Actions and Consequences: A Cautionary Tale
One of the standout memories of a thoroughly depressing 2001-02 season supporting Stockport County was witnessing a masterly performance by former Croatia international Robert Prosinečki for Portsmouth during their 1-0 victory at Edgeley Park in August. His profuse smoking habit and pre-match burger meant that he never left the centre circle all game, but he nevertheless controlled proceedings for the entire 90 minutes and made County’s own talented midfielders, the intelligent David Smith and Finland international Jarkko Wiss, look like complete amateurs. I remember wondering at the time how Portsmouth, who had for the past few years been a struggling Championship club featuring journeymen like John Durnin and callow youths like Luke Nightingale, could afford such a legend of the game. In the years between then and now, I have frequently asked myself this question as international stars like Paul Merson, Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell, Sulley Muntari, Lassana Diarra and Pedro Mendes came to play for the Fratton Park club. Portsmouth, after all, whilst not a small club, have not been one of English football’s heavyweights since the 1940s and have spent the majority of their existence outside the top division. Much of the previous 20 years had been spent in financial turmoil, with the club being saved from extinction at the eleventh hour on more than one occasion. Nice as it was to see a team outside England’s big cities making an impact on the top flight, something didn’t quite add up.
Nearly a decade down the line, and it has come to light that things were indeed a long way from adding up. Portsmouth’s 2009-10 season has seen four owners, two managers, late payment of wages on no less than four occasions and numerous visits to the High Court to prevent the club from being wound up altogether. In January, the club’s official website was suspended because the site’s hosting company had not been paid. Striker Aruna Dindane’s participation in the FA Cup Final was in doubt as Pompey could not afford to pay his parent club, Lens, a fee activated if Dindane played more than 20 games, whilst David James’ contract had to be re-negotiated to remove an automatic renewal clause, which the club could not afford to honour. To top it off, former club employees Harry Redknapp, Milan Mandarić and Peter Storrie are currently being investigated for tax evasion, possibly indicating that certain activities that have taken place at the club might be illegal as well as irresponsible. Recent reports indicate that the club’s debt is as high as £120 million and whilst there have been several consortia expressing interest in taking over the club, a resolution still appears to be some way off. The points penalty that Portsmouth will incur next season is far from the uppermost of their concerns.
Whether Portsmouth manage to exit administration over the summer or – as seems more likely – the club staggers on in administration into the new season, it is uncertain what sort of side the club will be able to field upon their return to the Championship. With Avram Grant having departed for West Ham and most of their players still earning Premier League wages, it seems inconceivable that most of the side who reached the FA Cup Final will still be at the club come August. Whilst it is difficult to gauge their on-field prospects without knowing what sort of team they will be able to put out, survival looks like it might be as much of a watchword on the field as it will be off it.
Portsmouth Football Club, then, is in a mess. A mess caused by unsustainable overspending on players and symptomatic of a culture where it is considered normal to overspend in order to chase on-field success that might, in turn, generate more income, which will in turn lead to further spending and to service the mounting debts. This is a path followed by Hull, Leeds, Derby, Coventry, Bolton, Southampton and Charlton in recent years. Gambling is fine if you can afford to lose, but not so if you cannot. Unfortunately, when the gambles of football clubs don’t pay off, the losers are not the perpetrators but, instead, the stakeholders. The losers are the small businesses who provide everything from food to printing toner and, indeed, websites, who do not get paid, the losers are the fans, who trusted the club’s owners to run it properly and have now been left with a shell of a club, and the losers are the club employees, many of whom now find themselves out of a job. The losers are not the people whose recklessness led to the mess – Mandarić has now moved on to own Leicester City, Redknapp is now manager of Tottenham and Alexandre Gaydamak remains a multi-millionaire whose conscience has not prevented him from putting a £32 million claim against the club his actions have helped destroy. The Portsmouth situation has implications beyond football – this is people’s jobs and people’s lives we are talking about here. Small businesses have, in effect, gone bust because Portsmouth Football Club lived beyond their means.
The most troubling thing about Portsmouth’s financial implosion is that they are by no means the only ones. Fellow contributor Frank Heaven talked of ‘financial carnage’ in the Championship next season, and he is right. Hull’s financial problems seem almost as bad as Portsmouth’s, whilst Cardiff’s failure to secure promotion may have dire monetary implications for them, despite the recent payment of a £1.9 million bill. Further down, Sheffield Wednesday are still reeling from the havoc that former chairman Sir Dave Richards caused in the 1990s. That Sam Hammam and then Peter Ridsdale were allowed to become involved at Cardiff, and that Dave Richards is now head of the Premier League despite the appalling state that they left their previous clubs illustrates the problem. A combination of a media-fuelled culture of excess throughout our professional game – from Portsmouth near the top to Histon at the bottom – and a system of governance that has no consequences for bad owners and seems to actively encourage ‘jobs for the boys’ means that sustainable development is not encouraged and overspending not punished.
The Portsmouth situation is, actually, just an illustration of the disrepair that football has got itself into at both a national and international level. The Fit and Proper Person Test for club ownership remains simply a token gesture, particularly at Premier League level, whilst doubts remain over whether Michel Platini will be able to implement his plans to exclude debt-ridden clubs from Europe. The new solidarity payments and associated laws relating to poaching young players from other teams – which Lloyd covered so eloquently on these pages – demonstrates further the growing inequality of professional football in England. The Supporters’ Trust movement, whilst a great initiative, has failed to make much headway in this respect, and, with the notable exception of Exeter City, supporter ownership of Football League clubs has largely failed, simply because fans do not have the sort of money needed to sustain and grow a club on their own, without outside investment.
Portsmouth’s is a thoroughly depressing situation, but until a high-profile club actually goes into liquidation and the laws are changed to reward responsible running of football clubs and, moreover, to punish those individuals who do not run their football club responsibly, nothing will change. Whilst there are occasional bright spots, I unfortunately expect to be writing several more similar articles over the coming season. The FA has talked about ‘creating a legacy’ on numerous occasions with respect to England’s 2018 World Cup bid. Reform of the rules relating to the governance of football clubs would be a much cheaper and more effective way of creating such a legacy – it would ensure that every fan would be able to be confident of, one day, being able to take their grandchildren to see their team. Unfortunately, with the mixture of out-of-touch and plain incompetent individuals who run our national sport, I am not exactly holding my breath.