Pompey a tale of anarchic tragedy
Published 24/04/2010 | 05:00
Trawling through the accounts of Portsmouth Football Club this week has netted rather more than a shoal of stinking fish.
The slipshod excess, the chronic failures of judgement, the mockery of such concepts as discipline and responsibility certainly represent the opposite of a dancing, silvery catch but, there is to be found something still more disturbing.
It is an absolute detachment from anything we would like to believe is the reality of the lives of all those who have supported a famous old football club literally to the steps of Wembley Stadium and a second FA Cup final appearance in three seasons.
And then this week these people, who are obliged to do their work and pay their bills, feed and educate their children in a world which they might hope still puts some store on a resolve to do the right thing in any given situation, have seen the morass of near £120m worth of debt, itemised in shocking detail.
They have seen it and cringed and wondered if anything could represent futility and wastefulness more deeply than the fact that among the creditors is Tottenham Hotspur, an infinitely richer club than Portsmouth, due £1m for a mismanaged transfer deal that saw a reserve goalkeeper move from Pompey to Stoke after he had agreed to join Spurs.
A tragicomic misadventure you might say, but any smile is swiftly frozen in the reading of debts wilfully acquired and casually neglected.
For some years now, the conduct of many English football clubs has been hair-raising. With the flaunting of huge TV revenue, the end-game reality is that, of the Premier League's leading clubs, two of them -- Manchester United and Liverpool -- are loaded with stifling debt, while another two -- Chelsea and Manchester City -- owe their strength to the randomly acquired largess provided by Russian and Middle-Eastern wealth respectively.
If we have feared the uncharted working of a mad anarchy, the red ink of Portsmouth is the extreme but unavoidable evidence of a game that not only lost its head but also anything that might vaguely resemble a soul.
The Tottenham mini-disaster is most shocking but it doesn't wrench the stomach quite so harshly as the near £10m indebtedness to agents.
Owning the biggest IOU note -- at a little more than £2m -- is the influential Israeli powerbroker -- and confidante of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich -- Pini Zahavi, who this week spoke of the Portsmouth meltdown in predictably injured tones.
He declared: "What can I do? Whatever I get I will have to say, 'thank you'. I hope I will get as much as possible. I have been owed it for many years -- a long time. They just postpone and delay payment. It's for transfers -- many of them."
Not too much sympathy will be extended to well-heeled Zahavi by the local tradespeople of Portsmouth who have also been stiffed, and perhaps least of all by the Guernsey Scouts Association, who are owed £697 after providing training facilities for a club-sponsored boys' games.
Zahavi speculates on what he can do. In North American professional sport, where there is a much stronger belief in the need for clubs to behave with a degree of responsibility in their business operations, he would be told rather firmly that he should remember into whose trough he is supposed to be dipping. In the National Football League, though, it is a not a matter of guidance but fiercely enforced regulation.
The NFL long ago legislated away the possibility of an agent acting for both a club and a player. The concept would be seen not only as dubious, but bizarre. In the NFL an agent can act only for his player client. He cannot see a penny of income until a deal has been studied and passed by a team of lawyers and accountants in the league's head office, and then his fee is paid directly to the agent by the player who has benefited from his services. Club employees scout and negotiate with the player and his agent. There is no possibility of conflicting interest.
The NFL also have other fancy notions about how a professional sports organisation should operate within a league system. They installed a salary cap a decade or so ago. When a change of ownership is proposed, an oligarch or an oil sheikh doesn't send his men into town and write out a deal. If he attempted that, he would have to give full disclosure of all his resources and then he would have to win a vote of approval from 75pc of the league owners.
In the NFL, the phrase 'Fit and Proper Person' is not a matter of rough guesswork. It is something to be thrashed out under the gaze of professionally qualified investigators.
You think of such protective measures and then you consider again the story of Portsmouth FC, as revealed in this week's horror story of accounting detail, and you realise all over again the extent of the betrayal inflicted on the followers of the football club.
It is scarcely surprising that one of them said with great anguish this week: "What is that we have been supporting these last months and years? From the big stuff, the millions sloshing around like bilge water in a sinking ship to the pathetic non-payment of the Boy Scouts, I am coming to the conclusion that this is not a business which we can want to have anything to do with.
"After the Cup final I'm not sure anyone who follows Pompey can support this business or any event it organises. This is not Pompey anymore."
So what is it? And what are thousands of fans mourning? Pompey, the accounts tell us so starkly, is the empty husk of something that once had the power to enthral and impassion.
The lament is for lost values, those grounded in something other than the abuse of easy money and the most reckless of chance and speculation. It has come with the terrible possibility that it is more than merely one madcap exception to any rule of care. (© Independent News Service)