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From riches to rags

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

Portsmouth supporters demonstrating outside Fratton Park
The people I feel sorry for are the Portsmouth fans and the backroom staff - these are the people who live in the real world

Only 633 days ago Portsmouth were crowned FA Cup kings on the big stage at Wembley.

They go to Old Trafford's "Theatre of Dreams" on Saturday living a nightmare.

Can it get any worse? They're on their fourth different owners of the season and players are being sold while those who remain haven't been paid their wages on time.

The people I feel sorry for are the fans and the backroom staff - these are the people who live in the real world. They are not protected by the bubble that frighteningly envelopes the players.

Portsmouth has for many years suffered unemployment rates above the national average.

Some of those Pompey fans who are in work will be paying more than a 10th of their salary to watch their beloved club home and away.

They wouldn't have been expecting more cup finals, they would have been looking forward to their club enjoying a steady Premier League existence for a few years. Many of them can't even see a future now.

Boardroom steward John Jenkins watched the club in the 1934 FA Cup Final against Manchester City.

Fratton Park has been his life - people like him make it a lovely old football club - but the backroom staff must have scant confidence that their jobs will exist in a few weeks.

The football club is at the very centre of the local community.

If any other business that played such an important civic role had collapsed with such potentially disastrous consequences, the government would have ordered a public inquiry.

Parliament should now closely scrutinise every aspect of the running of Portsmouth FC over the last three years.


If anyone is found to have grossly mismanaged the legacy of an institution so cherished by its supporters, they should be barred from any football management for a lengthy period.

But government and football won't take that step. They have never really sought heavy enough punishments for financial mismanagement.

Point deductions for clubs going into administration aren't stopping a problem that began decades ago.

This week in 1982 I saw the club I worshipped as boy, Bristol City, climb through legal and financial loopholes to survive.

The 'Ashton Gate Eight' affair went into football infamy.

The Robins had been bobbin' along nicely in the old First Division, but they seriously over-extended.

Players were signed on staggering 10-year contracts, the big slide came and it was a record for English football.

From the top flight to the bottom in successive seasons, it was Milton's 'Paradise Lost' in football terms.

Bankruptcy loomed and a survival plan was dreamed up. The old club would be wound up and a new company would take over the club's title and fixtures.

The League approved but it could only happen if eight players agreed to tear up their contracts.

The professional careers and the home lives of those eight heroes, many of whom I'd known since the age of 12, were the acceptable collateral damage for the suited boardroom money men who'd allowed the chaos to loom in the first place.

My dad, who worked for the club, continued on for a couple of years for a pittance. His love affair had turned sordid.

Bristol City's Ashton Gate home
Bristol City's Ashton Gate a few years after the club slipped down the league

He died, broken-hearted, in 1993. Some of the old players came to the funeral. Not one of the old directors bothered to turn up.

Some commentators hide their allegiance. I've never been afraid to proudly support my club, but even though I say it myself, City should have been ejected from the League there and then.

Leeds City had been disbanded by the FA in 1904 and Peterborough United had been demoted for financial irregularities in 1968.

A stiffer punishment then might have acted as a deterrent for the crass financial blunders that have been repeated at so many clubs.

It's far too easy to look back through rose-tinted glasses and only see the riches of football's history while forgetting the nastier Dickensian aspects.

But why have so few clubs studied the horrendous mistakes made by Bristol City?

So now John Jenkins is being made to fret at his time of life and many supporters travelling to Old Trafford fear they're going there for the last time for a league match as Pompey fans.

At the back of my mind, throughout the whirlwind of commentary, my thoughts will be with them and my old friends in the "Ashton Gate Eight".

It should never have happened again but it's happening every week.

Jonathan Pearce will commentate on Manchester United v Portsmouth for Match of the Day on Saturday. The programme will be broadcast on BBC One and online at 2235 GMT and repeated on BBC One and online at 0735 GMT on Sunday.

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see also
Man Utd 5-0 Portsmouth
06 Feb 10 |  Premier League
Pearce and Crooks answer your questions
03 Feb 10 |  Football
Pompey takeover to be challenged
04 Feb 10 |  Portsmouth
O'Neill's passion
29 Jan 10 |  Football

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