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February 25, 2010
The Fratton Park Mess
It was another Wednesday evening and another Champions League match on ITV. Inter Milan were playing Chelsea in what the TV commentator described in as many words as the most eagerly anticipated tie of the round. I have to admit that the hype had slightly passed me by since that draw had been made. That match had never really hit my radar and I would suspect that I was not the only football fan to be thinking that way.
The Champions League has turned into a massive, ugly wart-faced cash cow that does not really reach a sense of excitement until the semi final stage. The rounds before Christmas are generally either cagey affairs or whitewashes as one of Europe’s football giants sharks destroys a minnow that dared to swim into the lake of the Champions League. They are punished with humiliating defeats and return to their humble domestic leagues with their pride shattered but a slightly healthier bank balance for a while before the next big money player is signed with the hope that those big times will return.
I accept that some people think differently about what is often build as Europe’s premier football competition. I am regularly meeting people who seem to care about these Wednesday night fixtures rather than the Saturday games because they know that their team is guaranteed a top of the table position. I can not tell them what to think but I sense that there is an unstoppable groundswell for a European super league that will probably be in existence within the next ten years.
I always think that you can not do much with the hand that is dealt you, so I have no problem with these Champions League fans salivating over their next big box fixture against Inter or AC Milan. I just hope that they do not forget that not every club can enjoy the same riches. There is an increasingly large group of fans that have experienced their club going into financial meltdown and can do little about it apart from hoping that there will be a game to enjoy come Saturday at 3pm.
We used to think that no one else would be buried in the graveyard that contains the corpses of outfits such as Maidstone United or Bradford Park Avenue. In this World Cup year, some clubs have had a plot laid out for them in the graveyard of shattered dreams. Some corpses are lying in the coffin in the readiness to be buried. It is difficult to know where Portsmouth FC are at this point of time, but it is a sorry sight bringing memories back to a fan whose club was close to bust around eight years ago.
Before Ipswich jumped in a showbiz stage of their development with the appointment of an ex Manchester United icon as a manager, the team were close to going bust around 2003 and 2004. Town got relegated at the worse possible moment with ITV digital disappearing into the history books and money drying up in the lower leagues of English football. I can remember a match between Town and Portsmouth at Portman Road around Good Friday of 2003. Town surprisingly won 3-0 with hopes of another play off run remaining possible. History tells us that it was not meant to be at Portsmouth were promoted.
At the time of that Easter, I have to be honest that I was slightly envious of Portsmouth. Everyone connected with Town was desperate for promotion and there was a feeling that not everything was financially smelling of roses in the club’s garden. Of course, the fans were never really told about how close their club was to insolvency. You scoured the local press, TV and radio for any little nugget of information. Sometimes in desperation, you resorted to hearing the pub bore and hanging on his every word. You believed everything that the friendly old sage was saying when he told you that he ‘knew some one who knew the barber of one of the directors’ who let slip that your star striker was going to be the next player to be shown the door.
The slow drip of players off to other clubs was particularly depressing for a Town fan that was desperate for the club to recover and return to the Premier League. You also noted that these particular transfer fees were way below what would have been expected if your beloved club had not been in such a desperate state to shift these players off their wage books. After another failed play off campaign ended at the hands of West Ham, summer 2005 saw a fire sale of the key players that managed to secure a top six position for Ipswich despite the confusion behind the scenes.
That sale provoked me to write my first ever words about my beloved club out of a sense of misery and frustration. My mood was never helped by what I thought to be pious comments from the club personnel who told me to accept the financial realities associated with the club. I have lost count of how many times I was told that ‘hard choices are needed,’ when I thought that I had never caused those choices to be made in the first place. I have the same opinion about the current national economic crisis but I will not mix football and wider national politics because that relationship will always get messy.
People would argue that my fellow fans and myself never complained when the big wage players were signed during the start of the decade. We did not ‘complain’ but we had always hoped and expected that those people who sipped the fizz in the boardroom always had some realistic idea about where the club would progress on and off the pitch. Ipswich Town Football Club was not Suffolk’s version of Ebbsfleet United where all the fans seem to have a seat in the boardroom.
I will not try to argue whose fault it is that Portsmouth face high noon on the first day of March 2010. What I do know is that the Pompey faithful around Fratton Park who are caught in the middle between the various fighting factions, and the seemingly never-ending stream of owners. They are also coping with a regular barrage of comments from other clubs that their club should not be treated as a special case in terms of Premier League finances.
The whole mess is certainly not ‘pay back’ time for the Portsmouth fans that enjoyed their FA Cup moment in the sun less than two years ago, and it is difficult to know how this episode will be concluded. However, I know that this episode is not just an issue for Fratton Park, Portsmouth or the greater Hampshire. The fate of Portsmouth Football Club will bring back a series of uncomfortable memories for a number of fans across the UK, which will be a dramatic contrast to the riches, hype and boasting that defines the excess of the Champions League.