Football: Pompey fear sign of the Chimes

Andrew Longmore sees a 1-1 draw where the point is not just survival
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THEY CARRIED a coffin round Fratton Park a few weeks ago. Yesterday, there was a choice of wakes: Portsmouth, a monument to persistent financial incompetence, and Crystal Palace, a tribute to blind, vaulting ambition. Statistics do not cover such things, but this match reputedly made League history. The first League encounter between two clubs run by administrators. The directors' box was packed with accountants. No wonder the pre-match theme music came from The Great Escape.

For once too, the ordinary vocabulary of football was as much a mockery of the afternoon as the springtime sunshine. Talk of battles for survival had rather deeper resonance for the faithful residents of both ends of the ground. A draw was suitably democratic, but realities are not measured in League points any longer. Both clubs are in a race against time. Palace's debts are a conservative pounds 20m; a group of long-suffering Pompey supporters have set up an appeal to purchase the club. Their target is pounds 5m, but any donation is welcome. Kit Symons, who travelled from Portsmouth to Manchester City and Fulham, was among the first to sign his cheque, for pounds 1,000.

In the past, the paths of these two clubs have been linked by more than their current bank imbalances and their brief and bitter associations with Terry Venables. A good stream of players have flowed between Fratton and Selhurst Parks. It did not take long for Portsmouth to rue the passage of another. There was some inevitability that Lee Bradbury, sold for pounds 3m to Manchester City then on to Palace, would celebrate his return with the opening goal.

Less easy to bear was the assistance he was given by Alan Knight, who owes Portsmouth nothing after a decade of torment in Pompey's goal. A right-wing cross going nowhere, Knight, undecided whether to gather or parry, did neither and the loose ball was gleefully thumped home by Bradbury. The goal was an eloquent summary of Portsmouth's largely barren post-war history and the one donation they could have done without.

Supporters of the sleeping giant have been on nodding terms with extinction for some years now. Portsmouth have staggered from crisis to crisis, but the meeting which took place last Wednesday night, appropriately enough at the D-Day Museum, was rather more than another false alarm.

A succession of speakers, including Mike Hancock, the local MP, appealed to the small assembly of local businessmen. Their message was a confused mixture of heart and head. "None of us have any money," said David Whittle, chief executive of the newly-formed Portsmouth United group and manager of the Great Britain hockey team. "There is no quick buck to be made." But, he added, echoing the words of Anthony Minghella's keynote speech at the appeal launch last week: "We could not stand around with our arms folded and watch this club die." The businessmen listened stony-faced.

"The problem is that Portsmouth is not a rich city," Hancock said. "We have a very special club with a very special tradition, but the community have to decide now how much the clubs means to them." At least, Portsmouth have a city to service and some assets in the bank. Palace's financial base since the discredited takeover by Mark Goldberg is even more precarious. Goldberg has sunk pounds 30m into the club, yet does not own the ground or the training facilities. His sole possessions are the vastly inflated contracts of his horde of players and the vague potential of a club who reached the FA Cup final within the memory of most supporters. The team of the Eighties out of business by the millennium?

It is not just these two clubs who should be worried. The growing gap between rich and poor could claim at least 20 more clubs, if the banks take fright at the demise of two clubs of such stature.

"It is the clubs just outside the elite who are suffering the most," says Stephen Morrow, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt University, whose book The New Business of Football is published next month. "The structure and expectations of those clubs are similar to Premier League clubs, they have to pay Premier League wages, yet their income is not at that level. So it's inevitable that clubs like Portsmouth and Palace suffer."

The second half was uplifted by the appearance of Alan Ball on the touchline, signalling to his players like a racecourse tic-tac man. By then, though, Portsmouth's plight seemed almost beyond his vociferous interventions, Michalis Vlachos having been sent off for a second bookable offence as Palace began to defend their slender lead with more authority. Portsmouth are past masters at the late escape, but this was an afternoon of raw nerves even by their standards.

Guy Whittingham saw a volley spectacularly saved by Kevin Miller, Alan McLoughlin hit the inside of the post from five yards, and the substitute, Stefan Miglioranzi, stabbed wide with only the goalkeeper to beat. The footballing gods clearly did not want to make a meaningful donation to the cause, though Knight's brilliance at the death defied belief and ultimately paved the way for Whittingham's late equaliser.

Barring fearful collapse, both clubs can at least advertise their continued presence in the Nationwide First Division as they woo potential suitors. Ports-mouth have until the end of May to salvage a rescue package but even then, the goodwill of the League and the FA will be required to keep the club alive.

It is hard, even for the neutral, to imagine a League without two names of such distinct pedigree and as Morrow points out optimistically, a bit of soul-searching can prove a long-term blessing. "It gives the community the opportunity to get involved in the club." Long-term is not a view either Portsmouth or Crystal Palace can afford to take. The Pompey Chimes sounded ominously like the toll for dead.