Local hero

Terry Venables still doesn't have full control of Portsmouth, but Sarah Gilmore explains why his popularity is soaring

Late night shopping has never thrilled me. So you can imagine how I felt to be faced with a mass of families packed into Portsmouth city centre, eagerly responding to the local radio DJ’s attempts to whip up some enthusiasm for the Christmas lights’ switch-on. Expectation was in the air as I shoved my way through the throng of three thousand people. The DJ squawked his way to an hysterical climax interrupted by huge roar for the celebrity switcher: “Ladies and gentlemen… Mr Terry Venables!” The only sound of dissent amidst the cheering, and stamping came from the man squashed next to me. “Bloody second from bottom,” he said – as he clapped enthusiastically.

This good natured reception reflects the fact that in little over a year, El Tel has become a symbol of Pompey: his blokeyness hitting a chord in a city marked by its unpretentiousness. He is Mr Portsmouth, our most famous citizen; the bloke most men would like to have a pint with and who at least arouses curiosity (if nothing else) in women who would not be seen dead near Fratton Park.

But two days after he switched on the lights, building work on the new Fratton Road stand was suspended due to yet another serious cash flow crisis at the club. Rumours of financial difficulties had been coming for a while. Hotel bills run up during away matches were apparently going unpaid and local traders were refusing to deal with the club because of late payments. The club is still unable to attract the required level of investment despite having one of the most charismatic men in the game at its head, and despite the fact that Portsmouth is a city with a thriving service sector and some huge businesses operating within it (IBM’s European HQ is located here).

Certainly, part of the problems with financing the stand comes from the Football Trust’s drip feed policy of providing monthly payments to the club instead of a lump sum, but what about the financing of the club itself? Why has the new Chairman seemed to be so unsuccessful at raising the dosh?

Obviously Terry’s reputation is going to be a factor for any would-be investor. But that is not the whole story. It is no secret that Venables has been in negotiations with the former Chairman and owner, Martin Gregory, seeking to buy the rest of Gregory’s 46% stake in the club. Estimates put the asking price for this share at £3.5 million, money which Venables either does not have or does not want to pay. Unsurprisingly, negotiations have recently broken down and Venables has stated that he is willing to sell if the right offer for control was made and was in the club’s interests.

Remember that Venables bought his 51% share in the club for the sum of £1 – yes, as in one hundred pence – last year. He has never hidden his desire to own a club outright, and by extending his controlling interest at the club, he would be able to control the share structure – potentially paving the way for a Stock Market flotation and a nice little touch for Terry.

As a result of the deadlock with Gregory, Venables can be in no doubt as to what his share in the club is currently worth, which has to prompt questions as to what his long-term intentions are at Portsmouth. Will he clear off with approximately £4 million in his pocket, or will he stay for the possibility of much more should the club float successfully?

Logically, you’d probably put your money on the latter, but TV has always shown a distinct lack of the staying power you need to be chairman of a distinctly unglamorous club which is not yet within spitting distance of the big boys of the Premiership.

Two months ago an American property developer, Vince Wolanin, and his business partner, Brian Howe, unveiled plans to bankroll Portsmouth and build a new stadium. Venables dismissed their offer on the grounds that there was not sufficient detail in their proposals, but he seems to be a little more inclined to talk now – or at least when Australia’s World Cup campaign is out of the way.

Ah, the Aussie business. Venables is said to control every aspect of the club and that includes the team. One can certainly detect his hand in the purchasing of five Australian players despite specific clauses in his contract as Aussie national coach which prevent him from doing so. This might not necessarily be an issue if Portsmouth could win matches. But performances have been so uninspiring that at my last visit the three children I took – fans all – were more interested in a cyber pet. Which leads one to wonder whether Venables has lost his touch in an area where he was inviolable. The disaster that is this season cannot simply be laid in total at the door of the awful Fenwick when the chairman has clearly had more than a passing involvement in playing affairs.

Most Pompey fans, I will confess, don’t feel the way I do. They see a new stand taking shape at last after years of promises and failed attempts. The fact that he promised a stadium gets neatly forgotten. In the last few matches, Venables has gone down to the dug out from the Directors’ Box. You can feel the buzz when he does this – the expectation is tangible.

Reality rarely seems to intrude into Terry Venables’ world. Judges may criticize him, but it’s his business adviser Eddie Ashby who goes to prison. We’re near the relegation zone but it’s Terry Fenwick that the fans are screaming at. The people of Portsmouth just seem relieved that that the dreary days of the Gregorys are over and that the present incumbent is at least acting out partial aspects of his promises. The happy shoppers applauding their adopted son are showing their appreciation for bringing ‘good times’ that could be leading all the way to Division Two.

From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month