Michael Appleton: The man with the hardest job in football

He is trying to save Pompey from relegation but the club can't afford Sky, food at the training ground... or players' wages. He tells Sam Wallace about their plight

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As manager of Portsmouth, Michael Appleton has been trying to plan his pre-season schedule this week. A tough job when you have no money, no idea what division you are going to be in next season, no clue which players will still be at the club or if, indeed, Portsmouth Football Club will still exist in six months' time.

Most managers would delegate this planning, in part, to a member of staff but then Appleton is not most managers. He has what most regard in the four professional divisions as the hardest job in football. The most incredible thing about Portsmouth's season is that, with seven games left, and 10 points deducted, they have a glimmer of hope they could yet avoid relegation to League One.

"There were times when you think you are staring into an abyss," Appleton says. "It would be very easy for me to say 'Well, yeah, it is just part and parcel of the job'. I'd be talking absolute rubbish. There are times when you think 'How am I going to deal with this? What am I going to say to the players in the morning?'

"When we have lost three or four games on the bounce and you have to face them on a Monday morning, you feel crap but you have to put this poker face on and say 'Come on, boys let's go again'."

His first job in management, Appleton succeeded Steve Cotterill on 10 November and by the end of the month the club's parent company CSI were in administration. On 17 February, the club followed, although by then Appleton, 36, had already told his players and staff that they would not be paid in January. The club were docked 10 points by the Football League. At the same time Appleton was negotiating with the administrators to prevent redundancies.

At times, the story of Appleton's season is so desperate as to be unbelievable. Yet the serious threat to the livelihood of Portsmouth's employees and the future of such a well-supported club is only too real. In January he lost four of his key players – Stephen Henderson, Liam Lawrence, Hayden Mullins and Erik Huseklepp – as the administrators cut costs.

Yet, Portsmouth have won two of their last three games and if they beat Burnley at Fratton Park today they have a chance of moving out of the relegation zone. Come next Saturday they face their locals rivals Southampton, who are top of the Championship. They would be eight points clear of relegation were it not for the deduction but they are still fighting.

Appleton, a former Manchester United player whose playing career was cut short by botched surgery, has been through a lot in little more than four months. "It did get to a point where I had to remind the players why we played football in the first place," he says. "We play football because we love it and we wanted to be involved in it. I used that at times with them, and rightly so.

"I did say at one point, 'This is what we love, this is what we get paid for'. I had to quickly backtrack and say: 'Oh yeah, we don't get paid for it do we'?"

A sense of humour has been important and, for all Pompey's woes, Appleton is upbeat and positive. Money is so tight that there is no Sky Sports subscription at the training ground, which is itself not owned by the club. There are bus journeys, not flights, to and from all away games (that's an 11-hour round trip to Blackpool). Injuries have not been properly scanned because of cash issues and at one point the players were paying the chef to buy the food at the training ground.

After a run of nine games without a win, 12 days ago Pompey beat Birmingham City 4-1. They lost to Coventry last Saturday but beat Hull City on Tuesday. Appleton has re-energised the team with three inspired loan signings: Chris Maguire from Derby and Scott Allan and George Thorne, both from his former club West Bromwich Albion. He has also brought in Karim Rekik and Luca Scapuzzi from Manchester City.

Appleton's contacts in the game are good: he knows Brian Kidd at City from his United days as well as Christian Lattanzio, assistant to Roberto Mancini and formerly Fabio Capello with England. But it has also been his attitude to such adversity that has impressed people. There has been no complaining and a willingness to keep on fighting while there is still a possibility that Portsmouth will stay in the Championship.

When former owner Vladimir Antonov was arrested in November over money laundering allegations, the immediate effect was a transfer embargo. Then there were no wages paid in January. "From a morale point of view you can imagine it doesn't matter what job you do – if you are not being paid, it is very, very difficult," Appleton says. "Some people compare us to the situation at Hearts but they were always getting paid.

"We still haven't received any of our January wages and whether we do or don't is an issue to be brought up down the line with new owners.

"There was a period of time when I had members of my staff saying 'I need to see my bank manager'. I gave people time off to defer mortgages. I had to get a loan myself to deal with a couple of things. Beyond that we all had to agree to deferrals to keep the club going, all the time not knowing what the future holds anyway.

"I had to sit down with administrators, and redundancies were talked about. I was fighting to keep people in the building. That's not a personal issue with the administrators. They have to make sure they balance the books and get the money where it should be. It was difficult. First of all telling people they weren't going to get paid, then explaining they would have to take deferrals. But it was better than telling them they were losing their jobs."

Incredibly, the likes of Kanu, Hermann Hreidarsson, Benjani, Aaron Mokoena and Tal Ben Haim, from Pompey's glory days of top-10 Premier League finishes and FA Cup triumphs are still on the books. Of the 18 players in the squad when Appleton joined, 10 were in their 30s. Of those five only Ben Haim still plays in the first team which now has a much younger, hungrier look to it.

In the case of Rekik and Scapuzzi, the pair trained with their parent club on the Friday before the Coventry game and then met with the Portsmouth squad at their hotel the evening before the match. Appleton sat with them for an hour to explain the situation at Portsmouth to ensure they knew exactly what they were walking in to. Both were on the bench the next day and Scapuzzi came on.

"I just want a level playing field," Appleton says. "I don't want millions of pounds. If I am lucky enough to be in the game in 10 years' time and at a club where I get money to spend, great. But for now I just want a level playing field. We have been successful in terms of the loan players but as a young manager I still haven't signed my first player. I am quite looking forward to that day.

"There have been some dark times in the short period I have been here. People say 'You've done a fantastic job and you've kept your dignity. You are still being competitive in games, you are still wining some'. That's nice. But when we lose a game my personal pride still takes a hit as much as anything. You still want to win every single game.

"Any manager at a club where the results are not going the right way thinks to himself: 'How are we going to change this?' There have been a lot of times when I have sat in this office on my own thinking 'Right, what do I need to do differently? Is there something else I should use? Should I be approaching things in a different way with the players?' Your head spins. Sometimes that means allowing some of the other coaches at the club to give you a bit of breathing space."

The premature end to his playing career at 27, and the bleakness that accompanied that time of his life, has given Appleton an inner steel unusual in a young coach. At West Brom he took all his coaching qualifications and was a key figure in building the new training ground. He coached youth teams at every level and set up the recruitment structure. He was even caretaker manager for one game after Roberto Di Matteo's dismissal.

Nothing can prepare a manager for life at Portsmouth, where even maintaining the pitches at the training ground was impossible for two weeks after the suppliers changed the locks overnight on the equipment store because they had not been paid.

All that Appleton can do is concentrate on what he describes as "seven games to fight for our lives" starting today. "We have hung in there," he says. "You can imagine how deflated some of the players and staff have been at times. But there is always a turning point."