The Mandaric Years
There is no questioning Milan Mandaric`s business credentials. At the age of 21, he took over his father`s machinery shop and turned it into the largest business in the country. Then, of course, he moved stateside and furthered his success, making millions in the process.
However, like a number of successful businessmen, Mr Mandaric decided to dabble in an extra-curricular passion – football. After experimenting in the US with the San Jose Earthquakes (featuring a one G. Best), he came to Europe to take over Standard Liege in Belgium, and then Nice in southern France. But his biggest project was yet to come, and in 1998, Milan Mandaric arrived in Portsmouth, effectively saving the club from possible administration. His tenure began with near on three years of what Pompey fans had become used to – bottom half of the table and very few happy days, especially away from Fratton. In fact, Pompey registered only one away win in the 98/99 season, at the fortress that is Vale Park. However, Milan stuck by former England World Cup star Alan Ball as he tried to get his head around English football.
But eventually, halfway through another season of highlights you could count on one hand (a half decent partnership of Claridge and Bradbury being one), Ball was shown the door and Mandaric made a bold move, appointing the up-and-coming Tony Pulis. Now, I`ve always been suspicious of managers who sign their own sons and, despite some encouraging signs and some new players, Anthony Jr. outstayed his father`s reign, and Milan opted for the people`s choice in October of 2000. It was obvious that Steve Claridge was a hero in Pompey fans` eyes, but people were beginning to question whether Mandaric had a clue what he was up to. Claridge wasn`t really given a fair crack, however, through an indifferent few months, and Milan relieved him of his managerial duties after only five months in charge. Mr Mandaric had made his first true south coast enemy. Now some fans really were turning on the Chairman. He needed to play a big hand. And he pulled off rather an impressive coup, luring the highly-rated Graham Rix from his assistant role at Chelsea.
Rix brought with him some young Stamford talent, and the signs were encouraging. But Milan (and his efficient Chief Executive Peter Storrie) pulled out possibly Milan`s biggest signing of his career. In an attempt to lure the players needed to get out of the division, Mandaric approached Harry Redknapp, who had recently left West Ham, in a Director of Football role. Noone knew quite what it meant, but Mandaric was sure the move would prove a positive one. Croatian megastar Robert Prosinecki followed, again down to Mandaric, who paid the Croatian`s wages out of his own pocket. Peter Crouch was also signed, and the squad now looked capable at least. Players showed glimpses of quality – Harper, Pitt and Quashie all looked like useful young players. But despite Prosinecki`s brilliance, and Crouch`s goals, Pompey had a blip in the new year, and consistency went out of the window.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Mandaric made his shrewdest move to date in March 2001, when replacing Rix with his Director of Football, who had shown commitment to his Chairman by turning down the Leicester job earlier in the season. Harry was ready, and the fairytale years began.
Things started happening. Redknapp got rid of dead wood, and drafted in a wonderful blend of youth and experience. He knew exactly what was necessary, and Mandaric finally had something to smile about. Harry pinched Matty Taylor from Luton, a signing that would eventually amount to Joe Kinnear leaving the Hatters, so appalled was he that the board had let him go so cheaply. Harry`s appointment did not only mean a boost in morale, but Milan`s money could finally be efficiently spent. The quality of player attracted improved tenfold – the likes of Merson, Festa, Pericard, Todorov, Foxe, De Zeeuw, Stone and Sherwood turned Pompey into a team way too good for Division One football. Of course, the addition of Yakubu towards the end of the season only confirmed Pompey`s ambition, and the Blues went charging towards the Premiership.
Mandaric`s first goal was complete. Promotion encouraged Mandaric to open the wallet again, despite his other businesses struggling due to his drive towards to the club`s success. Stefanovic came in for a club record fee along with Amdy Faye, and wages were splashed on Sheringham, Zivkovic, Smertin, Berger, Lua Lua and Berkovic, but Milan`s faith in Harry had worked again. Pompey`s inaugural Premiership season was a huge success, boasting one of the best home records in the league and finishing with an excellent run, which saw Yakubu on fire, scoring goal after goal including four against Middlesborough in a 5-1 win on the last day of the season.
The 2004/5 season, however, brought about Milan Mandaric`s darkest days as Chairman.
Pompey started relatively brightly, but dropped key points in games which they should have won. Still, Yakubu was firing again, and a 2-0 victory over Manchester United at home silenced any critics. Then some concerns. Mandaric`s second goal was to establish Pompey as a professional, top-flight outfit with long-term stability. And, to be fair, one look at Fratton Park suggested we were nowhere near that at present. Full of character, and a tricky place to come, but Pompey`s ground, facilities and club structure were not acceptable for a long stay in the Premiership. Mandaric took the decision to give Pompey some managerial and financial structure, and drafted in former Yugoslav legend Velimir Zajec from Panathanaikos as Technical Director.
Immediately, Milan`s mistake was there for all to see. Zajec was obviously treading on Harry`s toes, and the move to add a professional touch to the club had created some seriously bad vibes between Chairman and Manager. Harry, and assistant Jim Smith, left the club in November 2004, with Redknapp citing that he needed a ‘break from the game`. However, it was clear that his new working conditions had played a huge part in his decision.
Milan`s next blunder was just around the corner. In what was obviously a panic move, he appointed Zajec as temporary first team coach. This was a man who had not stepped foot on the training ground in over 20 years, and the signings of Skopelitis and Chalkias didn`t help matters. Furthermore, in December, Mandaric announced that Zajec would be in control until the end of the season, but worse was to come. Redknapp, explaining that he couldn`t live without the game, took up the vacant manager`s post at Southampton, and took Smith, Kevin Bond and Nigel Quashie with him.
The war of words had begun, and in January the two rivals met in the FA Cup, with Southampton and Redknapp earning the bragging rights. And what painful bragging rights they were. Then, in April 2005, after a series of poor results and a severe lack of confidence in the dressing room, Mandaric took a big gamble in appointing Frenchman Alain Perrin as manager, and Zajec moved quietly back upstairs.
Perrin`s campaign started brilliantly with an emphatic 4-2 home win against Charlton, in which Pompey finished the match with four strikers! And then, at the end of April, Pompey`s finest moment in the Premiership so far. A 4-1 destruction and revenge over Southampton, placing them in an extremely tricky position at the bottom of the table. Pompey were 4-1 up after 27 minutes, with Lua Lua in devastating form, and although he had to go off after his second goal, Pompey made the most of the remaing seventy odd minutes and enjoyed every second – they knew exactly what this victory meant, and boy did it taste sweet.
A 2-0 loss to West Brom on the last day of the season provoked unbelievable celebrations. After the most dramatic last day of the season for decades, Southampton had been condemned to the Championship, and Mandaric was a hero once more. Pompey were the biggest club in the South, and noone could argue. But for how long?
Despite last season`s heroics, the Blues looked considerably out of sorts. Mandaric reiterated his backing for Perrin, but the Frenchman made some questionably signings, bringing in the talented but temperamental Frenchman Laurent Robert alongside Colombian John Viafara and Azar Karadas on loan from Benfica. The heart had fallen out of the side, and results were suffering badly.
By Christmas, Pompey looked doomed, with only 3 wins all season, and Mandaric bit the bullet, sacking Perrin after only a handful of games in charge. Where could he go from here? The soap opera that followed ranged from heart-break to scandal to doubt to hatred to delight.
Pompey fans could not believe their eyes when, just a couple of weeks after Perrin`s dismissal, Redknapp walked out on Southampton and asked to speak to Portsmouth. Rupert Lowe and Milan`s war of words became more severe than ever, and on a cold December morning, Harry Redknapp was reappointed as Portsmouth manager. English football was rocked, but Mandaric had his man. Milan had swallowed his pride, and the two patched up their differences, in the knowledge that if anyone could save Pompey from this mess, it was Harry.
Then, out of nowhere, some more good news. Alexandre Gaydamak, a French-Russian citizen with a bulging purse, bought half of Mandaric`s stake in the club. He promised investment, and sure enough, it arrived. Once again, Redknapp dived into the transfer market in January, bringing in some fresh and encouraging faces, none more so than Pedro Mendes and Andres D`Alessandro, the little genius from Argentina.
The team took time to bond, however, and things still didn`t look good for Pompey. That is, until a last minute thunderbolt from Mendes against Manchester City. Spirits were raised, and that goal sparked an unbelievable run of form, with Pompey taking 20 points from nine games, culminating in a 2-1 defeat of Wigan in the penultimate game of the season, with a Matty Taylor penalty confirming safety once again. It was a beautiful end to a fairytale story for Mandaric, who had been through so much in the past eight years.
There had been lows – serious lows that had him considering walking away. But highs like these make up for any ill feeling, and now his dream had fallen into place – he could hand over the reins to a younger man whose dreams matched his own. It is a true tribute that Sacha Gaydamak would not let Mandaric walk away without an attachment to his beloved Portsmouth, and he will retain a non-executive role for the foreseeable future.
Gaydamak may now be the sole owner of Pompey, but the name of Milan Mandaric will go down in history. He had his tantrums, he had his ego, but where would Portsmouth Football Club be without Milan Mandaric.
Milan – I salute you. Thank you for putting us where we are today – the Pompey spirit lives on, in the Premiership.
*This is the first of Pete Alexandre’s monday articles and i’m sure you will agree this one was fantastic!*