Four owners in a year, relegation, administration and the dubious honour of being the first Premier League side to be docked points are just the main headlines in what has been a nightmare season for all concerned with Portsmouth Football Club. It would be somewhat predictable if Pompey were to win the FA Cup in May, but when they won the competition in 2008 it was supposed to be a platform to consistently strong performances at the elite level. They say a week is a long time in politics. What events at Fratton Park have shown us is that two years can be an eternity in football.
When a winding-up petition was issued against the club in February, the widely-reported figure with regard to the club’s total debt was somewhere between £60m and £70m. That this is actually in excess of £100m will come as a shocking figure to football supporters but not exactly a surprise in itself. Of course, Liverpool and Manchester United have much higher red numbers on their bottom line, but they have the resources and revenue streams to sustain many times more debt than Portsmouth ever could. The argument that Pompey may not be a viable going concern anymore gathers weight with each passing day and every new piece of information. That this is the state of play despite one of the biggest fire-sales in history last summer makes one wonder just how bad it was beforehand.
A natural reaction here has been to blame the Premier League, especially given that Portsmouth were allowed to spend 109% of their turnover on salaries in the 2009 financial year. Knocking Richard Scudamore and co. is an easy and en vogue thing to do, but to abdicate Portsmouth of their own responsibility here would be an unwelcome side-effect of attacking the ‘Premier League brand’. The truth is that no salary cap exists and clubs such as Blackburn Rovers in the 1990’s spent far beyond their conventional means and relied on a wealthy individual to underwrite the losses. The argument about to cap or not to cap is for another day. What is clear is that under the current rules, the Premier League could do very little to stop the Sacha Gaydamak juggernaut racing beyond all control. The former owner now wants £30m back that he invested into Pompey to sustain its relative largesse. When he introduced himself as the saviour of the club in 2006, one can only presume this was not what the supporters had in mind.
There are two sides to this argument and both have merit. Firstly, it is unreasonable of football fans to expect ‘a billionaire’ to bankroll dreams that are totally out of kilter with the size and fan-base of the club. However, it is also the case that once a wealthy individual decides to run the club as a plaything at an operating loss, it should be with the acceptance that the money is dead, for if they were to ask for it back, there is no possible way the money could be found. Supporters of clubs all over the country are slowly embracing a more sustainable model of club ownership. Whether the right lessons will be learned from the Portsmouth saga remains to be seen.