Football: Pompey's despair

Crisis point is rapidly approaching the South coast
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The Independent Online
IN A London High Court last week they were talking about a future crisis if the smaller clubs lost large proportions of their television money. In the here and now Portsmouth, Chester and several others are facing extinction. Portsmouth, past League champions and once able to attract 50,000 crowds, are not even banking on being alive when they ought to be playing Leeds in the next round of the FA Cup.

On 3 February the club which was 100 years old last year will hope to appease the Inland Revenue with a last-ditch financial arrangement. The appointment of administrators is more likely than the discovery of a benefactor to come up with the pounds 405,000 they must pay the Revenue or go out of existence. And, even if they pull through this latest crisis, they will still be substantially in debt, though they say not by as much as the reported pounds 5m. There is also the matter of an unpaid bill of pounds 435,000 to a building company although, again, club officials put a brave face on it, insisting that responsibility for that rests with their parent company, Blue Star Garages.

Chester City FC are already in administration and may have to rely on their supporters to raise the money to pull them through. Sugar daddies like Blackburn's Jack Walker do not come in lumps, and serious investors are no longer persuaded by sweet talk about football being a boom market. Supporter power, which did so much to rescue Brighton, is gradually becoming a force, but finding the amount of up-front money needed to save a club like Portsmouth is not for the small investor.

The search for local millionaires seems at an end. The last one to show an interest, Rob Hill, intended to support a consortium negotiating to purchase the 97 per cent shareholding of the former chairman, Martin Gregory, son of another former chairman, Jim. But the whole thing collapsed when the members found out about two winding-up orders, one by the Inland Revenue and another against Blue Star Garages.

Portsmouth are perfectly placed to believe in the old quick-fix answer to their problems. For years clubs in difficulties have prayed for good FA Cup runs. Playing Leeds and perhaps winning, or taking the proceeds from a replay, would be a dangerously misleading moment of respite. Steve Morgan, a supporter for 20 years and among those following the coffin draped in a club flag which was taken to Fratton Park before yesterday's match, admits that Portsmouth are in desperate need of a benefactor, but worries that even if one could be found "this might distance the club from the fans".

Morgan said: "The untapped potential is huge. Any serious buyer should see that. I'm sick of hearing about the North-east and all the passion there - it's as if they've got a copyright on it. Maybe football in the South is less important for people but for those involved it beats through every vein of the body. Jim Gregory had his flaws but he was a football man and I can't believe he would have let the club get into this situation."

Morgan says that Les Parris, the current chairman, who for weeks has been consulting with the insolvency experts Hacker Young, assured the fans that no member of the Gregory family would have day-to-day involvement in the running of the club "but as far as I can make out any significant developments are immediately batted back to the Gregorys".

The one person who is coming out of the perilous situation with his reputation enhanced is the manager, Alan Ball, who has seen players sold behind his back and has twice threatened to walk out. Ball believes the people of Portsmouth still have respect for the club. That is down to his efforts and those of his players, who keep battling only because he has listened to the worries of each, and then heard more of the same from the fans. Significantly, when last Monday the defender Andy Thompson asked him whether there was any future for him and the club, Ball could give no assurances. On Friday Thompson escaped to Bristol Rovers. Portsmouth received about pounds 60,000, enough to keep everyone paid - for another week.