x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The perils of the top flight

Behind the glamour of the English Premier League lurks economic failure, as Portsmouth found out last season.

Portsmouth were relegated after being docked nine points for going into administration.
Portsmouth were relegated after being docked nine points for going into administration.

The unconquerable fans of the English football club Portsmouth weathered a turbulent spring while reporting one telltale sensation.

You know the spectre of relegation that haunts various burgs each year, flinging around dread and embarrassment and status insecurity and maybe even indigestion? In conversations both at the delightfully decrepit Fratton Park and in London and New York, Portsmouth fans repeatedly stated a wish regarding mean, old relegation: Bring it on. Please.

These stalwarts not only lacked the fear of something owners and fans have described as emotionally devastating; they yearned for its arrival.

In that sense, maybe they established the vanguard of a zeitgeist for the 2010s, because in this murky, high-finance football era with a Great Recession howling overhead, the cherished Portsmouth club had become an emblem of the hazards. The gaudy Premier League fun had ceased. Amid mind-boggling debts from splurges, Portsmouth vaulted in one season among four owners - one of whom went unseen - and spent a sighing amount of time in court or heading to court or thinking about heading to court.

Balance sheets, court dates, debts ... These rank highly among the very things fans follow sport to escape.

So Portsmouth fans basically said: no more. Deliver us to the second tier (the Championship), they said, even while exulting in the club's simultaneous and inconceivable wriggle all the way to the FA Cup final against Chelsea. Get us to back to, you know, football.

I first fell for Fratton Park and Portsmouth fans on a Saturday in April 2006. Wandering in out of a fascination with relegation, hoping to observe a fan base teetering toward the beast's hungry mouth, I found instead such unlikely verve during a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough that I managed to contract that best of stadium conditions: goosebumps.

Here dwelled an indomitable species of fanatic, capable of summoning hope from bad moments with unusual haste, requiring only milliseconds (as I would learn) to greet an opposing goal with adamant singing.

As an interloping fan, I could never match the long-timers' depth of feeling. I could not muster suitable abhorrence for Southampton, the club's bitter local rivals. And come the goblin-strewn season of 2009/10, I could not access the fear felt by those who always had the club coursing through their bloodstreams.

While fans received barrages of taunting e-mails, I received only one suggesting I learn how to get to Scunthorpe. I watched and read from afar in New York and returned to Fratton Park one day in March, only to marvel again at the buoyancy.

Fatigue with the high-finance junk of present-day football had set in almost peerlessly. The mainstay fan Jo Collins, who plays a trumpet at matches, equated the season to sticking one's head into a dark pond. Fans had tired of doubt and speculation and third-hand suppositions.

Yet even in the dark pond, some fans enthused over a worst-case plan. If the 112-year-old club-as-they-knew-it went extinct as had grown dramatically plausible, they would start anew, from scratch. They did not reference FC United of Manchester, the five-year-old, semi-pro concoction of break-off Manchester United fans frustrated with the corporate depression of the Glazer takeover, but that example had perched itself up north.

In the era we occupy, around 2.30am last Sunday, hours after Inter Milan won the Club World Cup at Zayed Sports City, some of their fans lined up to board a flight to Milan at the Abu Dhabi airport. Along came first-class passenger Fabio Capello, the England manager, causing immediate speculation about whether he might replace the then Inter manager Rafael Benitez, who started only in June and was sacked this week.

A rational cynicism seemed clear, and one fan, his devotion demonstrated with his far-flung trip to see his club, wondered aloud how much longer the game can persist with its glittering largesse. Are these contracts really sustainable?

Meanwhile, it has been one refreshing delight following Portsmouth in the Championship, again from afar. They have had an uncomplicated tenor even with a court date or two. After six matches, Pompey wallowed in the 24th-place dungeon, but from late September and a 6-1 pasting of Leicester City they wrung 19 points from their next possible 21. Approaching a Boxing Day bout today with Millwall, Pompey sit an upward 15th after rugged away wins at Swansea City and Norwich City.

They also approach a FA Cup third round south coast tete-a-tete with Brighton & Hove Albion, who needed a second-round replay to fend off, well, FC United of Manchester before the latter's club-record crowd of 6,731 at Gigg Lane, a home they share with Bury. Maybe FC United fans might even relish that loss. As a visit from Portsmouth would have reminded them, peril lurks in becoming too big.