Loyal fans stand by Portsmouth despite their rapid decline and fall
Despite now being mired in League Two, some 16,000 supporters still turned out at Fratton Park for the club’s last home game
Portsmouth’s Jed Wallace is challenged by Coventry’s Frank Moussa during the npower League One match at Fratton Park. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
It was around five years ago said the downcast teenager. A local non-League side of his, Sandhurst, were hosting AFC Wimbledon, then a ‘phoenix club’ on the rise but still a fair way down English football’s pyramid in the Isthmian League.
Wimbledon brought 1,000 fans with them that friendly day, regardless of their reduced status. Jed Wallace, 14, was impressed.
That occasion came back to Wallace, now 19, last Saturday evening. Wallace plays in midfield for Portsmouth in England’s old fourth division, now known as League Two. And last Saturday Wallace spoke after this scoreline: Wimbledon 4 Portsmouth 0.
It was Portsmouth’s third consecutive defeat across three competitions and it left them 16th in the division. Famous old Pompey are six points off relegation, again.
“I went and watched Wimbledon once, now I am playing against them for Pompey and we have been absolutely bullied for 90 minutes,” Wallace told the travelling Portsmouth press pack.
“I remember seeing them [Wimbledon] at Sandhurst five years ago,” Wallace continued, “and at that time you think what Pompey were. It shows what has happened at the club.”
In 2008 Portsmouth were the FA Cup-holders; in 2008 they finished eighth in the Premier League. In this very week in 2008, AC Milan visited Fratton Park in the Uefa Cup and needed late goals from Ronaldinho and Inzaghi to nab a point. Today Portsmouth play Scunthorpe United.
The fall is even steeper when you consider Portsmouth were still in the Premier League in 2010. They also made the FA Cup final again that year, losing 1-0 (Didier Drogba)to Chelsea.
Harry Redknapp had departed by then, Avram Grant was ‘in charge’. After Tony Adams and Paul Hart, Grant was Redknapp’s third successor. Soon Steve Cotterill would make it four. Michael Appleton would follow Cotterill and now it’s old-boy Guy Whittingham picking the team, with Alan McLoughlin assisting him. Five seasons, six managers, three relegations.
It sounds like a wonky countdown and the Fratton faithful – more than 16,000 at the last home game – are beginning to fear the countdown isn’t over.
In Dickens’ home town they have known hard times before, but Portsmouth have not been non-League since 1920. To go back there next May would be staggering, literally.
Understandably, there is some sporting pessimism. This has coincided with news of Portsmouth dockyard’s proposed closure. After 500 years of shipbuilding over 900 jobs are to be lost, as well as an industrial culture.
Coincidence also saw 900 as the number of Pompey fans at Wimbledon. Many more watched a beam-back of the match on the south coast. Their loyalty deserves better.
So Portsmouth is entitled to its blues. But all is not lost, not yet. The league table shows this is a cramped division. Pompey are six points off the play-off places as well as relegation. And Scunthorpe sacked their manager Brian Laws this week, an indication of their form.
Back to young Jed Wallace post-Wimbledon: “Personally I am embarrassed how we performed. I am bored of coming out after every game when we don’t perform well saying ‘we owe the fans one’. There is only so much talking you can do.”
He is a teenager with attitude it seems. Luckily for Wallace and his colleagues, such attitude has already been seen – and not just heard – from Portsmouth’s fans, who only saved their club. Since April the club is owned, almost 60 per cent of it, by the local Supporters’ Trust. The rest is owned by sympathetic local businessmen. There is still debt but after relegation, administration, speculation, the solace is that Portsmouth are not run by hitherto unheard-of characters such as Sacha Gaydamak or Balram Chainrai.
Gross financial negligence led to Pompey being deducted 29 points over three seasons as they tumbled downwards. Now, in theory, Portsmouth FC has regained some balance and perspective. There is rational pride and self-determination, where there had been chaos and recrimination.
The perseverance of supporters such as Portsmouth’s – and Wimbledon’s – to fight against what must seem like an invisible tidal wave of economic and corporate inevitability is one of the heartening developments in an era when professional football has cut loose from its traditional roots.
Mere existence for these fans and clubs is a success. It should not be but wreckage has been foisted upon them and Portsmouth’s recent trajectory is as grievous a warning as any of what can go wrong when a club loses its grip on reality. Just as Sol Campbell got his hands on the 2008 FA Cup, Pompey were losing their grip on reality.
Five years later the reborn club reported that 10,000 season tickets had been sold. But that does not guarantee success. Fans take over when matters have deteriorated to their worst, when auditors and creditors demand paying, when players have been released because there is no income and no replacements have been signed because of the same.
All that remains is the fanbase. There is always a smattering of eejits among every club’s support but Portsmouth and Wimbledon show there are local heroes there too, lots of them. He might be bored of saying so but today Jed Wallace and his teammates really do owe them all one.