‘We’re a bigger club than we were in the Premier League’: Portsmouth were on the brink of oblivion seven years ago… now they’re debt free, chasing promotion to the Championship and ready to shock Arsenal in the FA Cup – SPECIAL REPORT
- Portsmouth are a club on the up under the ownership of Michael Eisner
- Pompey came close to extinction 7 years ago as they tumbled down divisions
- The club now have 14,000 season ticket holders and have a long waiting list
The man known as Big Kev ducks and weaves his super-heavyweight frame through the tight twisting corridors to Portsmouth’s inner sanctum.
Mind your head. Watch that step. Life amidships is recreated in this windowless world with blue-and-white walls in the heart of a famous naval city.
Little has changed since Milan rolled up in the UEFA Cup, puzzled by the idiosyncrasies of Fratton Park and disturbed by the raucous din shivering the timbers of the wooden stands above.
Sportsmail went behind the scenes at Portsmouth who are thriving after years of turmoil
Pompey host Arsenal in FA Cup fifth round and are chasing promotion to the Championship
Manager Kenny Jackett will also lead his team out at Wembley in the EFL Trophy final
The Italians assumed it was Pompey’s training ground when they went through their paces under the lights on the eve of the match and they departed, after Ronaldinho had come off the bench to salvage a late draw against the FA Cup holders, querying the size of the crowd, certain there must have been more than 20,000 inside.
Five hours before kick-off against Milton Keynes Dons in League One, the air is still and the mood is calm. The kit is freshly laundered and the dressing room is primed for Kenny Jackett and his players.
This is the first of three games in seven days which will culminate tonight in the FA Cup against Arsenal, a fifth-round tie evoking memories of their eight years in the Premier League.
Big Kev takes a sachet of isotonic energy gel, examines it and tosses it back into its box with a shake of his head. ‘I mean, when did that ever help anybody score a goal?’
Little has changed and yet everything has changed. And Kevin McCormack, a former Royal Marine and ABA boxing champion, has seen it all in more than 20 years as the Pompey kit man.
Mikel Arteta and his squad will visit Fratton Park for an FA Cup clash under the floodlights
Portsmouth’s facilities remain basic as they bid to remain financially stable and free of debt
Pompey’s training ground setup has remained the same as it was despite new investment
There was a decade of breathless success and a parade of world-class stars through the club when his job included lighting half-time cigarettes for Robert Prosinecki and providing Peter Crouch with a furniture delivery service.
Crouch, he pauses to explain, had bought an expensive sofa only to find it was too big to negotiate the spiral staircase to his penthouse flat in Port Solent. So he summoned Big Kev, who organised a long ladder, hoisted one arm of the sofa on to his head, ran the length of it down his back, secured it around his waist with a rope, scaled the ladder against an outside wall of the flats and threw it over the balcony.
When you have earned your green beret and carried the Wales flag into a Commonwealth Games, such piffling problems cause no stress.
Big Kev does dispute the details of a story told by Crouch, who once claimed on his podcast that he paid the kit man £60 a week to wash his kit, in the days when Portsmouth’s players were expected to wash their own. ‘More like £15,’ says Big Kev.
Well-known fan John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood poses during a game with MK Dons
Pompey, pictured in action at Fratton Park last month, are third in the League One table
Portsmouth won the FA Cup in 2008 before paying the price for their financial excess
He rolls his eyes. ‘And he hardly ever paid it. I just did it. The more they earn the tighter they get.’ He laughs. True words spoken in jest, most probably. ‘They’re good lads. Like ships in the night most of them, but while they’re here let’s make it as much fun as we can.’
Along with the fun came acts of friendship and kindness. Avram Grant gave him his FA Cup medal from the final in 2010 and David James came to find him one day when Pompey were deep in one of their financial crises and not paying their staff. ‘He asked who was in my team and how much they were missing, and next day he brought in three or four grand and said, ‘There you go, make sure they’re paid’.’
Pompey’s crash was as spectacular as the climb. From the Premier League in 2010 to League Two in 2013, in and out of administration, with points deducted, they became a warning against reckless spending.
‘The saddest part was the people losing their jobs,’ Big Kev says. ‘I had to let two people go and they didn’t do anything wrong. They weren’t crooks. They were only good, hard-working people with mortgages to pay. That’s what breaks my heart.’
Sportsmail went behind the scenes as Pompey prepare to take on giants Arsenal in the FA Cup
Players get massages at the training ground as they approach the business end of the season
Portsmouth nearly lost their Fratton Park home as they succumbed to crippling debts
Unscrupulous owners and executives came and went and the suffering went on. The club was perilously close to winding up before the Supporters’ Trust won its struggle for control. A year later, they were 90th of the 92 league clubs and staring at the prospect of relegation from the Football League.
Mark Catlin is a beaming chief executive, sweeping down the tunnel, trading congratulations with full back Lee Brown and central defender Christian Burgess who is posing for photos with a pizza to satisfy the sponsors.
Portsmouth have kept their focus to score six in the beating of MK Dons and Rochdale. They are in formidable home form and firmly in the race for promotion to the Championship. Everyone agrees this is the priority.
They are also bound for Wembley, as they attempt to defend the EFL Trophy they won last year and are confident they can sell out their allocation of 50,000 for next month’s final against Salford.
Portsmouth’s players are pictured in the changing room shortly before a win over MK Dons
The fans are desperate for success after dropping down the divisions amid financial issues
Former Disney exec, Michael Eisner, bought the club in 2017 and nursed it back to health
‘With regards to our fan base, we’re a bigger club than we were in the Premier League,’ Catlin says. ‘Coming out of administration, we had 10,000 season ticket-holders. Now we’re at 14,000 and we’ve had to cap it.’
Of all the historic images on display inside the club, the most prominent is one which has come to define Pompey’s new era. The photograph was taken before kick-off against Sheffield United, the final home game of a season which featured a record run of 23 games without a win.
Fans had finally won their court battle to seize control and the team, already doomed to relegation to League Two, were in a pre-match huddle and behind them was a montage in the Fratton End with the word ‘OURS’.
Portsmouth were saved and eventually fans turned round the tanker, clinched promotion to League One and, after a careful vetting process, in 2017 sold the club to the former Disney executive, the American Michael Eisner.
The players stretch in the gym as they look to deal with a busy run of league and cup fixtures
Portsmouth boss Jackett speaks to Sportsmail’s Matt Barlow ahead of the game with Arsenal
Portsmouth are now third in League One and have managed to grow their fanbase
‘We were stewards until the right person came along,’ Catlin says. ‘Not a day went by without someone wanting to buy the club, but it had to be someone with a history of caring and the finances to take it forward. Not only on the pitch, but Fratton Park needs a lot of work and attention.
‘Michael could blow this league away if he really wanted to. But it’s a short-term fix and you get to the next level and then what? You’ve got to put more money in and you’re on that sinking sand where clubs owe their owners tens of millions.
‘If any club knows about that, it’s this one. Coming into his third year, and we’re still self-sustaining. The club is debt-free, we’ve got our own training ground and we own Fratton Park. We’re in a great place.’
Kenny Jackett, the manager, starts the week with light training in awful conditions before his players file off towards the gym, the physio’s room and the mobile cryotherapy unit in the corner of the car park.
Portsmouth’s players pose for Sportsmail’s Andy Hooper after having cryotherapy treatment
Portsmouth average nearly 18,000 at Fratton Park despite playing in League One
The manager settles at a table outside his office for a media briefing. Throughout the week his public tone is the same: promotion is the priority, important games against MK Dons and Rochdale, everyone is excited by the Arsenal tie, he trusts his players to strike the balance.
Some have personal connections. Burgess started out in Arsenal’s academy in the same year group as Jack Wilshere. Ronan Curtis and Sean Raggett both grew up supporting Arsenal.
Curtis has 15 family and friends coming over from Ireland. Raggett, on loan from Norwich, was part of the Lincoln City team which reached the FA Cup quarter-finals in 2017, scoring the winner at Burnley before losing 5-0 at Arsenal.
‘We’re excited, not overawed,’ says Jackett, the most level of level heads. As a player under Graham Taylor, Jackett helped Watford climb through the divisions and reach the FA Cup final. As a manager, he led Millwall to a Wembley semi-final against Wigan.
Jackett says he’s proud to be in charge ahead of Portsmouth’s biggest night in nearly 10 years
‘It’s a home game and we want to do well. Our home form is strong and we will try to give them problems,’ he said. ‘We will enjoy the challenge and try to rise to it.’
Pompey are accustomed to cup football. They played 62 games last season and will play at least 60 in this campaign, although they have not hosted one of the aristocrats of English football since they were in the Premier League.
‘Arsenal are one of the genuinely great clubs in this country,’ Jackett says. ‘It is a decade since the national focus was on Fratton Park. It is a big occasion, a mouth-watering tie. I’m proud to be the manager of the last League One team in the competition.’
And he is reminded of the last time Arsenal visited in the FA Cup, won 5-1 and Thierry Henry pulled on a Portsmouth shirt for a lap of honour in tribute to the fans at Fratton Park.
‘Kev the kit man was telling me about it,’ Jackett says. ‘But I’ve got to say I don’t always listen to his stories.’
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