Time running out for Portsmouth to find the right owner
The club could soon have its sixth owner in less than three years, but credible buyers are thin on the ground for the struggling team
This week, Portsmouth hope to learn the name of their sixth owner since August 2009. In November the club's parent company, Convers Sports Initiatives [CSI], went into administration after the arrest of No 5, Vladimir Antonov, on charges of bank fraud. The previous four presided over a period of decline that included relegation, administration and a legacy of debt that will eat up virtually all the parachute payments designed to help cope with life after the Premier League, which makes finding the right buyer now essential.
Joseph Cala, a Sicilian businessman based in the US and Italy, who wants to float the club as a public company in the States, claimed last week to be the front-runner, and on the face of it he fits rather well into the extensive chapter of Portsmouth's recent history headed "You couldn't make it up."
On the one hand is his ownership of Salernitana of Italy's Serie B last February, which ran for all of 11 days: on the other, his plans for a series of undersea casinos in glass-bottomed yachts that suggest not so much a serious football club owner as a James Bond character.
However, with Pompey's cash flow uncertain and the Football League refusing to allow them to sign players without moving others out until their ownership is settled, time in which to find someone willing and able to take the helm – and pass the League's admittedly less-than-stringent fit and proper persons test – is running out.
Michael Appleton, the rookie Portsmouth manager, is in limbo, unable to strengthen a thin squad.
He was forced to field players suffering from illness and injury against West Ham on Saturday, although his patched-up team made the Londoners work hard for their 1-0 win.
"At the minute my hands are tied behind my back," he said. "If Hermann Hreidarsson goes on loan to Coventry I can bring one player in. We're scratching a starting 11 together and struggling to fill a bench."
The search for a buyer is being handled by Andrew Andronikou, the administrator in charge of CSI, who performed a similar function when Portsmouth themselves went into administration in 2010 with liabilities of over £120m. Potential buyers, he says, are not hard to find – just credible ones.
"They are almost non-existent," he told The Independent. "A number of parties are interested in getting involved with football, but not many have the financial ability and credentials to achieve it. Unfortunately, we're having to wade through a number of the proverbial tyre-kickers to get to the very few that satisfy the criteria.
"I was involved in the background at Southampton in 2009. Their administrators, rather like us, had a number of parties interested and were pursued by one main one who didn't have the wherewithal to perform.
"I actually introduced them, through a third party, to the current owner, but before that Southampton were looking down the barrel of a gun. It was an 11th-hour deal."
Balram Chainrai, the last Portsmouth proprietor but one, admitted he did not want to own the club, his predecessor Ali al-Faraj was never actually seen at Fratton Park, and neither they nor any of the others had any previous links to the club or city.
Supporters have bemoaned the fact that the club has no super-rich fans, but Andronikou does not believe that that is necessarily a better model, even though a consortium of wealthy supporters are doing well at Crystal Palace.
"Steve [Parish] bought Palace because he was a fan and there was no other buyer," said Andronikou. "He was effectively left holding the baby because of his passion.
"Being a fan is the wrong ideal characteristic. You need someone with the financial wherewithal and the vision to run a club like any other business and not be carried away by emotion."
Whoever ends up in charge of Portsmouth will find a club that has been starved of investment despite what should have been seven lucrative seasons in the Premier League. Fratton Park remains a decaying museum piece, and the club still has no training ground of its own. Debts are said to be around £33m, with the first instalment due in April of the £16.5m company voluntary agreement negotiated to bring the club out of administration in October 2010. Perhaps the surprise is that more would-be benefactors, having kicked the tyres, did not simply walk away.
Meanwhile Appleton awaits the arrival of a new employer and details of a budget for new players. "It will be the first opportunity I've had to sit down and talk about it," he said. "Once we've got new owners in, then hopefully I'll be in a position where I can actually do my job."
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