I have been a Marxist for all of my adult life but an active supporter of Pompey (Portsmouth FC) since I was a young boy so what follows is full of an unmarxist subjectivity – indeed there is an element of irrationality (some would say total irrationality) involved in supporting any football club. The details of Pompey’s current plight are probably not that well known outside of the city’s catchment area though most people will be aware that over the past few years the club has been in financial freefall – in part caused by and certainly mirroring the financial crisis of global capitalism for which the greedy bankers are so responsible (though, of course, capitalism is inherently a system of economic crisis).
For the record, the most successful period in my (and most other current fans’) lifetime saw us promoted to the Premiership in 2003 and winning the FA cup in 2008, but this has been followed by the worst crisis the club has ever faced (and Pompey does have a history of being a club in crisis). Through a combination of gross financial mismanagement and greed on the part of those who have owned the club, and vindictiveness/incompetence on the part of football’s governing bodies, the club has faced the constant threat of liquidation since 2010. It was relegated from the Premiership at the end of the 2009/10 season, and then from the Championship at the end of last season and, if we still exist, will be relegated to League 2 at the end of this season. There are those (particularly the supporters of the club down the road[i]) who will say it serves us right for living beyond our means during the glory years of 2003-8, but, as briefly documented below, the club’s current dire situation is the fault of those who have mismanaged the club rather than the long-suffering supporters who, along with club workers who have lost their jobs or had their wages cut, are the real victims of all that has occurred.
In 2009, when the financial problems the club was facing first become public knowledge, we were owned by the Gaydamak family. The nominal owner of the club was Sacha Gaydamk, but it was always believed that it was his father, Arkadi, who pulled the strings. In the wake of the banking crisis, and successful prosecution of Arkadi for financial misdemeanours (in Israel I think), the Gaydamaks decided they were no longer prepared to bankroll the club and went from being its sole financial benefactors to its major creditors. This in itself gives us an abject lesson, at a micro level, in the perverse nature of capitalism – you can be the cause of a financial crisis but go on to be its main benefactor - exactly what the banks have done, of course, the whole world over. To cut a long and very very murky story[ii] short: the club ultimately passed into the ownership of Balram Chanrai, who took over the club’s debts at a huge rate of compound interest and put it into administration in 2010; it was then purchased from Chanrai by a Russian banker, Vladimir Antonov, who was deemed a fit and proper person to run a football club by the Football League despite a history of dodgy dealings being a matter of public record; on his arrest for alleged bank fraud in Lithuania the club effectively passed back into the hands of Chanrai and into administration where it remains to this day.
As again many will be aware, the current situation is that there is an ongoing battle between Chanrai and the Portsmouth Supporters Trust to buy the club and take it out of administration (if the club is not out of administration by the start of the next season it will be expelled from the League so even League Two football will not happen). The Trust is composed of Pompey fans who, individually or as a group, can afford £1000 to buy one share in the club should the Trust become its owners. The sticking point is that Chanrai is the effective owner of our ground, Fratton Park, and he is demanding millions of pounds more than the ground is worth to sell it to the Trust – yet again, therefore, Chanrai is holding the club’s supporters to ransom. The true value of the ground is now before the courts to decide upon, but a matter that should have been resolved last month has been subject to a series of court adjournments, and this brings us to the problem with the Trust and the limits to any notion of a community club being owned and run by the supporters.
Inevitably, the supporters who will actually run the club will be those who own most of the shares and they are largely businessmen (and I mean men) who are much wealthier than the average supporter of the Trust, let along the average supporter in general. This small group of people are the only ones who really know what is going on and why the sale of the club to the Trust, despite being the official preferred bidder, is being delayed. If the Trust does buy the club it will be this group who will really own and run Pompey. Does this mean that I do not support the Trust? Well, actually, I do. There is no way that I can see that a genuine community club can come about. Such a club would be fully under the control of its supporters and those who work for it, with any management board being fully democratically accountable and subject to immediate recall. This is not going to happen. The words ‘island’, ‘socialism’, ‘sea’ and ‘capital’ spring to mind.
However, in contrast to how the club has been run before, and I don’t just mean the recent past, ownership by the Trust would be a very definite improvement. We would no longer be subject to the whims, fortunes and misfortunes of a rich ‘Sugar Daddy’ who can promise the supporters the earth and end up bankrupting the club. Through the ordinary supporters of the Trust, supporters in general and the club’s workers could be able to learn how the club is being run financially –at the very least there will be some restrictions on, if not an actual end to, normal boardroom secrecy, and supporters, who are also shareholders, should demand that the books are made open to all.
The views of the supporters will have to be heard, even if they will not always be acted on. This has to be better than the views of supporters not being sought at all, or, if they are, then being blatantly ignored. The capitalist corporate norm of a division between ownership and control will be maintained but Pompey fans will have a hitherto unprecedented involvement in the affairs of their club. Indeed, hopefully, we will have more of a real say than was the case, for example, with the Dumas in Czarist Russia, though, as was the case in Russia, a socialist revolution is the precondition for the establishment of genuine workers’ democracy and this would include football clubs genuinely controlled by their workers and supporters. (Is the demand for a community club actually a transitional demand, I find myself wondering!)
Right now it is impossible to say whether the Trust will successfully buy Pompey: indeed as I write there is breaking news that a new consortium led by an investment banker is putting in a bid for the club – bad news indeed! – though it has also been reported that for once the Football League will do the right thing by Pompey and refuse to permit a new bidder. Whilst it does not become any Pompey fan to be optimistic we could be the largest club in the land to be fully owned, if not controlled, by the fans and perhaps a beacon of light for others to follow. On the football field we will perhaps follow the model provided by Swansea, a club in which the fans have a 20% stake, and rise from the floor of the Football League to the promised land of the Premiership – though, for myself, I got bored with the likes of Man U and hardly ever playing on a Saturday afternoon, so I’ll be happy with the Championship, which I regard as Pompey’s natural home.
[i] Southampton FC for those unitiated in south coast football rivalries.
[ii] The best thing I have come across on the details of Pompey’s financial mismanagement is by David Conn in an article published in The Guardian, 26 October 2012, entitled ‘Portsmouth nightmare nears its end as fans are given reason to dream again’ – though, unfortunately in the here and now, the nightmare continues.