FA Cup: League One Portsmouth eyeing Arsenal surprise

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March 3, 2020
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    Portsmouth dropped into League Two in 2013 - five years after winning the FA Cup and finishing eighth in the Premier League

    Portsmouth dropped into League Two in 2013 – five years after winning the FA Cup and finishing eighth in the Premier League

    “All of Disney’s sports films had the same theme – the triumph of the underdog. With Portsmouth we hope to get it right in fact, not fiction.”

    Michael Eisner is not your typical League One club owner.

    A leader in the American entertainment industry for four decades – including stints at the helm of Paramount Pictures and The Walt Disney Company – the high-flying American businessman’s net worth is estimated at $1bn (£760m).

    Since August 2017 the 77-year-old has been in charge of Portsmouth, a club flirting with oblivion a few years ago, and pays $7 a match (£5.42) to watch Pompey on the club’s official streaming service when he is unable to fly to England from California.

    On Monday, Portsmouth entertain Arsenal (19:45 GMT) in the fifth round of the FA Cup – their highest-profile opponents since Eisner’s arrival – as the club continue their revival against the unlikely backdrop of visits by A-list actors such as Will Ferrell.

    They are a club that appear to be on the way back up, so will the match provide a Hollywood ending under the Fratton Park floodlights?

    ‘A hand-to-mouth existence’

    Portsmouth’s fall from grace after winning the FA Cup – as well as playing AC Milan in Europe – in 2008 was nothing short of spectacular.

    They went from finishing eighth in the Premier League in 2007-08 to 13th in League Two in 2013-14, as owners came and went and Pompey sank deeper into debt.

    In that time they suffered two spells in administration in 2010 and 2012 – as well as two hefty points deductions – and were faced with a real threat of expulsion from the Football League if a takeover deal could not be agreed in 2013.

    There was genuine fear among fans that the club – founded in 1898 – could go out of existence.

    “It really was touch and go. There was a lot of anxiety we would could disappear at a moment’s notice,” recalls Simon Colebrook, chairman of the Pompey Supporters’ Trust.

    Portsmouth have revealed plans to improve Fratton Park which first opened in 1899

    Portsmouth have revealed plans to improve Fratton Park which first opened in 1899

    “The club was living a hand-to-mouth existence.

    “Fans were going to games expecting to lose. It was very surreal because we were just glad the club was still alive and we were able to see a game of football.”

    In April 2013 came the news a High Court judge had signed an order paving the way for the Pompey Supporters’ Trust to take over.

    A consortium comprising some 3,000 fans, together with 13 businesspeople known as ‘presidents’, all of whom reached into their own pockets, had saved Portsmouth from extinction.

    “It was an amazing relief to know we were going to carry on and that the fans who had worked so hard to try and rescue the club were to be given a chance to put it back together,” says Colebrook.

    ‘Walking through turnstiles felt like Disney’

    Even after Portsmouth became the biggest community-owned club in Britain, their troubles were not over.

    Pompey still owed £8m but managed to pay this off to become debt free despite losing a further £1m over their four seasons in League Two before Eisner, who bought into Netflix early on, convinced fans he was the man to take the club forward in 2017.

    While some supporters were, perhaps understandably, wary after Pompey had been driven to the brink under foreign ownership, Eisner’s high-profile success in America, particularly at Walt Disney – creators of Mickey Mouse among so much else – worked in his favour.

    “His story of turning Disney around was very well known,” adds Colebrook.

    A total of 2,272 shareholders voted and 1,825 (80.3%) agreed to sell after Eisner and his Tornante investment group offered £5.67m to buy 100% of the club and invest an extra £10m.

    According to the New York Times, Eisner had discussed buying a Premier League club but, after that fell through, switched his attention to England’s lower leagues.

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    2017: Michael Eisner: Portsmouth owner outlines vision for club

    “When I passed through the Fratton Park turnstiles I felt like I did when I stepped through the doors at Disney – a sense of excitement and of a rich history,” Eisner, whose sons Breck, Eric and Anders are also Pompey directors, has previously said.

    Mark Catlin, Portsmouth’s chief executive since 2013, remembers a club on its knees and “unsure what each day would bring” when he joined.

    Seven years on, it is a different picture.

    Having reached the Leasing.com Trophy final for a second successive season, Portsmouth plan to take up to 50,300 fans when they play Salford City at Wembley on 5 April – their seventh visit in 12 years to the national stadium.

    Meanwhile, there is a waiting list for season tickets as Kenny Jackett’s team chase promotion to the Championship, and the club’s work in the community has been recognised with numerous national awards.

    “When we came out of administration we had 10,500 season ticket holders. Now we have 14,500,” Catlin tells BBC Sport.

    “We might not be community owned but we’re still at the heart of everything the city does.”

    That sense of community was highlighted last month when Portsmouth renamed their boardroom in honour of John Jenkins, a D-Day veteran and lifelong Pompey fan who passed away just before Christmas having celebrated his 100th birthday in November.

    Team photo with Hollywood star

    News of Pompey’s revival under Eisner has reached Hollywood.

    When Portsmouth beat Tranmere in August – one of 47 league and cup games Jackett’s team have played this campaign – waiting for the players in the home dressing room was big-screen actor Ferrell.

    The Anchorman star, guest of Pompey’s owner and his son Breck, witnessed the 2-0 win before posing for photographs with the team.

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    Eisner tries to attend as many games as he can but uses iFollow to watch his team from 5,500 miles away when business commitments prevent him from getting over.

    “As a director he can watch for free but waives that privilege and pays to access each match,” adds Catlin.

    Portsmouth defender Christian Burgess says Eisner has a “passion for the city which is growing all the time” and there have been additional benefits to his purchase of the club.

    The Pompey Supporters’ Trust was left with a surplus of cash that is being used to help fund a £3.5m community sports complex, which will be used by thousands of children, disability sport groups and members of the public each week.

    It is certainly a much-changed picture from the last time Portsmouth hosted Arsenal in 2009, when the Gunners ran out 4-1 winners, but the League One side will hope an extra sprinkling of Disney magic can help them cause an FA Cup shock on this occasion.

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