It is May 17, 2008 and Sol Campbell is lifting the FA Cup aloft in front of Portsmouth’s delirious followers, as the club records one of its most memorable days in its entire history. Club owner Sacha Gaydamak and manager Harry Redknapp take to the pitch as their travelling army of fans sing and cheer their names in a cauldron of pride and joy.
Fast forward just 15 months and my how the picture has changed. A statement on Portsmouth’s official website this week rather depressingly stated: “The need to meet scheduled loan repayments to banks has meant that the club has had to sell players such as Lassana Diarra and Jermain Defoe in January and more recently Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch.” Portsmouth’s horrifying state of finances has been well and truly laid to bare in recent weeks and with the club now almost on its knees, are we now looking at Pompey’s dear price of success?
No football fan needs telling that a trip to Fratton Park is far from luxurious. In fact, the fans and players revel in its opposition’s discomfort as the swirl of noise and atmosphere in the small, unglamorous ground daunts and uneases its opponents. It makes for a strange air when star names such as Diarra, Defoe, Crouch and Sulley Muntari are strutting their stuff on the humble turf of this rickety ground. With just 20,000 seats and none of the sumptuous corporate facilities so common place at nearly all other Premier League clubs, it was clear such a modest club of the size of Pompey – who hold very little in terms of commercial and corporate pull – was living well beyond its means.
Gaydamak’s millions had turned Pompey from a club on the brink of relegation in 2006, into a side with a stunning array of star names along with a major trophy and European ambitions. Quite the miracle turnaround. Harry Redknapp took the plaudits as the genius manager for leading a club so modest in size and stature such as Pompey into a real Premier League force. However, Redknapp and Gaydamak’s lofty ambitions had blindsided some rather blatant and ominous facts.
When Gaydamak assumed full control of Pompey he was quick to plough the millions straight in. Of course in the short term it was a unanimous success. Pompey was deep in the relegation mire in 2006 until Gaydamak’s money was spent by then manager, Redknapp, ensuring the club’s Premier League safety. Short term aim achieved. But after the immediate return on his outlay, Gaydamak wanted more. He was ambitious that is for sure, but his ambition was quick to cloud his better judgement. By the end of the 2006/07 season, Portsmouth’s wage bill had reportedly increased by a whopping 49%. Chief Executive Peter Storrie’s offerings at the time painted the picture for future failings, but his words went with a pinch of salt as fans and the club’s hierarchy were blinded by the glitz and glamour of Premier League success.
Storrie remarked, “If you want to have the quality we have got then you’ve got to pay the money. Each time the TV contract goes up people think clubs make a lot of money. But the reality is that it goes on improving the squad and the players, so as income goes up, salaries go up. We do it quite well with one of the smallest stadiums in the country. If we had a bigger stadium we would be far better off. But at the moment it means a lot of continued investment from the owner.” An obvious statement that few at the time would could envisage being so utterly shattering to the club. The last line was the one that meant so much. That continued investment stopped – bluntly. And the club has since hit total financial meltdown.
It is believed that by the end of 2008, Gaydamak’s fortune had been seriously hit by the credit crunch, forcing him to unceremoniously halt any financial input into the club. Redknapp had now jumped ship and with the club recording losses of £2m every month – something had to give. And it did – Pompey firesale. First Diarra, then Defoe and now Johnson and Crouch, all sold to keep the club running. The club’s situation was looking bleaker by the day as less than a year on from that glorious May afternoon at Wembley, stood a club on the brink of meltdown. Pompey wasn’t fairing much better on the pitch than they were off it as caretaker boss Paul Hart was in the middle of his rescue mission after Tony Adam’s shambolic reign.
At the time it was reported that 60% of Pompey’s turnover went on wages, while outstanding transfer fees were also still owed. Not a pretty sight and Gaydamak and Storrie knew the situation could go on no longer. The club was up for the sale after Gaydamak claimed he was “unable to meet the club’s needs”. The club ‘needed’ money, due to the unsustainable level of expenditure Gaydamak had taken the club to. June 2009 saw the club’s apparent saviour Suliaman al Fahim step in to finance the club to safety. But with Gaydamak rendering the club almost unsustainable without huge lauds of money spent to balance the books, has Fahim now had second thoughts about taking it all on?
This week has been one of the most tumultuous weeks in Portsmouth’s history. If the takeover does not go through, and there are now severe doubts, then will we see Pompey fall to its knees? Financing the club through selling players is obviously unsustainable so if Fahim’s money does not step in soon it could spell the end of Portsmouth Football Club as we know it.
A stark contrast to that sunny afternoon on May 17, 2008. Pompey has chased the dream and now must live with the consequences.