out for a drink with an old workmate who, at the time, was chairman of a fan owned non-league club.

His words to me were “you do realise it is essential that you make this work”. We know from the lack of support, and occasionally downright obstruction, we got from the FA and Football League that they don’t want fan ownership creeping into their cosy little world.

Our continued success under that model would act as a beacon to other clubs in a similar position to ours just four years ago. Leyton Orient leap to mind but the list is really as long as your arm.

Instead it looks like the signal we will soon be sending out is fan ownership is no more than a sticking plaster in professional football, and the FA and Football League will be only too pleased to shout it from the rooftops.

All in all, when the vote to take Mr Eisner’s money goes through we will have let down English football as a whole.

@The_False_Nine

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