With just 17 days before the first league game of the season, the Portsmouth manager Michael Appleton is in the unique position of having only three professionals under contract. All of whom, ironically, the club are trying to get rid of in order to survive.
That only begins to tell the story of Pompey, the benighted club in administration for the third time and already bottom of League One thanks to their 10-point deduction from the Football League. They have been given a deadline by the administrators of a week on Friday for Balram Chainrai's prospective buy-out to take place or face liquidation. They lost a recent friendly 4-0, to a team of part- timers from Gibraltar.
It would be fair to say that just about all Portsmouth have going for them at the moment is the loyalty of their supporters – a remarkable 500 of whom travelled to Gibraltar for that game – and one of the brightest young managers in the business.
Appleton, 36, should be heading for the door. At the very least you might expect him to down tools until Chainrai's Portpin take over again – they have agreed a deal with the creditors – but at the training ground this week Appleton was working with his three remaining players, along with triallists and reserve teamers, and planning for the day when he can make some new signings.
"Luckily I am not one who lets things get to him too much," he said. "I don't have any trouble sleeping. I am calm and relaxed a lot of the time. I can only control what I can, that people get the right training and we are organised in terms of games, and then you have to rely on others to help you. I still wake up every morning and – people might think I'm daft – can't wait to get in to work."
He doesn't want "sympathy", in his own words. "I just want a chance. As we sit here right now I am not being given a chance but I know that could change tomorrow."
In order for Portpin's takeover to go ahead, and there are strong hopes at Pompey that it could do so within days, the club must be rid of the contracts of their three remaining senior professionals, Tal Ben Haim, Dave Kitson and Liam Lawrence. Chainrai, a former Pompey owner who himself is owed £19m by the club, does not want the burden of those deals, especially Ben Haim's £36,000-a-week salary, for another year.
It could potentially be the case that a wealthy footballer pushes an historic English club into extinction, a situation made more fraught by the fact that recent departures David Norris, Greg Halford, Luke Varney and Erik Huseklepp have accepted compromises to help Pompey. In the case of the remaining three, Appleton is stuck in the middle.
His immediate concern is whether to play them away at Aldershot tonight in the first of three friendlies in eight days, although there is no right answer. "If I play them does that have an adverse effect on the rest of the players, the crowd? Probably a lot of the crowd will want me to play them so they can give them a bit of stick. There are so many variables you have to weigh up.
"So far they have trained with the rest of the lads. If they train properly there will be no issues. If they start being a problem, kicking people or disrespecting members of staff, we will make them train separately. At the minute we haven't had any issues or problems. As a manager you have to decide what is best for the club and the players."
In the meantime he has triallists coming in every day, some of whom he needs to watch for only five minutes to know they will not make the grade. The silver lining to the Gibraltar defeat was that Appleton took one of their players, Liam Walker, 24, on trial. But constantly on his mind is that the first competitive game of the season, against Plymouth Argyle in the first round of the League Cup, is just 13 days away for a club that, put simply, have no available first-team players.
The prospect of facing that game with a team of kids and triallists is the worst-case scenario. "I don't want it to turn into a farce," Appleton said. "I like to think I can cope with a lot of things but I don't want to be involved in a circus. In that situation I'd probably get frustrated with [sub-standard] players when really it wouldn't be their fault. I want to be competitive and do the best we possibly can."
The moment that the Portpin takeover goes through, and the Football League lifts its ban on Portsmouth signing players, Appleton is ready for action. He is confident there are up to eight deals for players he has in place that he could "do tomorrow".
"We have identified a lot of players and we have lost a lot who have given up waiting and gone elsewhere. I could name 12 to 15 players I would have got at the start of May given the opportunity. Only this weekend I lost another two which was disappointing. But this is where we are at.
"I have been here nearly nine months and I still haven't signed a player [apart from loans]. Those prospective players are still out there and I still speak to them regularly but even I, ever the optimist, realise that, bloody hell, if I don't do things quickly even they are going to go.
"What I do know is that if I can start picking the phone up over the next 72 hours all of a sudden people would see Portsmouth are out of administration and doing business again. There is still some quality out there that would be interested because of the size of the club and the fanbase."
There is still a football club at Pompey despite the traumas they have been through. Over the summer, Appleton has brought in Luke Dowling, the former Crystal Palace scout, and Ashley Westwood as a coach. He has tried to put in place analysis and fitness structures so that when the day comes and the club can move forward, they are ready.
"A lot of people have asked 'Why haven't you walked away?' Sometimes you have days when you think 'That's one step too far'. The nagging feeling that eats away at me is that despite the troubles we have, we have worked to put the procedures in place and I would hate someone else to reap the benefits. Because if you get this club going, we have seen in the past what it can do."
Sell up Pompey: Summer departures
Joel Ward (Crystal Palace, £400,000)
Greg Halford (Nottingham Forest, undisclosed)
Jason Pearce (Leeds, undisclosed)
Jamie Ashdown (Leeds, free)
Kelvin Etuhu (Barnsley, free)
Marko Futacs (Leicester, free)
Stephen Henderson (West Ham, free)
Erik Huseklepp (Brann, free)
Hayden Mullins (Birmingham, free)
David Norris (Leeds, free)
Luke Varney (Leeds, free)
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