There’s this bloke closely associated with Portsmouth Football Club. You all know him – obese, uncouth, dreadlocked, tattooed and clanging a huge bell as though his life depended on it. While his commitment to the club is laudable, even honourable on a good day, he is incredibly, unutterably insufferable. Seemingly almost hell bent on ruining the match day experience of visiting fans while lapping up his own self-importance and pouting into any camera within 20 yards.
I’d never really viewed him as a symbol of the club as such, more an irritating anomaly, the type of fetid ‘colour’ that will always play well on TV to lowest common denominator audiences whilst irking the silent majority – an ‘England Band’ for the Portsmouth Peninsula.
But this week his attitude to life seems almost endemic of events at his club – larger than life, still there and not exactly shy about the fact.
I’ll spare you the detail, you know – Portsmouth are, or were, up Proverbial Creek without Tim Brabants after a catalogue of desperate ownership wrangles and a charge sheet of financial profligacy to make Allen Stanford wince.
This time last month their fans were reduced to pleading with Greg Halford and Dave Kitson to cut and run in order to save the club and one couldn’t help but feel for them.
The story was similar as a team of kids was soundly beaten in the club’s first fixture in the Capital One Cup by Plymouth earlier this week. The opposition fans, no strangers to the wiles of financial penury, went so far as shaking buckets to lend a hand – together in football.
The first cracks in the artifice appeared, though, as club manager Michael Appleton began to bemoan the slashing of his putative playing budget from £4.5m to £1.5m. A huge cut, but one to bring them in line with League 1 salary structures and surely entirely understandable in their current predicament. As a fan of a fellow League 1 club I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
Alongside this was suggestion that Portsmouth City Council had pledged to back a supporters group to the tune of £1.5m – a welcome fillip but endemic of the dire straits befalling the club, its fans and the community.
All this was spun on its head yesterday afternoon as Portsmouth announced the signing of ten new players. One can’t claim they weren’t necessary, and indeed many of them have spent the summer with the club to see whether the clouds blew over.
Notwithstanding that fact the list of names was rather impressive – Brian Howard, Izale McLeod and Mustapha Dumbuya are all players who would waltz into the first eleven of most League 1 teams. Howard the star of Barnsley’s infamous noughties cup run and McLeod having moved for fees well over £1million in a stuttering career.
But the real shock was the name of Lee Williamson, most recently of Sheffield United. Williamson was one of the players offered significantly reduced terms as part of a book balancing process at Bramall Lane – as part of their efforts to live with League 1. Suggestions in Sheffield are that the figure he turned down was anything between £3-5,000 per week. He chose to chance his arm for a better deal or football at a higher level.
Well, he certainly hasn’t got the latter. And whilst it’d be unwise to surmise he’ll get the former as a makeweight it’s an easy conclusion to reach.
Even if Pompey are planning to pay Williamson a wage equivalent to that offered by Danny Wilson (and I doubt Howard and McLeod are playing for peanuts either) it still feels like a giant nose thumbing at those who poured out their pity over the saga of Tal Ben Haim’s £36,000 a week pay check or who rattled buckets on their behalf.
£3,000 a week may be much less than £36,000 but at League 1 level is not an average wage. And even if it does end up being only for a month it still feels like Portsmouth Football Club are being given an opportunity to start with a clean slate they barely deserve.
There followed a quite extraordinary play by the club’s administrator, PKF’s Trevor Birch, to get Portsmouth’s 10 point administration penalty for the coming season overturned despite only vague assurances for the club’s future and this being contingent on the goodwill of fans and the local authority.
If signing top quality League 1 players was nose thumbing, this was arse bareing tomfoolery from someone who should know better.
The disgrace here isn’t the making of Portsmouth fans, but of football governance – the fact that it repeatedly allows the ‘bitten’ to play ‘shy’.
Only they aren’t even heeding that principle.
A little aggrieved at the circumstances I aired my own views on Twitter. What followed gave me a taste of how it must feel for football journos who dare to step off the fence on a given issue or columnists who choose to present a partisan or personal opinion on a contentious topic.
I was called, amongst other things, ill-informed, an ignorant shit, a fuckwit, a cunt, a twat, a jealous fan of a tinpot club. Others poured scorn, hoping my own club would go out of business and some just found the whole situation hilarious.
A small minority attempted to engage constructively but even they gave away extraordinary information – that Pompey are sitting on a £3million treasure trove to pay these players for instance.
How on Earth is it the case that a club can back out of commitments to local charities and businesses but retain such an astronomical sum to pay bloody footballers?
I can’t blame Portsmouth fans for citing this fact but their inability to grasp the desperate irony of the situation showed the blinkered nature of football fandom in all its glory.
The over-riding reaction though was to scoff and suggest I ‘(had) no idea what I was talking about’. But, having been caught in an ‘all mouth, no trousers’ situation far too many times in my life I choose my battles wisely…
Firstly, I spent six months of a legal training contract working on insolvency issues. I know the difference between a CVA and liquidation, so saying ‘yeah but there’s a CVA and there’s cash’ doesn’t really work.
But more pertinently as a Carlisle fan, I’ve been there – owner tries to sell club to penniless curry house barman, then a Gibraltar based investment vehicle which is eventually traced back to him, finally is rumbled for fraudulent accounting and disqualified as a director leaving the club potless and almost asset free before selling his story about alien abduction to the Sun.
Doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Portsmouth, does it?
The difference, though, is that Carlisle United paid all creditors in full – none of the infamous ‘1p in the £1’ statements so linked to Ken Bates and co. And the club lived within its means. To see our team in the post ’02 apocalypse was to see a rag bag of talentless try hards and thoroughbreds now only fit for the knackers yard. The same, coincidentally, is true of Portsmouth’s weekend opponents at Plymouth right now.
Only this summer Carlisle were forced to make several redundancies, including a good friend of mine. The reason? They needed to cut their cloth accordingly to meet standards set by the new FA Elite Player Performance Plan and employment of a full time coach and physio meant that media, stewarding, office and fitness staff paid the price.
And, as I laboured to my quarry, the Football League’s new salary cap rules were designed by – you guessed it – the Chief Executive of Carlisle United, FL board member John Nixon.
I’d say we know a fair bit about financial prudence in Cumbria.
All of which makes me feel well placed to pass a comment on how these things work or to ask questions about the moral and ethical dubiousness of similar situations.
By the time I placed my phone down for the evening the sniping continued but subsided amongst placatory statement and the odd apology – but the overriding sentiment had changed somewhat.
Now, Portsmouth should be allowed to sign these players because what happened to them ‘wasn’t fair’. Or, to quote the unbeatable epithet penned to a friend, ‘the FA had a duty to allow PFC to be competitive’.
From what happened yesterday, I can’t help wondering if someone on Wembley Way thinks that may be true.
But the over-riding sentiment of this whole sorry affair, of Portsmouth’s manoeuvres in this malignant pond, was that most of their fans didn’t care about the big picture; that the outcome didn’t, couldn’t ever, justify its means.
They were still there, bold as brass, clanging that fucking bell in the face of anyone who came near, entirely unawares of just how much, or even why, that makes everybody so damn angry.