Battle of the Ports
In May 2008, Portsmouth were a top-eight Premier League club and FA Cup winners, while Plymouth Argyle finished above Cardiff, Norwich, Southampton and Swansea in the Football League. Then the storm clouds hit. Five years on, Jon Holmes picks up their stories as they prepare for combat...
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 11/10/13 3:46pm
Battle-hardened warriors with awesome firepower - Plymouth's 'Mighty O' and 'Lusty' of Portsmouth certainly command respect.
But while HMS Ocean and HMS Illustrious remain the Royal Navy's strongest vessels and the pride of their respective bases, the football clubs located in both cities have been significantly weakened - and are no longer on the radar of most casual football fans in this country.
Saturday's League Two encounter at Home Park pits 17th against 15th, but there is a rich history to this 'Dockyard Derby' fixture and parallels to be drawn as Argyle and Pompey look to plot a course up the Football League again.
This will be their 92nd meeting, dating back 110 years. Pompey have the upper hand, just (39 wins to Argyle's 37), and although there was a Capital One Cup meeting as recently as last season, they have not faced off in the league since the 1991/92 Second Division campaign.
So having sunk down the divisions, what are their prospects now? Sky Sports spoke to the chairmen of both Supporters Trusts to assess the state of play off the pitch and on it.
Argyle: Off the pitch
Two years ago this month, local businessman James Brent took over Argyle, ending an eight-month administration period that brought the club to its knees and nearly finished it off altogether. Only the patience and goodwill of the club's employees, combined with the fund-raising activities of the Argyle Fans Trust, the Green Taverners supporters group and others, prevented closure. Brent took on responsibility for outstanding debts to football creditors, such as former players, of around £2.8million (he raised significant funds by selling Argyle's Home Park stadium back to Plymouth City Council for £1.6m) and although those debts have now been partly reduced, he is understandably keen to see the club free of them as soon as possible.
Key to that aim is the building of a new 4,800-capacity grandstand, part of a wider £50million redevelopment plan around the stadium which will include a 120-bed hotel, a 1,500-seat ice rink, a multiplex cinema, restaurants and bars. Work is due to begin on the project in the coming months but some fans are not totally convinced of how it will improve their 'matchday experience', or if the club itself will make enough money.
"I don't think there's any Argyle supporter who looks at the old grandstand and thinks it's suitable for a modern club to have," Trust chairman Andy Symons told Sky Sports. "It's well past its sell-by date.
"However, initially James Brent said there would be retail units that would provide income for the club - and it now turns out that's not going to happen.
"Of course there's going to be corporate facilities, but the main concern of the Trust now is what the facilities for the ordinary supporters are going to be. Before every game, we have a 'Fan Fest' which is run by a supporters group - fans can get a pint or two and a pasty, there's music and comedy... it's a pretty good way to start the day when you go to a football match. A lot of supporters want to know that they're going to continue and where that's going to go. We need to make sure that there's a sports bar to use on matchdays, and at other times, so that money goes into the club rather than into the local Wetherspoons, or similar."
The Trust is also determined to help raise interest in Argyle from the younger generation, and improve how the club is viewed more widely in a city with a population of over a quarter of a million.
"Down here, they have a phrase about it - 'same old bloody Argyle'," adds Symons. "They think it's a club that doesn't demonstrate any real ambition; and when it has done, that ambition has been directed in the wrong areas.
"You look at our first season in the Championship (2004/5), we'd often be packing the ground out with crowds of around 20,000. Like any provincial town or city, if the football club's doing well, people take an interest. Now, you're basically down to the die-hard support. And even those fans are saying they've never known it so bad."
Argyle: On the pitch
In their last League Two outing, Argyle ended a goal drought of almost six hours, but still ended up losing and to make it worse, against their local rivals Exeter City too. Having seen their team finish 21st in League Two in each of the last two campaigns, Pilgrims fans have got used to struggling - but this was supposed to be a season of improvement under John Sheridan.
"We've had it so bad for three or four years now," adds Symons. "People are almost resigned to the fact that they're going to Argyle on a Saturday not expecting to see us win. That's no way to maintain your supporters' faith."
Narrow 1-0 wins over Rochdale and Bristol Rovers have been the best offerings served up at Home Park thus far in 2013/14, while on their travels - backed by the passionate Green Army away support - a 3-1 victory at Cheltenham must go down as the most satisfying result. But a current winless streak of five games in all competitions has had Sheridan experimenting with his tactics and line-up. The 49-year-old signed a three-year deal in Devon once his original mission of keeping the Greens up had been accomplished, but already there have been murmurings of discontent in the fanbase.
The formula for goals continues to elude Argyle. Last season, only bottom-placed Aldershot scored less; so far this season, only bottom-placed Accrington have scored less. The robust Reuben Reid (two of his three goals have been penalties), 6ft 4in Marvin Morgan (has found the net with just one header thus far) and new loan signing Paul Hayes (off the pace in his first two appearances) will be the men tasked with producing against Pompey, and keeping the pressure off a defence which was looking solid but is now creaking. Perhaps the presence of the TV cameras will make someone rise to the occasion.
"The Dockyard Derby doesn't have as much significance now as it used to," admits Symons, "but Pompey are bringing a huge following by all accounts. I think what Sky Sports will get on Saturday is a cracking atmosphere, and a surprisingly high crowd for a League Two game - particularly one that's on telly at lunchtime."
Pompey: Off the pitch
While Argyle are almost two years into their post-administration period, Pompey's day of reckoning in the High Court came barely six months ago - and the buzz of wrestling the club out of the grip of Balram Chainrai's Portpin has not worn off.
For unlike their equivalents down in Devon, the Portsmouth Supporters Trust are able to take a lead role in the decision-making.
"The Supporters Trust owns somewhere in the region of 59% of the football club," explained PST chairman Ashley Brown, "and we have a group of directors on its main board, of which I am one of those.
"The remaining 41% is owned by 11 individual investors, all of whom are Pompey fans, and there are three of those guys that sit on the board as well.
"We have an ability to buy shares for an additional period of up to about April of next year, so the Trust's shareholding will likely increase little by little until then. But the investors and the Trust have been working together for over a year now, all the way through the bid process, so we're very much a group of people that have been in this together, and continue to be in this together. There's a very strong relationship and bond between us all."
Pompey spent a hellish 14 months in administration, but the seeds of their torment were sewn all the way back in January 2006 when Sacha Gaydamak bought a stake in the club from Milan Mandaric for around £20m. A full buyout followed that summer and since then, fans have had to put up with a series of would-be saviours - Sulaiman Al Fahim, Ali Al Faraj, Chainrai and Vladimir Antonov - none of which were able to deliver stability. Information about their intentions was rarely revealed, and financial details were almost impossible to obtain, let alone verify.
That culture has changed completely. At a Trust AGM last month, accurate numbers were laid out for supporters accompanied by explanations and presentations - a brave new world of transparency. The forecasts were sunny: commercial income for the 2013/14 season is expected to be well over double what was anticipated; the players' pay-roll represents only 27% of total income, well below the League Two salary cap of 55%; and although around £7million is still owed to former players, the final parachute payments which Pompey are still due to receive over the course of this campaign should cover that cost and more, due to the latest improved Premier League TV deal. This flood of figures has whetted the appetite for many fans.
"There's always some who demand a little bit more," said Brown. "People need to understand and learn exactly what is possible. You can't continually give away all of your business and commercial secrets, that's not the way to operate a successful company. So we're all trying to find the happy medium of keeping people informed and being transparent.
"But it's not just numbers that people want to hear. They want to understand what your plans are for the club, what your strategy is, and why certain decisions are being made. That's all part of it. We feel if we can explain why we do things, people will understand. They might not agree, but they'll understand we made the decision because it was the best thing for the football club."
Fratton Park itself will be undergoing a spruce up - the environs around the north of the stadium have been in need of attention for some time - and great strides have already been taken as Pompey seek to reconnect with the community.
"Throughout the last few regimes, a number of local businesses have obviously been left financially out of pocket," said Brown. "We've been working hard to rebuild those links, and work with local suppliers wherever possible.
"What we're finding is a quite incredible response. We've got all four sides of our ground individually sponsored by local businesses, we've got two shirt sponsors both of whom are based locally, we've got people coming and sponsoring our Academy... people appreciate that the problems of the past were nothing to do with us, and we want to make sure the club is run properly."
Pompey: On the pitch
All that 'new dawn' optimism was seriously tested on opening day as Oxford United pummelled their hosts and came away with a 4-1 win. A wildly inconsistent two months have followed - for example, Guy Whittingham's side have looked the real deal as they brushed aside top-eight teams Morecambe and Rochdale 3-0 at Fratton Park, but a horrendous afternoon at York last month was labelled "the most lacklustre of performances" by the manager, with fans struggling to recall a worse one during their slide down the divisions.
That win over Rochdale last time out may be the turning point, however, as Whittingham seeks a consistent team selection. One week after the York debacle, he made five changes to his starting line-up and witnessed a dramatic transformation. New on-loan goalkeeper Trevor Carson kept a clean sheet; the returning Therry Racon brought the best out of skipper Johannes Ertl in central midfield; right-back Joe Devera firmed up the leaky defence; winger Ricky Holmes plonked corners onto the head of Bondz N'Gala (once a Plymouth player) for two of the goals; and on-loan striker John Marquis grafted alongside Patrick Agyemang up front.
Whittingham has called former Preston and QPR striker Agyemang the "fulcrum" of the team. In midweek, he turned the game as Pompey gained a measure of revenge on Oxford with a 2-1 away win in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, turning on the right flank, maneuvering past three defenders and then scoring across goal with the outside of his right boot.
Unlike Argyle, goals have not been in short supply for Pompey, particularly on their travels.
"Some of the results have been very disappointing," admitted Brown, "but apart from one or two games, we've not been outplayed. There's been some very attractive football and in every league game away from home this season, we've scored exactly two goals which is quite incredible, even if we've only managed to win one of them!
"Home crowds have not been hugely affected - we still had nearly 15,500 fans in against Rochdale last Saturday -and we've sold out our 1,500 allocation at Plymouth for a lunchtime game live on TV. We hope we're going to build on the last couple of results, and that the fans are going to be rewarded. We feel we have a team and coaching staff which are capable of producing much better results."
There are fond memories of Home Park for older Portsmouth fans. Alan Biley's goal there in 1983 secured a 1-0 win and the old Third Division title for the visitors, sparking wild celebrations, and that will be on the minds of Brown and others as they head west into Dorset and then down through Devon.
"There's always been a bit of rivalry generated due to the two main naval ports in the country being based there," concludes Brown, "so it's always got a little bit of a local derby feel to it - even though it's 180 miles away and quite a painful three-and-a-half hour journey along the coast."
You can watch Plymouth Argyle v Portsmouth in League Two live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 12pm on Saturday.