Thursday 27 November ~
Portsmouth are preparing to face AC Milan in the UEFA Cup tonight. In WSC 150 (August 1999), Steve Morgan described the fans' reaction to the arrival of another Milan, Serbian-American owner Mr Mandaric
The sight of grown men behaving like kids has not been confined purely to footballers on holiday this summer. Serbian tycoon Milan Mandaric’s £5 million takeover of Portsmouth has seen long-suffering supporters on the south coast spend the close season pinching themselves in disbelief.
In fact, tickets for Pompey’s pre-season friendly against Tiverton changed hands for up to £40 on the black market. OK, so I made that bit up. However, beneath the flannel and inevitable gormless photocall with a freshly unwrapped scarf, there is a sense of optimism that Fratton Park’s creaking timber facade could finally receive the kind of TLC normally only associated in these parts with that other bit of dead wood, the Mary Rose.
Mandaric’s financial credentials – founded in the US electronics industry – are certainly good. They’ll need to be. With the club £7.3m in debt before he rescued it from six months of limbo in administration, few would dispute the need for a smart business plan. Equally importantly, Mandaric’s footballing credentials look solid. Previous chairman Martin Gregory – besides having the business acumen to make Frank Spencer look like Rupert Murdoch – had no interest in Pompey and was content to go skiing while the club faced two winding-up orders.
All the while, a list of creditors longer than Mr Tickle’s arms queued up to claim back debts as small as a piddling £2.50. None but the most misty-eyed Pompey fan imagines Mandaric, still Miami-based, is here on a purely philanthropic mission. Football, after all, is business. He has supposedly looked into buying Sunderland and Manchester City in recent years and first sniffed around the club four years ago. Conspiracy theorists have expressed doubts at the return of former director David Deacon as the club’s new managing director.
In his defence, Deacon was a driving force in the attempt to build Parkway, a new £20m stadium in 1994. This plan was eventually scuppered at a public inquiry by the unlikely double act of blue-rinse Tories and Brent geese, who didn’t want their nesting sites disturbed (the geese, that is). If the “charismatic” Mandaric – as Clubcall insists on referring to him – can start by clawing back just some of the goodwill eroded by Gregory’s tenure, that will be a victory as sweet as any achieved at 4.45 on a Saturday afternoon.
Season ticket prizes have been frozen – a good start – and talks are under way with the developers who recently acquired the British Rail goods yard adjoining Fratton Park. This land has assumed almost Grail-like significance as the playground where supporters weaned on tales of back-to-back Championships just after the war go to dream their dreams. Mandaric has already spoken of the need to build a 35,000-seat stadium, and Alan Ball looks set to smash the club’s paltry £650,000 transfer record before the season starts.
One small detail buried beneath the season ticket brochure blurb offers a huge slice of hope. As a footnote to all the usual promises and pictures of old greats (Vince Hilaire in this instance), the address reads “Portsmouth City Football Club”. The addition of City sounds great – a partnership with the people, a new dawn. We may still be in the First Division, we may still be skint, but we are – at least for this week – very definitely into Milan.