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Monday, August 13, 2012
Last days of Pompey?

Ravi Ubha

Rarely have fans ever celebrated as much in a heavy loss. Recall 2004 and a winter's evening in Portsmouth, in Southeast England, when the struggling Premier League side hosted Arsenal's Invincibles in the FA Cup. Being battered 5-0, the Pompey faithful nonetheless broke out in song, in awe of the football the visitors were producing.

"Can we play you every week?" they asked.

When majestic Arsenal striker Thierry Henry was substituted, he was given a standing ovation, and Teddy Sheringham's late consolation effort was greeted with the type of cheer normally associated with a game winner. A party atmosphere prevailed.

At the final whistle, in a move not often seen from the Frenchman, Henry got hold of an opposition jersey and donned it proudly before heading down the tunnel.

"Their fans were fantastic, and with fans like this they don't deserve to go down," Henry said.

Henry would have been pleased when Portsmouth escaped relegation in 2004, but "down" doesn't begin to explain the team's current predicament. In a summer in which Scottish giant Rangers were demoted to the fourth tier, Portsmouth's fate hung in the balance because of more financial mismanagement.

Indeed, two years after becoming the first Premier League outfit to enter administration with debts of about 100 million pounds, Portsmouth, which re-entered administration in February, was on the verge of extinction yet again. This time the situation was more dire.

The club's highest earners had to leave or come to a compromise regarding wages this past Friday if Portsmouth was to avoid liquidation. Israeli defender Tal Ben Haim, reportedly earning 36,000 pounds a week, was the last player holding out but did reach a compromise a day before the deadline and agreed to leave the club. Kanu left, although he is still seeking a reported 3 million pounds in unpaid wages.

Now one of two interested purchasers, former owner Balram Chanrai or the Pompey Supporters' Trust, is set to take over the club. PST said it has raised 3 million pounds in pledges, though Chanrai is in pole position.

Yet the alternative to liquidation for Portsmouth -- playing in the third tier for the first time since 1983 and almost certain demotion because of a 10-point penalty and a limited, inexperienced squad -- doesn't result in a happy ending. Portsmouth's plight probably even has drawn sympathy from its major rival, Southampton, which is as high as Portsmouth is low. The Saints return to the Premier League following a seven-year absence, having overcome their own financial troubles three years ago.

"It's really quite amazing what's happened to this football club in the last four or five years now," legendary Portsmouth keeper Alan Knight, who made 801 appearances in more than 20 years, said in a telephone interview. "You could make a Hollywood film with what's gone on.

It was only in 2008 that Portsmouth won the FA Cup, sinking Cardiff 1-0 to win England's most prestigious cup competition for the first time in nearly 70 years. An improbable upset of Manchester United in the quarterfinals, at Old Trafford no less, paved the way to glory at Wembley. Now the club teeters on the brink.

"The amount of money that's gone missing and is owed, the owners who've been and gone," Knight said. "The fans are the ones that are continually paying the price and the ones now who are praying something can be done to save the club."

Ben Haim, cast as a villain by some, released a statement this past Tuesday in which he largely blamed the administrator, PKF, as the messy saga intensified. "As far as I'm concerned, an offer has been made to me only recently," Ben Haim said. "I have offered to waive 1.5 million [pounds] of my current contract. They now tell me this is not good enough. The fact is that we are only about 300,000 [pounds] apart in negotiations. If they want to liquidate the club for that money while they still charge their huge fees, then all I can say is that the blood is very much on their hands."

Former Portsmouth striker and manager Steve Claridge, like Knight, said Ben Haim wasn't the guilty party. "When you give out these contracts, look to the person who gave them the contract and look to the person who didn't put in place that if Portsmouth was relegated his contract didn't go down to a level which is feasible for Portsmouth Football Club to pay," Claridge said in a telephone interview. "I don't know anyone who if offered that money would say, 'No, thank you, because I might be putting the football club in [jeopardy].' That's the job of the person who has given the contract out."

In charge at the time of the Ben Haim signing, and the person on the receiving end of plenty of finger-pointing in Portsmouth, is former chief executive Peter Storrie. He follows in the muddy footsteps of Peter Ridsdale at Leeds, which threatened to rule the Premier League last decade only to crumble financially and sell its assets. Leeds hasn't fully recovered, out of the Premier League since 2004.

As well as being at the helm when lucrative contracts were disbursed, Storrie drew more criticism when it was reported he was making more than 1 million pounds in salary and earned the same bonuses as players. Talk of a new stadium to replace Fratton Park, with a capacity of only 20,000, amounted to nothing.

"I'm always going to be known as the chief executive that took the first-ever Premier League side into administration," Storrie told the Telegraph two years ago.

In the endless blame game, Storrie referred to Portsmouth's ever-changing owners.

When Milan Mandaric saved Portsmouth in the late '90s and went on to hire Harry Redknapp as manager, there was stability. And when Sacha Gaydamak became co-owner early in 2006, his injection of roughly 20 million pounds allowed Redknapp to make a heap of signings that kept Portsmouth in the top flight.

Over the next few years, David James, Sol Campbell, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Lassana Diarra, Glen Johnson and Niko Kranjcar were several of the expensive names on the team sheet.

"The ridiculous, strange, unimaginable stupidity of this situation is it wasn't even called for," Claridge said. "This is not a football club that supporters were demanding you spend that sort of money, were demanding you buy these types of players.

"I was on the train coming home from the FA Cup and I was looking at people celebrating, and I was thinking, 'You've got to pay for this somewhere, somehow, and when you do, you are you going to realize this was built on sand, this FA Cup.'"

So it proved.

A year after the FA Cup success, with Gaydamak unable to bankroll the club further, Portsmouth was offloaded. Most of the big names left, too.

Four owners have ensued. The last one, Vladimir Antonov, was arrested late last year in connection with alleged asset stripping of a Lithuanian bank worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Reaching the FA Cup final again in 2010, under the administration cloud, was temporary respite for beleaguered Pompey.

Saddled with a 10-point deduction, relegation from the Championship was confirmed in April. "We saw some really good football, and winning the FA Cup was the absolute highlight of that," Colin Farmery, a spokesman for PST and a fan since watching his first game as a 7-year-old in 1970, said in a telephone interview. "It's one of those things where you hope the good times will last forever, but unfortunately things haven't turned out that way."

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