It was another day of false promises for Portsmouth fans today. Chief Executive Peter Storrie had previously insisted, even last week, that the new new owners would find another set of more permanent new owners willing to embrace the debt and bring stability as Pompey fought for survival against the odds. Several parties are still apparently in talks to become the latest to take ownership of the Fratton Park outfit, but for fans clinging to hopes of Premier League football such boardroom discussions, despite their far reaching financial implications, will mean little. After all the deeds to the club seem to have changed hands so often this season that even the most loyal supporter would find it hard to keep track and probably doesn’t care who sits in the executive boxes as long as their club is playing at the level it deserves.
The problem for Pompey fans is that after today Premiership football slipped away from them for next season. The almost laughable comings and goings in the distant boardroom has finally had serious, undoable repercussions on the pitch. The nine point penalty imposed following the club’s entry into a painful process of administration almost certainly dooms Pompey to bottom place in the table. The shock at a top flight club with a history such as Portsmouth’s reaching such depths of financial woe is widespread, as the Prime Minister himself commented on events. Rarely do big politicians comment on sporting matters but the added ingredient of fiscal responsibility must have made a sympathetic statement to fans attractive for No.10. Some would find such a statement, with its emphasis on prudent financial practice, ironic given Gordon Brown’s record of presiding over an era of consequence free credit and a ballooning budget deficit as Chancellor and financial collapse, recession and dodgy banking as Prime Minister. However clearly recent trends show that big money owners, often from abroad, can lead to irresponsible and impatient behaviour that threatens the long term stability of our beloved clubs, in favour of glamorous short term goals.
It might be argued that the recession will inevitably lead to tougher times for every area of the economy, football clubs included. Whilst this may be true, the fundamental issue is not one of extreme, temporary financial hardship but one of regulation and responsibility. People will always watch football, just as they will always go to the cinema. During the recession the film industry has actually seen people flocking to the big screens in greater numbers. Of course the cinema is now a cheaper experience than most football matches and film studios still felt the pinch as the global market contracted, but ultimately the demand for football remains strong and consistent.
The real issue that has led to so many cases of turmoil over the course of the season, with Portsmouth being the most high profile example of failure, is the FA and Premier League’s inability to screen candidates for ownership. The initial failure to find an appropriate owner to replace Mr Sasha Gaydamak is the cause of all Pompey’s subsequent woes. Elsewhere too there are worrying signs for football fans. AFC Bournemouth, also of the south coast, face a winding up order despite success on the field this season. In the Premier League an influx of wealthy foreigners looks unsustainable; the miracle at Man City in particular might be a bubble waiting to burst. Long established title contenders like Liverpool and Manchester United find themselves unexpectedly limited by shady Americans who promised extravagance and undying support at first but this quickly gave way to infighting on Merseyside and enormous debts in Salford at the world’s richest club. Arsenal fans hold their breath as a Russian tycoon edges towards control of the shares and sections of the Chelsea faithful must still wonder if Mr Abramovich will suddenly tire of the London club’s failure in Europe and abruptly walk away. It should be noted that British owners are no more reliable, just look at Mike Ashley and Newcastle Utd.
Who then is responsible for handing the world’s richest club to a Glazer family who can’t afford it? How were Pompey allowed to jump from owner to owner, with none yet proving suitable? It is at times like these that one sympathizes with old school purists, who rage in disgust at the ludicrous money in football today and look longingly back to the days when fans were local and footballers local heroes. However in reality such backward thinking nostalgia is impractical and foolish given the tremendous spectacle the game has grown to become. Entertainment and accessibility have increased as well as the enormous liberating potential football clubs have as a vehicle for wealth in the local community. This progression should not be frowned upon and lamented, but there is a need for it to be managed correctly so that the maximum amount of people benefit and the club remains a stable asset of the area for years to come. Such gross mismanagement and incompetence with such large sums of money can only be rivaled by the greed driven mistakes of bankers in recent times. However the bankers were playing a risky game for high rewards. Whilst there is money in football today the sort of men who buy clubs have made their millions elsewhere in much more productive areas; it is generally acknowledged that you will put more money into a club than you will get out as an owner, it’s about extravagance and theatre, a plaything at which wealthy associates might meet, not profit. Why then are such dramatic catastrophes occurring? Clearly in some cases men without sufficient means to buy a club have been allowed to do so and then to make things worse have acted with incompetence. Something must be changed by the authorities to safeguard jobs, money and treasured clubs with vibrant football legacies.
I mentioned both the Prime Minister and Mike Ashley in this article. I end by saying that Portsmouth must learn lessons from both as they enter administration. Mike Ashley, despite scandals and meddling that led to Newcastle’s relegation, has somehow restored the Magpies (perhaps by backing away from team affairs) so that they look like clinching automatic promotion straight back to the Premiership with ease. Portsmouth could dwell on shattered dreams like the floating new stadium in the harbor or past glories like their FA Cup triumph or they could begin rebuilding now in preparation for a competitive Championship campaign. That means finding a sensible owner who understands the club’s importance but also stays out of the limelight and team affairs. Which brings me to the Prime Minister. The forthcoming General Election shall be dominated by the divide on when to begin cutting the deficit and the PM’s view is that cuts shouldn’t start till next year or the tiny recovery, revised up to 0.3% growth as of today, shall be endangered. The administrator taking charge of Pompey promised that deep cuts will be introduced to save the club from complete meltdown. Although fans will want whatever is necessary to save the club they will also not want to replicate the slide of their bitter rivals Southampton down the leagues. A Newcastle-esque immediate return is preferable as each year in the Championship will make promotion harder to acquire. Therefore those in charge at Pompey must follow the Prime Minister in opposing dramatic cuts, i.e. “firesales” of the best players at the team’s core, but making those that are necessary. Pompey’s administration and the recession are both calamities but both provide opportunities for rebuilding from scratch and with wise decisions, stronger foundations will be laid.