As Portsmouth prepare for life after financial meltdown, their fans might consider the contrasting stories of their two opponents this week, Bristol City and Middlesbrough, clubs of comparable size whose experiences encapsulate so much of the recent history of football in Britain. Will Pompey, who are expected to come out of administration next month, go the way of City, who have struggled to regain former glories, or Boro, who never looked back?
Financial crises in football have been around as long as chairmen have had egos bigger than their bank balances, but it could be argued Bristol City set a trend for the modern era with their collapse. The club had regained their place in the top flight in 1976 and sought to secure it by signing their best players on long-term contracts, some for as long as 10 years. In 1980, however, City suffered the first of three successive relegations and financial chaos followed.
Two years later, the club were rescued from the brink when the so-called "Ashton Gate Eight" accepted reduced pay-offs. City's future was secured, but they have never returned to the top and have spent most of their subsequent years in the lower divisions.
A similar future beckoned for Middlesbrough in 1986, when huge debts plunged the club into crisis and the bailiffs locked them out of their Ayresome Park home. Enter Steve Gibson, whose consortium saved the club. His financial support helped Boro enjoy the most successful spell in their history, featuring in Uefa Cup and FA Cup finals, recruitment of world-class players and a move to a new stadium.
Although the depth of their crisis suggested earlier this year Portsmouth might have no future whatsoever – their debts totalled £138m – the fact future owners will start again with a clean slate should give supporters cautious optimism.
That the club were able to settle their debts and reach agreement with their creditors was down in large part to the parachute payments the Premier League have put in place. Pompey, who were relegated from the top flight in the summer, are one of the first to benefit from an increase in the payments, made possible by the Premier League's doubling of its revenue from overseas television rights. Clubs now receive £48m over the next four years after relegation from the Premier League.
The administrator's confidence in Portsmouth's future was such that he even sanctioned the recent recruitment of two players, Dave Kitson and Liam Lawrence (the latter on loan), who have been used to Premier League wages at Stoke City.
Kitson and Lawrence have bolstered a squad desperately short on numbers. Steve Cotterill, the manager, has only 19 players at his disposal, two of whom, Hermann Hreidarsson and Danny Webber, have long-term injuries. Against Leicester, on Friday night, Cotterill had enough players to fill only four of the places on the substitutes' bench, though such was the quality of the starting line-up that Pompey were worth the 6-1 victory that lifted them off the bottom of the table.
Although they have shed some of their biggest earners, Portsmouth's wage bill is still higher than many of their Championship rivals, the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Hayden Mullins, John Utaka, Dave Nugent and Michael Brown having arrived at Fratton Park in the days of plenty.
Until some of those players see out their contracts, those who sign the club's bills in future will need to be prudent. Nevertheless, it is no surprise the prospect of owning a club with such passionate supporters and without the burden of huge debts has attracted considerable interest.
Milan Mandaric, who has just sold his stake in Leicester, is among those who have expressed an interest in Portsmouth's future. Some Portsmouth fans would welcome the return of their former owner – "Milan's coming home" was one of the chants heard on Friday – but others might wonder whether the club should make a total break from its recent past. Portsmouth's story is not one of which English football should be proud and any repeat of past extravagances would be an insult to those unsecured creditors who this summer received only a fraction of what they were owed.Reuse content