Pompey fans feared the worst - until they heard the news from Abu Dhabi. Now that Dr Sulaiman al Fahim has taken over the old football club, they're salivating at the prospect of a new stadium, a stable organisation and top-class players. Daniel Bardsley reports Over the centuries, the people of Portsmouth, the south-coast home of Britain's Royal Navy and the final resting place of the Tudor warship Mary Rose and Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, have seen their share of momentous events.
Yesterday, only one word properly summed up the city's reaction to the news that their cash-strapped football club had been taken over by a UAE billionaire: "Stunned". The revelation, said Neil Allen, the chief sports writer on the local evening paper, The News, had come "totally out of the blue" and had induced a feeling of "massive euphoria". Portsmouth's ground is tiny by Premier League standards and a shortage of cash has meant plans to move to a prestigious new stadium have been gathering dust. Worse, with many of the club's top players either having left or expected to leave, Pompey's prospects of remaining in the Premier League seemed uncertain.
But that was before Sulaiman al Fahim, the Abu Dhabi property tycoon, decided to step in and, following Manchester City's purchase last year by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Pompey became the second Premier League club to come under Emirati ownership. "Fans were quite gloomy about prospects, expecting players to leave because they couldn't afford to pay their high wages. It was looking like a bleak summer," said Mr Allen.
"Then, from out of nowhere, a billionaire has taken over the club and everything has been turned on its head. Anything can happen." Fans believe the new owner could provide the finance to reverse a recent drop-off in form that stemmed from a lack of investment in players under the previous owner, a French businessman named Alexandre Gaydamak, and threatened to end a six-year uninterrupted run in the top flight of English football. Mr al Fahim, who told The National on Thursday that he intended to travel to England every weekend to watch the team next season, is expected to keep the best players and provide money to buy new talent.
Local people, said Kev Ryan, secretary of the Portsmouth FC Supporters Club, were "very excited". Mr Gaydamak, he said, had been "very up-front" in admitting he had run out of money to invest in the club. "It led to a rapid decline. When Harry [Redknapp, the previous manager] left in November we were seventh in the table. But major players had to go, which contributed to us falling down the table." Pompey ended the season in 14th slot amid fears next season might be their last in the Premiership.
The deal may breathe fresh life into Pompey's plans to move to a ground more befitting a Premier League club. Over the past decade, there have been countless proposals for a new stadium to replace ageing Fratton Park, which sits cheek-by-jowl with rows of terrace houses in a run-down area. The ground itself has space for barely more than 20,000 fans. By contrast, Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium holds 76,000. Plans have ranged from a proposal to refurbish the existing ground and extending its capacity to 30,000, at an estimated cost of between Dh88m and Dh120m, to building an entirely new stadium, at a likely cost of more than Dh585m.
Shortage of cash, however, has so far rendered all such schemes academic, yet a new stadium, says Mr Allen, "is absolutely vital for the club long-term. They need a new ground to raise the profile, to generate more income from corporate events and conferencing and to give the city a lift." And besides, it's a matter of pride: "Other clubs look down their noses at Fratton Park." Yet Pompey have a lot to be proud of. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Portsmouth is that they have managed to stay in the top flight when many similar clubs have dropped to lower divisions.
Fans in Portsmouth, a traditionally working-class port city that endured German bombs during the Second World War and has known its share of economic hard times, are some of the most fiercely loyal in the country. Anyone wearing a shirt of rivals Southampton in the city centre is putting their safety at risk. Portsmouth has an illustrious history as the home of the Royal Navy and the dockyards were long the heart of a city so industrialised that, in the otherwise relatively genteel south of England, it became known as the most southerly northern town in Britain.
The war left its mark on Portsmouth. Not just the bombs, but the uninspired rebuilding of the battered city centre after the war. When the dockyards contracted and the factories closed, the city entered a period of decline when, if it was famous for anything, it was for the concrete Tricorn Centre, a shopping mall built in the mid-1960s in what became known as the "brutalist" style. Voted Britain's most hated building by BBC radio listeners in 2001, the Tricorn finally yielded to the bulldozers in 2004.
In recent years, with much of the former Ministry of Defence land redeveloped, this down-to-earth city has enjoyed something of a rebirth. Shipbuilding has returned to Portsmouth in a modest way and the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, home to ships such as HMS Victory and the remains of the Mary Rose, is now a major tourist attraction. Portsmouth, says Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the leader of Portsmouth City Council, is now having "a much better time" economically, and a new football ground would cap this regeneration nicely.
"It would be a very long-term benefit to the city," he said. "And when the football club does well people walk taller in the streets of the city." firstname.lastname@example.org