Portsmouth verdict: Neil Allen on Fratton Park redevelopment plans, fans' mistrust of Eisners, the playing budget, Guildhall pledges and academy issues

With so much happening off the pitch at Pompey this week, we asked chief sports writer Neil Allen to share his thoughts on the The News’ series of Fratton Park development stories and the academy situation following Sean O’Driscoll’s resignation.

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 2:09 pm

Here’s what he had to say after being questioned by head of sport Mark McMahon.

Q There’s been plenty of stories in The News this week about Fratton Park and it’s future. Surely, no-one can accuse the club of sitting on their hands when it comes to this issue?

It's an interesting one because I've seen in recent days people saying that the club has put this out for spin and to deflect from Sean O'Driscoll's departure.

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But actually, I meet Steve Cripps – the managing director of PMC Construction and Development Services - last week, long before Sean O'Driscoll left.

So let's not get paranoid here - it's not spin, it's not designed to deflect. I approached Steve Cripps and he thought it was a very good idea and helpful to show the stadium details - and the club agreed.

I spent two hours being shown around Fratton Park, with Steve pointing out the work that's being done, and the work that needs doing in each stand.

It was very helpful and we're seeing the results of that interview everyday in The News this week. It's been fascinating.

From left: Sean O'Driscoll, Danny Cowley, Michael Eisner and Greg Miller

He actually took me up to the South Stand at one point and said: 'We fixed these seats before the last game - now look at them'.

He was pulling these seats and they were coming away from the actual floor - and it's like that all the way around the ground. I'm sure many people know what I'm talking about.

So they're looking at all stands in the ground.

The club are saying it's an £11.5m redevelopment programme - four phases - which will be completed by the summer of 2024.

The first phase was the North Stand upper, the second phase is North Stand lower, which will begin in December.

So they've started it already and again, just to reiterate, this is scheduled to finish in the summer of 2024 with the Milton End.

Q How do you think the proposals we’ve outlined have gone down amongst the fans?

Firstly, I think this is the first serious work being done to Fratton Park since the Fratton End was built in the late 1990s.

So it's something tangible, we're seeing work being done to Fratton Park.

I know people aren't happy about the likes of the designs for the Milton End but something his happening.

The only other thing I've seen done to the Milton End was when the roof was put on because Sacha Gaydamak had to in the Premier League years because the Premier League were fining them every game for not having a roof to shelter the fans in that stand.

So we've not seen anything like this at Fratton Park for decades and it's got to be positive.

I've seen people complain about the North Stand lower and how it's currently got really good leg room.

But they're ploughing that down, building new stairs and completely re-profiling that section so the leg room will be standard leg room – as is expected from all football grounds.

It will be the same leg room they get in the Fratton End and the South Stand, so it's not the club being horrible - it's standard leg room.

But that will allow 700 new seats.

I know it will disrupt people and annoy them but it does help the club in terms of capacity, revenue and just making it decent facilities, I suppose.

I'm sure we'll hear more opinions as we go through this development process and I know some people don't like the Eisners for whatever reasonm but it's an incredibly costly process.

They're saying £11.5m so, for me, that's encouraging.

Q Coupled with the purchase of Roko, it does appear that the owners are putting foundations down that should benefit the club for years to come. So why is is there a lot of mistrust when it comes to the Eisners?

Firstly, Roko is an essential purchase. They had to buy it.

We don’t know the price Pompey paid for it, assuming it was between £2.5m and £3m, but Pompey do now have a training ground. When was the last time that actually happened?

It's also got incredible potential there as well.

In terms of the mistrust, I suppose, with the Eisners, it always comes down to fans wanting them to spend more on the football team.

There are fans out there who never liked the Supporters’ Trust, who've never liked the Eisners – and I don't know if they'll be entirely happy until someone's ploughing loads of money into the team to get them straight back up to the Premier League.

But the Eisners never promised that.

From their speech at the Guildhall, they made two pledges.

Firstly, to run Pompey self-sustainably. They never said they were going to plough money into it and get them to the Championship and splash money on players.Secondly, they were going to look after the academy, which is a real big debate still.

Q How high up does Danny Cowley’s playing budget play in the equation when judgements are made?

Both Danny Cowley and Andy Cullen have said the budget has slightly increased this season.

They pushed the boat out to get Joe Morrell and in the end they also got Mahlon Romeo.

Gavin Bazunu's move from Man City – that wouldn't have been cheap either.

But the main issue with the budget for Pompey is you've got players there who are now entering their third season who, for me, have been disappointing sign but are earning hefty money.

It's not their fault. Yet that's a problem for me as it eats up a lot of the wage bill.

The other issue is - how do you know Pompey have a certain wage bill in a certain position (in the league).

At this moment in time, we do not know that or other clubs' wage bills.

You can't compare them. It's guess work.

We don’t know how much Bolton's wage bill is. Do we know how much Crewe's wage bill is?

So at this moment in time, we do not know how big Pompey's wage bill is in comparison to others.

Some are obvious - Ipswich, Wigan, Sunderland. But Pompey, we're not quite sure.

Q We’ve seen that Sean O’Driscoll has decided to leave the academy structure and there’s a lot of accusations going around about the youth system and where it’s going. As an independent observer, are the Eisners living up to their Guildhall promises when it comes to the academy?

First of all, it's a category 3 academy. And they've made it clear that it will remain a category 3 academy.

There's no immediate plans to make it a category 2.

When I spoke to Greg Miller in the summer there was no indication when that would happen.

They're aiming to be the best they can for a category 3.

From my point of view, there’s not been much progress in the academy in terms of personnel and facilities.

There doesn't appear to be a lot of change in there. So you can definitely question the Eisners over that pledge.

The club will no doubt disagree and say that they’ve put a lot of money into it but we’ve not seen anything tangible.

Speaking to parents, current staff, former staff – they feel more money should be put into the academy.

We've seen people resign over it as well.

(In the summer) the academy needed rejuvenating. It had went stale, it needed rejuvenated, it needed an overhaul, it needed change, so I would applaud the club on that.

They've tried to do something about it and Greg Miller has come in with great ideas.

He’s in the background and will oversee that change hopefully because it's dropped off incredibly in recent years.

Q Many academy kids were let go in the summer as that regeneration programme began in earnest. That, too, had its critics. But bearing in mind where many of this players are now – at non-league level – has that decision been vindicated?

First of all, it's only fair to point out that the academy side are top of the division at the moment.

After six games, they've won five and drawn one so are on an incredible start to the season.

But, yeah, it's a good point about the other lads.

Now, if Pompey could afford an under-23 team, a development group, it would benefit everybody - the club, the players and the players' development.

However, Pompey are a League One club. They've just come out of the pandemic, financially they can't afford it.

Not many League One clubs have under-23 teams.

If they could, that would’ve enabled people like Alfie Stanley, Charlie Bell etc to remain at the club to develop.

As it was, that doesn't exist, there's a reduced first-team pathway and they've had to go elsewhere.

I know players got trials at league clubs and fans were saying 'Oh, he's at West Ham, why did we let him go?'

But a few have gone to Bognor, while Alfie Stanley has gone to Dorchester.

They're 18-19, there’s still plenty of time for these lads.

It was too soon for them to compete for Pompey's first team - if there had been a development group, that would have allowed them to remain.

But, as it stands, they had to go elsewhere - and hopefully they can succeed at those other clubs.