Hart-break at Portsmouth

Premier League management cannot be easy even under the best of circumstances. But when your club is under a transfer embargo, staff and players have gone unpaid and the ownership situation is murky at best, the job is made exponentially more difficult. Paul Hart faced exactly those conditions at Portsmouth, and with Pompey struggling at the foot of the table, it came as little surprise when Hart was relieved of his duties last night.

Hart originally took over as caretaker manager of Portsmouth in February 2009 and was appointed to the role permanently in July. But after only two wins in their 13 Premier League games this season, the Blues find themselves four points from safety. A 1-0 defeat by Stoke on Sunday proved to be the death knell for Hart, but Portsmouth’s performance was better than the result suggests, a tale that has repeated itself throughout Pompey’s season so far. If Kevin Prince-Boateng had converted his penalty when the scores were level, Hart may still be in a job. But Boateng’s spot-kick was tame, and a Ricardo Fuller goal consigned Portsmouth to another defeat.

A statement released on Portsmouth’s website read: “The decision is made reluctantly and is made based on results that leave the club bottom of the league.” Having been appointed as director of youth operations by Harry Redknapp in 2007, Hart was offered a similar role upon being removed as manager. Initial reports indicated Hart had rejected the proposal, but a second Portsmouth statement denied the former Nottingham Forest boss had made a decision: “Paul Hart is considering the position of technical director. He had a further conversation with (chief executive) Peter Storrie last night and said he would go away and get back to us.” Hart previously worked with the youth team at Leeds United, overseeing the development of players the calibre of Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith. A position doing like-wise at Fratton Park could be the best use of Hart’s talents.

Portsmouth’s summer preparations were decimated by the boardroom unrest that enveloped the club from the moment Sulaiman Al Fahim launched a takeover bid in May. Financial problems forced the sale of numerous players, including Peter Crouch, Glen Johnson and Sylvain Distin and the ownership situation rumbled on without conclusion, leaving Hart’s hands tied as the end of the transfer window loomed. It was not until the dying days of August that new faces were brought in, including five loan signings and a number of Championship players, far from adequate replacements for the international class footballers that departed.

A rival takeover attempt was fronted by Storrie, unsuccessfully, but Al Fahim did not hold on to Portsmouth long. The man behind Storrie’s bid, Ali al-Faraj, bought 90% of the club in October, days after it was confirmed players and staff had not been paid during September. Avram Grant was also appointed as director of football on the heels of al-Faraj’s arrival, without Hart being consulted. Grant, who held the same position when Redknapp was Portsmouth manager, has yet to officially begin work at Portsmouth as his work permit has not come through. Despite this, the former Chelsea boss is amongst the names in the frame to take the manager’s chair.

The bookmakers’ favourite to replace Hart, however, is Darren Ferguson. The Scot left Peterborough by mutual consent earlier this month and has shown a great deal of potential in his brief managerial career so far. But Ferguson left the Posh after a run of poor results, and how this qualifies him for a Premier League job is unclear. Peterborough are in the lower reaches of the Championship, and entrusting Portsmouth’s Premier League future to a rookie manager may be a mistake. Other, more experienced options are available, including Alan Curbishley, but Ferguson is likely to come cheaper than the former West Ham boss, something undoubtedly attractive to cash-strapped Portsmouth.

An experienced manager is no more likely to save Portsmouth than a fresh face, however, and the situation is not irretrievable. Four points separate Pompey from West Ham in 17th, and Portsmouth also have the best goal difference of the bottom three teams. It is essential the south coast side are not cut adrift, and with the January transfer window approaching, reinforcements have to be brought in if Portsmouth are to stave off relegation. But if the transfer kitty is empty, even Darren’s father, Sir Alex Ferguson, would face an uphill battle to save them.

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