Six years ago, black clouds loomed over Fratton Park as Portsmouth had been plunged into their second administration in three seasons, suffered their third relegation in four seasons and had started their stint in League Two with minus 10 points. The once high-flying Premier League club faced its toughest test yet…survival.
With a revolving door of bad owners, each more comic book villain-like than the last, the club was in dire need of a saviour.
Enter the Portsmouth Supporters Trust, stage right. The heroes of the hour. With sheer determination and after a slew of High Court battles it was loyal and dedicated fans who stepped up and saved Portsmouth FC, turning them into the biggest supporter-owned club in English Football.
Supporter-ownership brought with it a new set of challenges and an impressive amount of success both on and off the pitch. Four successful years in the supporter’s hands saw the club’s considerable debt cleared and delivered a promotion back into League One.
Having repaid approximately £7 million to the club’s creditors and clearing the club’s debts two years ahead of schedule the PST showed the true power of a correctly executed fan-ownership model and it was these achievements which garnered the attention of former Walt Disney chief Executive Michael Eisner and his Tornate investment group.
Last year Eisner made an offer of £5.67 million for 100% ownership of Portsmouth FC with a promise to invest a further £10 million in the club, a drop in the ocean of Eisner’s estimated $1 billion net worth.
The takeover offer was put to PST members who voted a majority in favour of accepting alongside a majority of the club presidents who in turn had an ownership stake of 51%.
The PST don’t view the takeover as a failure of fan-ownership, nor should they. It is regarded by all as a successful chapter in the history of their club and importantly the final decision whether to accept the takeover was made by them, the supporters. The PST chairman, Ashley Brown, said in a statement: “This is true fan ownership and democracy at work. Our fans decided who the next owner of our club would be – and it will be Michael Eisner and Tornante.”
It is a little over a year since the Portsmouth Supporters' Trust sold their shares in the football club. But while saving the club from extinction by fronting an unprecedented fan takeover in 2013 was the PST’s most ambitious project, what has followed is surely a close second.
Supporters trust boards are elected from their members and are volunteers. None are paid for the work they do in connection to their trusts or clubs, all united by an overwhelming dedication to serving both their clubs and their communities. The PST showcases the true diversity of skills found within a football club fanbase and the impressive success a group could have when effectively accessing, nurturing and channelling those skills.
The volunteer members of the PST have spent the last 12 months redistributing the £2.75m they received from Michael Eisner back to the fans who originally invested to fund the takeover.
Pompey fans who had bought shares for £1,000 to fund the takeover back in 2013 could apply to receive their money back from the PST.
Donald Vass, PST Treasurer, said: “The share withdrawal scheme was a hugely ambitious project fraught with difficulty – immense credit must go primarily to Simon Colebrook and Steve Hatton who have ensured its smooth running.
Each individual handwritten application, and there have been more than 2,300 to date, has had to be manually checked, input and paid.
It is, frankly, remarkable that we have had no reports of missing or incorrect payments, which is testament to the care taken by those working on the project.”
As well as returning more than £2,300,000 to those who invested in order to save the club, large donations have been made to important local organisations thanks to the generosity of the shareholders, who were given the option to give some of their returns to community projects.
Those community projects include Pompey in the Community, who work with more than 7,000 people a week in the Portsmouth area and provide education, coaching in schools, inclusive, accessible football and multi sports for those with a range of disabilities as well as an array of community engagement projects.
Recently shortlisted in the Best Football Community Scheme at the Football Business Awards, Pompey in the Community have received £76,000 in donations from the PST to further their excellent work.
Another group to receive donations are Pompey History Society who have benefited to the tune of £35,000.
The Pompey History Society was formed in 2015 when a group of like-minded fans, who share a passion for the club’s history, came together to start work towards creating a permanent physical and digital archive for the club.
The society has applied for charitable status, which it anticipates it will achieve by the end of the year and it is also currently working with partners, such as the University of Portsmouth and the local newspaper, to submit a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to help record the memories of fans who lived through the club’s league title wins in 1949 and 1950.
The societies Chair Colin Farmery who is also employed as the club’s Senior Safeguarding manager said “The money the PST members have donated has transformed the reach and scope of the society. Until then, we were a fairly small “cottage industry” with a budget to match. The money enabled to undertake two high-profile projects which have benefited everyone and given us the confidence to press forward. The club now has a magnificent trophy in its cabinet to reflect the standing of the club, while fans can be reassured that trophy will never be abused or mistreated – as historical artifacts of the club have been in the past by previous owners – as it is owned in trust by the society.”
In addition to donating to relevant non-profit organisations, some shareholders have opted to donate money back to the PST itself, which now intends to use their own windfall to fund a community football pitch locally.
The PST now focuses on providing a crucial link between fans and the club’s new American owners. The PST occupies three seats on the club’s Heritage and Advisory Board which has a remit including protection of the club’s name, colours, badge and the prevention of relocation to anywhere more than 15 miles from the city centre.
The PST representatives meet regularly with the owners and directors of the club to represent the views of fans and give feedback on the running of the club. Recently the club and the PST have been jointly nominated for “Best Club and Supporters Group Relationship” at this year’s Football Business Awards.
The award is there to recognise the close and positive relationship between the supporters trust and club and is a testament to the ongoing dialogue and developing bonds between all parties for the betterment of the club, the protection of its heritage and its future.
There is so much positive engagement work being done by the PST who proved themselves to be dedicated custodians of the club in its darkest hour and this should be celebrated.
Who knows exactly what the future will hold for Portsmouth FC, but with the club currently sitting top of League One with a manager brought in by the supporters and with a sustainable playing budget matching the one which was achievable under fan ownership, the forecast looks to be clear skies and success.