Ashley Brown’s love affair with Portsmouth Football Club began when he was about 18 months old. Not that he remembers anything about it.
His dad was in the navy and often away from home so his mum, who came from a long line of Pompey fanatics, had no choice but to take her toddler son to Fratton Park.
She would take her seat in the South Stand with Ashley on her lap. The die was cast and the sights and sounds of Fratton Park on match days were indelibly etched into his soul.
They have never left him and, now 43, he finds himself in the unenviable position of charting a new course for the 115-year-old club.
As chairman of the Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust he has a seat on the club board as work begins to rebuild the famous old club from scratch after the most tumultuous four years in the club’s history.
Last month, after a knife-edge day in the High Court, the trust successfully gained possession of Fratton Park.
Ashley, a global asset manager with IBM, admits it was not a position he particularly wanted, but like so many other diehard fans he was not prepared to watch his beloved club disappear.
‘Luckily we had enough momentum to keep us going otherwise I really do think Pompey could have died. There were many times when I thought we were going out of existence.
‘It’s been a bloody battle at times and not a fair fight by any means, but the trust has battled with honesty and integrity when not everyone else has,’ he says.
‘Yes, many people sneered and laughed at us – said we were only in it for ourselves, but all the trust has ever wanted was to save the club.’
He adds: ‘PFC really is now owned by its supporters – people who care passionately about the direction the club goes in and how it treats its fans.
‘Of course, it’s not going to be easy. It has to be profitable, not so we can pay big salaries to staff or big dividends, but so we have a financial safety net which can be reinvested in the club.’
Ashley has vague memories of watching games from the 1972/73 season but he became a Fratton Park regular when he was seven.
‘In those days it was just the home games. I’d listen to the away matches on Radio Victory, but by the time I was 14 I started going away. From the 1984/85 season I didn’t miss a game, home or away for eight years.
‘If it was a midweek game I would skive off college and go all over the country to watch them. It was marvellous fun and win or lose it was, for me, what football is all about.’
His political involvement with supporters’ groups began when he was about 20, as the club moved into the 1990s and launched its bid to build a new stadium called Parkway on playing fields at Farlington.
‘Oddly there was no supporters’ club based in the city so a group set up the Central Supporters’ Club and I joined them on the board just as the whole Parkway thing kicked off.
‘That was the year we got to the semi-final of the FA Cup at Highbury and the replay at Villa Park.
‘There was a huge amount going on and I found myself chairman of the supporters’ club.’
He found himself lobbying city councillors as fans and the club pushed to have Parkway approved, but it foundered after a lengthy public inquiry. But Ashley had cut his political teeth for his beloved club.
‘As a result of that I was asked if I’d like a job in the Pompey shop at Fratton Park on match days. It made perfect sense to me because all of a sudden I was getting paid to go to Fratton Park as opposed to having to pay to go there.’
After the Parkway episode, Ashley started querying the way the club was being run.
‘In hindsight I suppose it was a bit cheeky really,’ he says. ‘I would be quoted in The News questioning something the club was doing and then turning up on a Saturday and picking up a wage from them.
‘The chairman David Deacon told me I couldn’t do both and said I had to make a decision, so I stopped working in the shop.’
The seasons rolled by and various owners and managers came and went. Pompey had won the FA Cup in 2008 and there were seven seasons in the Premiership.
‘Barry Dewing was talking about forming a trust around the time we won the FA Cup. The trouble was that people are only interested when something is going wrong so Barry was not having the easiest time convincing people there was a need when we’d just won the cup and were going into Europe.
‘But eventually a small group got together with the intention of giving supporters a voice and to be listened to and perhaps, eventually, to own a part or even the whole of the football club.
‘It was a pipe dream, but some of us could see the way things were going. The club had drifted away from its true fans. We were in the Premier League with players earning £50,000 a week. It was a crazy world.
‘The fans felt disassociated with the club. Sol Campbell was not going to appear to draw a raffle ticket at a pub at Eastney was he?’
Ashley says: ‘The last 18 months has been one hell of a battle and what we’re seeing at the moment is quite an incredible rebirth which everyone in the football world is watching closely.
‘But there’s a real buzz about the place at the moment. I really believe we can start to rebuild all over again.’
PUSHING FOR PROMOTION IN A YEAR
Ashley Brown is itching for the new season to start with Pompey in the fourth tier of English football and believes they should be pushing for promotion in a year’s time.
‘Am I excited about going to Fleetwood Town and Morecambe? Yes, I am. It’s what football is all about.
‘A huge proportion of Pompey fans have spent the majority of our time watching a not-particularly-exciting team going up and down the leagues.
‘Most of it has been mediocre, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all about the team, the day out, the atmosphere and the people.’
He says that in many ways what happens on the pitch is secondary because it’s the camaraderie among fans, the clubbiness which counts.
‘I’ve seen elements of all that starting to come back in recent weeks.’
He is dismissive, although not totally, of those golden years in the Premiership. ‘For me they weren’t the best, although the year we got promoted was fantastic.
‘Yes, we beat Man Utd at home a couple of times and Liverpool. I never dreamed I’d see Pompey at Wembley and then all of a sudden we went five times.
‘But was I bothered when we got relegated from the Premier League? To be honest, no. By the end of that period I’d cut down on away trips. Did I want to go to Everton on a Sunday afternoon? Not really.
‘Now I’m just as excited about going to all the League Two grounds next season.’