Considering so many of the events of the last three or four years or so, yesterday was an altogether satisfactory day for Portsmouth Football Club. A win by three goals to nil at Crawley Town lifted the team out of the relegation places at the foot of League One, whilst supporters were able to keep themselves entertained with rumours of another bidder to rescue the club from administration. Yet one of the names connected with this brand new bid is a very familiar one, and it should raise concerns amongst all supporters of the club – as well as those at the Football League and the Football Association – that this club remains a target for overseas speculators who wish to preserve their anonymity yet are still considering putting a large amount of money into English footballs highest-profile financial basket-case.
Yet there is something queasily familiar about this bid, and this queasiness comes from the identity of what looks like becoming its public face: Sulaiman Al-Fahim. Al-Fahim has been here before, of course. He purchased the club in July 2009 after having been apparently sidelined by the Abu Dhabi United bid to buy Manchester City. He didn’t hold onto this shares for particularly long. By October of that year he had sold ninety per cent of his share-holding in the club to the mysterious Ali Al-Faraj and his similarly ill-fated consortium, although he did remain the non-executive chairman until February of the following year, by which time the club was on the brink of entering into administration. It became the first Premier League club to do so within a couple of weeks from his departure.
The new, anonymous individual with whom he is connected has, according to the news website which has come to be regarded as his mouthpiece over the last few months, lodged $20m into an Escrow account with a view to completing a take-over, but it might even be that they are too late this time around. Portsmouth Supporters Trust and Balram Chainrais company, Portpin, both have bids lodged with the administrator of the club, Trevor Birch of the insolvency practitioners PKF, which have a deadline of Friday 14th September to be finalised. Should both of these prove to be unsatisfactory, however, this new bid – along with interest from another individual who has drawn attention on these pages before, former Watford owner Lawrence Bassini – may come to be considered, and Al-Fahim retains a certain amount of goodwill from some Portsmouth supporters.
Yet others may well be pondering the question of whether this merry-go-round of people who seem to not want to get involved with their club but still end up doing so, wish to preserve their anonymity without ever elucidating the reason why they would want to do so and who hardly ever have any prior connection with the club will ever end. It has been made clear already that the Portsmouth Supporters Trust taking ownership of the club would likely mean a realignment in expectations amongst the clubs support. After all, mutual ownership should require a degree of financial caution from those running the club, with bankrolling it back onto the boom and bust roller-coaster being placed firmly on the back-burner. It should, however, at least provide stability when all that Portsmouth Football Club has seen since winning the FA Cup in 2008 has been threats to its very existence, two periods in administration and two relegations. There comes a point at which Portsmouth supporters stop putting their hopes in other people to build their destiny for them and start working on building it themselves.
There are people working behind the scenes at Fratton Park in order to do this. The PST has done as much as it can to raise a bid that will keep the club afloat, hand back ownership of the ground to the club itself – as ever, complications with regard to the clubs future have come about because of the separation of the club from its ground, which has regrettably not been an uncommon occurrence in recent years – and move it towards a new model of football club ownership. In order for it to be successful, however, the PST will be dependent upon the continuing support of its membership. That membership, all supporters of the club, should be standing foursquare behind the Trusts bid for the club rather than fluttering its eyelashes at any alleged multi-millionaire that comes along, promising to make everything okay with a flash of their gold-plated cheque book. “Our client is willing to welcome the Portsmouth Supporters Trust to invest and buy shares in the club if they are so interested”, they said in their statement. It is a sentence that is difficult to look at for long without the word “profiteer” springing to mind.
It is possible that Sulaiman Al-Fahim would be less bad as the owner of Portsmouth Football Club that Balram Chainrai has been and might be again. It is also possible that the anonymous investor that he is acting for might have perfectly sound and valid reasons for wishing to stay out of the media spotlight, and that he might, out of the goodness of his heart, be looking to pour tens of millions of pounds into a black hole of wages and transfer fees (in the form of donations rather than loans) in order to try and propel the club back in something approaching the general direction of the Premier League. On the other hand, however, this new investor might have something to hide. He might put the money into the club in the form of loans or, perhaps, a mortgage against Fratton Park that would come to threaten the existence of the club in a few years time. And he might well fail in any bid to get the club back into the Premier League. What we do already know, however, is that there comes a point at which this merry-go-round has to stop. There comes a point which Portsmouths perpetual cycle of crisis has to end, and its best chance of doing so will be if this dependence on the largesse ends and the club embraces a new way of managing itself. The PST bid is the only way forward for Portsmouth Football Club, and Sulaiman Al-Fahim turning up as the bell rings for last orders waving a cheque book on behalf of someone whose identity no-one even knows will not change that. It’s time for a decisive break with the past for this club.
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