A deluded self-publicist with no money; the man who some doubt even existed; a non-football lover who only bought the club to get his money back; and the Russian subject to a Europe-wide arrest warrant. Ex-Pompey chairmen Sulaiman Al-Fahim, Ali Al-Faraj, Balram Chainrai and Vladimir Antonov will forever be synonymous with the utter turmoil experienced by Portsmouth from 2009 to 2012.
Their reigns coincided with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt, two stints in administration, three 10-point deductions and subsequent relegations, six managers and mass squad clearouts due to unpaid salaries.
The four helped drive the club – FA Cup winners in 2008 – to the brink of liquidation. Only in 2013 was the club finally rescued by the Pompey Supporters Trust, who bought it out of its second stint in administration. Portsmouth were relegated to League 2 that season, but the club survived.
In May 2017, Trust shareholders are to vote on whether to sell their precious club again to American ex-Disney executive Michael Eisner, after just winning promotion to League One. You can’t blame some for never wanting to put their club in the hands of just one man again.
To understand how the club got itself in such a mess, you have to go back to the Harry Redknapp era, when Milan Mandarić was chairman. At the beginning of 2006, Mandarić, who Redknapp had enjoyed a close but tumultuous relationship with, sold 50 percent of the club to Alexandre “Sacha” Gaydamak. The Russian took full control by July that year.
Redknapp enjoyed great success with the club, culminating in that FA Cup triumph. In his second spell – he infamously went to Southampton after his first – Redknapp dramatically saved Pompey from Premier League relegation on the final day of the 2006 season, and later secured two top half Premier League finishes.
The good times rolled under Sacha, even though there were rumours it was not really him at the helm but his father Arcadi, who was charged, and later convicted – although that was overturned – by a French court for arms trafficking to Angola in the early 1990s. Whether it was Sacha or Arcadi in charge is crucial to the story.
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In any case, Sacha massively invested in the club; Redknapp was able to bring in the likes of Sol Campbell, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson, Peter Crouch and record signing Benjani on massive wages. But crucially it was all done with borrowed money, with a bank debt of £43 million guaranteed solely by Gaydamak.
The good times unravelled fast. Redknapp left in October 2008, to be replaced by Tony Adams, claiming famously that “the money had run out”. Sacha – or his father’s – wallet had been hit by the financial crisis and he had to sell. And whoever he sold to would be taking on that debt. Pompey fans could not have imaged they would have four different owners within the space of just three years.
In May 2009 it was revealed flash Emirati businessman Al-Fahim was interested in buying the club from Gaydamak, but the deal didn’t go through until that August. Al-Fahim tried hard to look the part. He turned up at Fratton Park in the world’s only Versace Lamborghini Murcielago, and had been the star of his own TV reality show. He was to own the club for just six weeks in what The Guardian later described as “the most ill-fated tenure in Premier League history”.
After the deal was done, it soon became clear Al-Fahim, who was fond of sporting a rather tight-fitting Pompey shirt, had no cash. New manager Paul Hart had made a terrible start to the season, losing the opening seven games, big stars had already left the club, sensing where it was heading, and there was no new finance to buy replacements.
Al-Fahim seemed unconcerned. In September, from a chess event in Valencia, he said: “We’re not in a hurry to sign stars and we’re not going to go into the transfer market at the moment.”
He cancelled a proposed fans’ forum days later, then swiftly decided to appear following a backlash, stating at the event there would be a £50 million cash injection by the end of October. But days later it emerged the entire first team squad plus three executives had not been paid, and he couldn’t service the club’s growing debts. Pompey fans joked darkly they had found the only man in Abu Dhabi with no money.
Al-Fahim’s brief and bizarre reign was over when a bridging loan was sought from 40-year-old Saudi businessman Al-Faraj, who was in the hunt to buy the club from Gaydamak originally, only for the Russian to mysteriously pull out of the deal. We’ll find out the reason for that later. Al-Fahim eventually sold the club to Al-Faraj, retaining a nominal 10 percent stake.
Portsmouth fans prayed they had found an Arab businessman with money to get the club on an even keel. What they didn’t realise was that Pompey had become a mere financial plaything of rivals wishing to milk it for everything they could.
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No one at the club ever saw “Al-Mirage”. He was never quoted. All they got was a murky picture of him looking away from the camera. Senior figures in South Arabian football had never heard of him. Still, he had passed the Premier League’s Fit and Proper Person Test when he had previously tried to buy the club from Gaydamak. What could go wrong?
Fans began to mutter about whether he actually existed. Their humour was not improved by an interview his brother Ahmed gave to a Saudi newspaper, where Al-Faraj was said to have no interest in football and that he would be out of the club in six months.
A familiar story began to emerge. Players were repeatedly paid late, the club was said to be £60 million in debt and became subject to a transfer embargo. The team, now managed by Avram Grant, were bottom of the Premier League. What no one at the time properly appreciated was that the club was embroiled in something very murky indeed.
It has been alleged by many (but it seems never conclusively proven) that Al-Faraj was just a frontman, and the real men behind his bid were a group of creditors owed money by Arcadi Gaydamak. Back in 2007, Arcadi had sold his companies to a Hong Kong-based Nepalese businessman called Balram Chainrai, but Chainrai never received the money.
Portsmouth Football Club was listed in court as Arcadi’s only tangible asset. Chainrai and his associates saw Pompey as the only way to get their money back. Even though the club was in debt, it could at that time expect very substantial TV money.
Al-Faraj – or Chainrai and his investors, if you will – bought the club to get their money. They had apparently tried once to buy from Gaydamak, but he pulled out once he knew it was his father’s creditors behind it. But they could buy from Al-Fahim. The club was loaned £17 million by Chainrai, secured on the ground and at exorbitant interest rates.
Whether it was Al-Faraj or Chainrai and his fellow creditors at that time, making the decisions remains unclear to this day. Whoever was at the helm, the club was in trouble. By December, Pompey were subject to a winding up order from HM Revenue and Customs. The Al-Mirage era was over.
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Chainrai finally, publicly, seized control of the club in February 2010. He said he was unhappy at not receiving repayments for the £17 million worth of loans he had issued through his Portpin company. The club was promptly put into administration and this conveniently put Chainrai at the top of the creditor list to be paid. He had secured his loans on Fratton Park and the club itself.
Chainrai hardly endeared himself to fans by saying he had “zero interest” in running the club full time. He was keen to sell at the first opportunity and he clearly believed the club still had some worth as it was still in the Premier League. Even though he turned up to some games with his rather large Pompey scarf covering his expensive suit, it was difficult for him to drum up any enthusiasm for the club. Fans did not buy it.
Everyone knew Chainrai’s one and only target was to recoup the money he had already lent to the club and get his hands on that TV money. Chainrai’s appointment of administrator Andrew Andronikou did not please fans either. Seen as arrogant and refusing to answer direct questions, he was very much Chainrai’s man.
In March 2010, Pompey were deducted nine points for entering administration, making Premier League survival a forlorn hope. On the pitch, they were struggling badly anyway. Their ragtag team was assembled from cheap deals and loans.
Remarkably they put a great FA Cup run together, with Grant becoming a kind of cult hero to fans. Portsmouth made it all the way to the final, losing 1-0 to Chelsea. Grant left the club soon after, with Steve Cotterill named as his replacement. In reality, it was small compensation for a disastrous season both on and off the pitch.
While the season was over, drama continued off the pitch. Despite objections from Her Majesty’s government, administrators agreed a deal with the club’s creditors. After the new Championship season started, Portsmouth finally came out of administration in October, with Chainrai regaining control of the club.
The season itself on the pitch wasn’t all bad, but there was no significant new finance for players and the team finished 16th. Fans were not happy the lack of transfer activity. Chainrai’s energies were clearly driven to finding a new owner, and quick.
After some bids that amounted to nothing, it was announced in June that Chainrai had sold the club to Convers Sports Initiatives, owned by Russian Vladimir Antonov. Another fit and proper persons test was passed and fans were initially optimistic that this could finally be a new era. Antonov had been named in Russia’s 200th wealthiest businessmen in 2007 and he had previously tried to buy Bournemouth.
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He came with a grandiose five-year plan of developing five players each year from the academy, and not paying transfer fees for players over the age of 26. With talk like this, fans were prepared to forgive the fact he was virtually never seen at the ground and didn’t talk to the media.
An early PR boost came in the re-signing of fans’ favourite Benjani in August 2011 prior to the kick-off of one game. Antonov announced he had grand plans for a new stadium; supporters had heard this talk before, but wanted to believe in his vision. Sadly, the only significant improvement came in an upgrade of the stadium’s female toilets.
Cotterill left the club to go to Nottingham Forest, with Michael Appleton named his replacement in November. Fans felt the team could go places with Appleton at the helm, and the initial signs were promising.
But all the optimism came crashing down again on 23 November when the sensational news came from out of the blue that Antonov was subject to a Europe-wide arrest warrant for alleged asset-stripping of Lithuanian bank Snoras, which was partially owned by the Pompey owner. In 2015 he lost a High Court bid to block extradition to Lithuania and was later believed to have fled to Russia.
CSI brought out a statement saying it was “business as usual”, and in that sense it was: Pompey were in a huge mess again. On 29 November, Antonov resigned as chairman after CSI entered administration; by February the following year, the club itself found itself there again.
Appleton braved on manfully despite the 10-point deduction, a threadbare squad and players who weren’t being paid. But the inevitable happened and Portsmouth were relegated to League One. Pompey started the 2012-13 season down and out – another 10-point deduction saw to that. But off the pitch, the club was saved by the fans in the form of the Pompey Supporters Trust.
Against the odds, the Trust beat off competition from previous owner Chainrai to take Portsmouth out of administration. The club was relegated to League Two under new boss Guy Whittingham after Appleton left for Blackpool, but at least its future was secure. In September 2014, Pompey was declared debt free.
In May, Trust members face a vote on whether to sell the club, once more, to a rich businessman. Eisner might be in a different league to his less than illustrious predecessors, but supporters will need to consider the issues very carefully to ensure they don’t buy into a false utopia again. The not so fantastic four – or infamous five if you include Gaydamak – have thankfully gone, but they will never be forgotten by Portsmouth fans
By Adam Beardsmore @BushinBangkok
While we steer clear of ever promoting a single club at These Football Times, Portsmouth are a great example of our sport’s ability to persevere and survive through the fans. They are a worthy and historic member of the English game. Read more about the Pompey Supporters Trust here.