We'll Run It Ourselves! (Probably)

Pompey is on the brink of becoming the largest supporter-owned club in the UK. Could it act as a template or are most of us too lazy to bother when the bubble bursts?

Last Updated: 25/10/12 at 16:52 Post Comment

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For a few years now, Fratton Park has been the home to a sort of teeth-gnashing defiance. With little to cheer for, but much to howl against, chants mocking the fit and proper persons test or the club's latest dubious owner have been common. It hasn't been a happy place to spend a Saturday afternoon as the club fluttered down the divisions, losing money and respect from within the game as it went.

On Saturday, there was a different mood for the first time in years. During the victory over Shrewsbury, a new chant ripped through the Fratton end. "...And now you're going to believe us, we're going to run the club."

Last week, Portsmouth's administrators named the Pompey Supporters' Trust (PST) as the preferred bidder to take over the club. This is an extraordinary U-turn following the removal of Portpin, the club's major creditor, co-run by Israeli businessman Balram Chanrai, which was leading the race during the last two months. Many supporters believe Chanrai, who has a £17m charge over Fratton Park, is seeking control in order to asset-strip the club. He denies it.

Run by supporters, and sustainably financed, the PST's bid is one built on sacrifices: of money and time - two things few of us have much of these days. If successful, Portsmouth will become, by a stretch, the largest supporter-owned club in the UK. The trust will operate a democratic one-member-one-vote ownership structure, regardless of how much money each member puts in, and elect a board to run the club.

The manner in which the fans wrested control from Portpin is worth wider attention. There is background: the received wisdom is that Portsmouth's ownership during the last five years was so opaque, so complex, that journalists had struggled to find out the truth behind the roll call of owners. The club was a mess, we were told. Let's leave it at that.

But Pompey fan Micah Hall did pursue the mess, starting three years ago, when Ali-al-Faraj bought a 90% stake in the club. Hall, like many fans, worried about the intentions of this new owner. So he began to investigate, and as the club changed hands over the coming years, between Israelis, Russians and Arabs, his work increased.

To be clear, Hall is not an investigative journalist; he's an IT manager. He has four children and a grandchild; he is a busy man. But the saga mattered to him, so he spoke to club insiders, before spreading his network until he had sources across all related parties in the Middle East and Russia as well as the Israeli mafia. Under threat from potentially crippling libel charges, each allegation had to stand up. So Hall spent two-and-a-half years verifying every claim from every side of the story. "I had a huge amount of strange lunches in London with Israelis," he says. Hall then offered his information to leading journalists at the national papers, with almost every Portsmouth piece they published over the past three years featuring his work.

Three weeks ago, while Portpin were still the preferred bidder, and on track to take over the club again, Hall landed his punch. He published a series of articles on his blog which revealed the relationships and motivations behind Portsmouth's saga.

Crucially, he proved that Portpin had in fact been partly responsible for putting the club in administration on two occasions, as a way of protecting their investment. This was significant: under the Football League's fit and proper test, any party having done this is deemed unworthy of taking control again.

Hall's revelations spread. The national papers, again, picked up on the story. Portpin called Hall's allegations defamatory. Hall asked - and continues to ask - Portpin to prove defamation. They have not. Days later, after the articles had been delivered to the Football League's offices, Portpin were replaced by the trust as preferred bidders. This should now be enough to ensure the trust takes over. "But if the dispute rumbles on, we've got plenty more to publish," he says.

Why do Hall and the PST matter to anyone other than Pompey fans? They matter when their achievements are put into the context of what being a football supporter is for many of us now. The fact that a volunteering, supporter-backed bid rescued a club in large part because of the unpaid sleuthing of a fan is completely at odds with the state of the British game.

Football is largely a sedentary sport for many in the UK; one to be consumed in pubs on Super Sundays, not fought for on blogs, in town hall meetings or bucket collections. Football is blockbuster, but it's being fed to us. We play it less too, though that's largely down to the government's steady neglect of our local pitches.

But there is a group of people, helped by Supporters' Direct, that are engaged so much with their clubs that the boundaries between fan, customer, and owner have become completely blurred. Supporters' trusts are rooted in co-operatives, in community-led initiatives and volunteering. They're hard work - like the Big Society, if the Big Society meant anything. And while the rest of the sport lives off soft loans from owners, fans of supporter-owned clubs must familiarise themselves with prudence, of spending what they earn. "People assume a club has to have an owner with deep pockets," says Hall. "Well only if it's badly run. And you can't afford to run a supporter-owned club badly."

Supporter ownership is not a panacea to football's ills. Indeed, it comes with its own, unique problems. The Portsmouth bid is based on £100 pledges. These pledges need to be converted to £1000 shares to finance the club. Asking supporters to do that, just before Christmas and in the depths of a recession, will not be easy.

Longer-term apathy could be a problem too. The mood at Fratton Park is euphoric this week. That joy, inevitably, cannot be sustained. And when the fans are calling for a solution to their midfield crisis or a reserve keeper in January, it won't be long until they realise that if anyone's going to pay for it, it'll be them.

Supporter ownership may force us to view our clubs as obligations not distractions, but the movement is growing. Although the majority are in the lower leagues, 26 British clubs are in ownership or control by supporters' trust, and over 100 trusts now have shareholdings in their clubs.

Despite the £3 billion Sky deal swilling money around the game, and the news this week that the Glazers remain committed to United, the wave of foreign investment cannot last forever. And with Financial Fair Play starting to bite, owners will soon realise they won't see their investment again. Many clubs are already in the broken model of governance that Supporters' Direct describe as a 'a chronic and deep-set financial instability', owing more and more to their owners. "We will look back on these few years as the Wild West of football," says Hall.

We like the Wild West though don't we? Will Smith lives there, with goals and in-game odds, and the Champions League theme music. Well, no - many don't. During research conducted by Dr. Adam Brown of Manchester Metropolitan University, supporters were asked what they valued most about their clubs. It was not success on the pitch, but their importance within their family, social and communities' lives that mattered most. And in a 2010 Football League supporter survey, 45% of fan respondents said that the Football League's priority should be ensuring the long-term financial survival of its 72 clubs.

Portsmouth is not representative of other clubs. It has been toyed with by such a rich tapestry of speculators that supporter-ownership is the only option. Most clubs don't need a Micah Hall or a campaigning trust to save them. But many have them waiting in the wings and it might not be long until they're needed. The question is though, if the bubble does burst, can the rest of us be bothered?

Tom Young (he's on the Twitter)

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