'My one regret is not beating Chelsea'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


Given all he's been through, you'd have thought that, before the ink had even dried on the deal to finally sell Portsmouth FC to their new Russian owners, Balram Chainrai would have been dancing a jig round his office and high-fiving anyone within range.

However, for a man who took over the reins of the then Premier League club solely to get back money he was owed, Chainrai has enjoyed the ride more than he expected.

Last week when Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI) - controlled by London-based Russian businessman Vladimir Antonov - completed their takeover of Pompey, it brought to a close the Hong Kong businessman's 15-month tenure as the club's owner. That tenure saw the side relegated from the Premier League, come close to winning an FA Cup final, go into administration, and nearly go out of business altogether, before being sold to the Russian consortium.

Once CSI owners Antonov, Roman Dubov and former Leeds United chief executive Chris Akers passed the Football League's fit and proper persons' test, the club was off Chainrai's hands. Relief was mixed with regret.

'When you get to an FA Cup final and nearly win it, it's hard not to feel a pang of regret,' he said. 'If [Kevin-Prince] Boateng had scored that penalty we'd have taken the lead, and I believe we would have won. I'd have held the FA Cup as the owner of the winning club. I still find it hard to believe I spent two hours in the Royal Box sitting next to Prince William.'

Pompey were eventually beaten 1-0 in the final by Chelsea, but not before Chainrai watched his son, Karan, walk out on the Wembley turf as Portsmouth's mascot to cap a tumultuous and astonishing period in the businessman's life.

'I took over the club because I had no other option,' he said. 'I was thrown into a situation which was totally unexpected. Suddenly I was in charge of a Premier League football club.

'Nothing can prepare you for that. But it turned out to be a tremendous experience. The last thing I could even dream of was the club getting to an FA Cup final.'

Chainrai briefly owned the English side before they went into administration in February last year. He had initially invested GBP17 million (HK$216 million) in the club, and 'reluctantly' assumed control when the previous owner, Ali al-Faraj, defaulted on loan payments due to him. Portsmouth, who were debt-ridden at the time, became the first Premier League club to enter administration and consequently had nine points deducted on their way to relegation from the top flight to the Championship.

But following the club's exit from administration in October, Chainrai was free to buy back Portsmouth and save them from liquidation. He has since run the club through his company, Sports Holdings Ltd, along with his Israeli business partner Levi Kushnir. Pompey preserved their Championship status last season with a 16th-placed finish under manager Steve Cotterill.

New owners CSI own a growing list of sports teams, franchises and rights, with current interests including the World Rally Championship, PowerPlay Golf, the Spartak Moscow ice hockey team, Ferrari Team Russia and Britain's Isle of Man TT motorcycle race. They now intend to pump more cash into Portsmouth.

Chainrai admitted he had cut his losses and settled for less than he had put into the club.

'In the beginning I was put in a very awkward situation,' he said. 'Now I'll get my money back in increments, and most probably won't get all the money back that I have put in. But to have to put no more cash in - and eventually get back over a period of time most of what I invested - is a relief. People with bigger pockets have taken over so it's a win-win situation for everyone.'

The 52-year-old Indian, better known as 'Balu' in the Hong Kong business community, was born in the city and attended King George V School. He runs a successful consumer electronics group and has interests in Britain, including a property investment firm.

Chainrai may have been fighting losing financial battles for months off the pitch, but one win for his side on the field gave him the most pleasure: when Pompey won the first 'Hong Kong' derby last year by beating the Carson Yeung Ka-sing-owned Birmingham City 2-0 in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Yeung is also a Hong Kong businessman, whose side were relegated from the Premier League in the season just finished amid rumours of financial problems.

'All I'd say to Carson is to keep his expenses in control because when you own a football club and want success it's easy to overspend,' Chainrai said.

Lately Chainrai's tenure has been slammed by Pompey fans, who were angry he and Kushnir failed to invest in the club. A rise in ticket prices also had the Pompey faithful up in arms. This led to a number of organised fans' demonstrations over the past few months.

Since the club's sale, though, fans have shown their appreciation as Chainrai has kept to his word and left the south coast side with hope for the future. To other prospective Hong Kong football club owners he has one piece of advice: 'Get yourself a good lawyer. Don't save money on them, pay for the best. That's what I've learned most of all.'

Now that he's sold Portsmouth he has been approached by other Championship clubs to see if he'd be interested in buying them. His simple response was they should contact his financial advisers, Seymour Pierce, the London-based investment bank and stockbroker, and they'll go over any proposal - just don't hold your breath.

It's a natural reaction after the roller coaster ride he's been on and, looking back over the past 15 months, when asked if it was all worth it, he said: 'Honestly? If I had to do it all over again I would - I'd just rather not have to put any of my own money into it!'