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 By Ian Darke

From the Premier League to the basement, Portsmouth party again

Portsmouth celebrate promotion after a League Two match at Meadow Lane, Nottingham.

As the season boils to a climax, the sound you might hear in the distance is of a Premier League old boy waking from a nightmare and singing joyously.

Portsmouth, FA Cup winners only nine years ago, are the club which came back from the dead. Now Pompey have won promotion to walk out of the football dungeon that is League 2, where they had been imprisoned for four hard years.

Portsmouth's loyal fans, 4,500 strong, made the 350-mile round trip to Notts County to see it happen Monday, and nothing could keep the smiles from their faces as they celebrated on the pitch afterward. It is only the first rung on the ladder back, but many of those fans will tell you this was better than winning the FA Cup or finishing eighth in the Premier League, both accomplished in 2008.

For at the heart of this story is the financial idiocy of that era which led a proud club to the brink of extinction. With their antiquated Fratton Park home able to house only 20,000 fans, Pompey nonetheless indulged themselves in paying the likes of Sol Campbell, Jermaine Defoe, Peter Crouch, Glen Johnson, Nwankwo Kanu and David James to come to the south coast. It turned out to be money the club could ill-afford.

When the club's then-owners, the Gaydamak family, ran into problems, the banks pulled the plug, calling in huge debts. Portsmouth went into meltdown.

After years of bad news, Portsmouth fans had every reason to join their team's celebrations.

They had no training ground and sometimes no kit. They had to sell every half-decent player, yet keep on paying many of them. Even bills from the local plumber and electrician went unpaid. And a High Court judge was waiting to kill off Portsmouth Football Club at any moment. Luckily, he was in a benevolent mood that day. Pompey somehow survived but were still lying in a coma in the intensive care ward.

There were brief flings with other potential owners -- one of them from the Middle East was so elusive that the fans named him "Ali Al Mirage."

With Pompey in administration, points deductions totaling 29 points followed and three inevitable relegations took the club on an express train from the Premier League to the basement.

The fans, still turning up in vast numbers, never lost their sense of humour. One day at Swindon a hopeless Pompey team conceded five in about 15 minutes, and the travelling fans sang: "You're nothing special. We lose every week."

It was a case of having to laugh to stop themselves from crying.

But amid the gloom, a wonderful thing happened. Portsmouth were reborn as a community-owned club, with fans digging deep into their pockets and paying £1,000 a share. Now, at last, the club was being led by the people who loved it most. Incredibly, crowds averaged around 16,000 in a fourth-tier league where most teams get about one-fifth of that. The supporters were there because it was quite literally their club. They were nursing the patient back to health.

Portsmouth is a naval city which thrives on adversity, just as it did after it was battered by Nazi bombs in World War II. So the club embraced the hard times, and after four tough years of toil and a playoff heartbreak last year, Pompey are finally on their way back. Leading the way is Paul Cook, a good manager who wants his club to play sweet football.

But the fans have a big decision to make.

American billionaire and ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner wants to take over the club, pump money in, and get Pompey back into the Premier League within a decade. Some fans are keen. Others rather like the club just as it is. Stick or twist? It's their decision.

That is for the future. Right now the city of Portsmouth is having a party which may go on for some time. As a Pompey boy born in the hospital almost next to the ground, I can tell you that after seven hellish years, this is indeed better than winning the Cup.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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