If you began to follow English football around about the time it started to boom in Australia (in the late 1990s and early 2000s), Portsmouth and Coventry City are two clubs you’ll know all too well.
But you wouldn’t have heard much of them lately. They’ve pretty much vanished off the global map, unless you saw the story about the plastic pigs. More on that later.
Coventry’s relegation from the Premier League in 2001 ended a 34-year spell in the top flight, one that established their place in the game. But going down was a major blow, and after treading water in the Championship thereafter, the Sky Blues collapsed into the third tier in 2012.
This past weekend, it was confirmed that Coventry would be relegated to League Two: the fourth tier of English football. It’s a place they haven’t been since 1959.
It’s been a slow, steady demise. But the problems at Coventry are getting more and more desperate by the day. It’s a club at the crossroads, all thanks to a disastrous takeover in 2007 by a mysterious hedge fund group, Sisu. The mere mention of that word is enough to incite rage in every Coventry fan.
If Sisu’s goal was to successfully destroy one of English football’s great old football clubs, they succeeded. Coventry’s wage budget was slashed, key players sold off and, on one occasion, the fitness coach was the only man available to cut the grass on match day. The list of zany decisions and mismanagement goes on and on.
Coventry City once played in front of packed houses at Highfield Road, their old ground, but seldom has there been a moment to cheer since the move to the Ricoh Arena in 2005. Due to a dispute over rent, the owners dragged the team to Sixfields Stadium in Northampton for the 2013-14 season. How classy.
Supporters have been ramping up their protests against the owners for more than six years, escalating protests that reached a whole new level this season (including two pitch invasions) as relegation to the bottom professional tier became a reality.
A second joint-protest with Charlton Athletic, themselves suffering from the tyranny of Belgian owner Roland Duchâtelet (which will hopefully end soon, as an Australian consortium gets ready to table a bid) took place last weekend – the highlight of which was the plastic pigs being thrown onto the field, delaying kick-off.
But this is no laughing matter. In a touching piece for the Guardian before Christmas, fan Jonny Weeks revealed the depth of agony – and in particular, how his club had been failed by the national association when they had the chance to ban Sisu four years ago.
“Unfortunately the Football Association doesn’t give a damn about us,” he wrote. “Given the chance to free the Sky Blues from the tyranny of Sisu when the club went into administration in 2013 they instead granted Otium, a subsidiary, permission to take over the “golden share”. Fit and proper? Do me a favour.”
So what do “fit and proper” owners look like? This: the Pompey Supporters Trust. Just a group of fans – and also the owners of the Portsmouth Football Club.
And just as Coventry had their relegation confirmed over the weekend, Portsmouth had their promotion to League One stamped and approved.
That may not seem much in the football universe right now, but make no mistake: it’s huge. This is the second fan-owned club (after AFC Wimbledon last year) to climb into the third-tier. It proves the model is workable, not just the pipe-dream many claimed. It is undoubtedly the way of the future.
Portsmouth were an utter shambles in the years after their FA Cup success in 2008, falling through three trap-doors until, on the brink of death, they were saved by this passionate and committed group.
The club had been driven to the wall by a series of bad owners (one of who, Vladimir Antonov, was subjected to an arrest warrant across Europe ), interspersed by bouts of administration. Their entire squad walked out at the end of the 2011-12 season and they began the next season in League One 10 points in arrears, leading to an inevitable relegation.
But once the fans got a hold of the club in 2013, they slowly set about rebuilding it. There has been no sugar-daddy investment, just honest graft, community spirit and a determination to restore integrity day-by-day.
It wasn’t easy at first, with relegation to non-league football only avoided in their first year by a miracle five-game winning streak at the end of the season. Managers came and went but they eventually found the right fit with Paul Cook.
He took them to the play-offs for the first time last season, bowing out at the first stage. But there would be no denying Pompey and their huge fan base automatic promotion this season, captured with a dramatic late win over Notts County.
Inspired by two brilliant wingers, Kal Naismith and veteran Gary Roberts, and the 196-centimetre defender Christian Burgess, Portsmouth can finally revel in their moment – especially after seeing local rivals Bournemouth and Southampton do so well in the Premier League.
In particular, Cook will be delighted. But given he used to play for Coventry in 1990s, he’ll know better than most what a difference the right owners can make.