Chris McGrath: Weeks until season starts: four. Players left: 14. Pompey face quite a conundrum

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The Independent Football

Perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan, who moored HMS Pinafore in the adjacent harbour, could have made us see the funny side.

Perhaps they could have found a way to cheer up a libretto that seems to lurch queasily from consoling havens of comedy towards storms of tragedy. As it is, those responsible for holiday entertainment at Fratton Park this summer are offering humour only of the blackest kind.

True, the cast of characters is by no means innocent of burlesque appeal. There is the beaming genie, Sulaiman Al-Fahim, who disclosed a weakness for hyperbole when introducing himself as a go-between in the Manchester City takeover – quite an achievement, in a situation already saturated with melodrama. He was soon manoeuvred out of the picture, only to resurface at Pompey, this time apparently holding a cheque book in his own name.

Then there is the bright-buttoned boatswain, Peter Storrie, who somehow contrives to draw the third highest salary among all the chief executives in the Premier League. And here, still blinking in the unfamiliar light of the bridge, is that lugubrious old seadog, Paul Hart, uneasily eyeing the plank where Tony Adams was so recently prodded into oblivion.

But what's this? Exeunt, stage left, all the names at the top of the bill, one after another: Diarra, Muntari, Defoe, Davis, Johnson, Mendes, Baros, Traoré. And now, seemingly, Peter Crouch as well. Little wonder if the chorus, crowded happily into their spit-and-sawdust stadium, is suddenly looking so green about the gills.

It is reckoned that Crouch's departure leaves a grand total of 14 senior outfield players on the club's books, just four weeks before Fulham arrive for the start of a new Premier League campaign. Fear not, say Al-Fahim's people, the takeover should be completed in time for a handful of new faces to be hired. But he won't be getting carried away. This is a long-term project, you know.

Well, that's the idea, anyway. But if his calculations assume that Portsmouth will still be in the Premier League, this time next year, he may be building upon pretty precarious foundations. How is this squad, even reinforced by a handful of desperadoes, supposed to absorb injuries and suspensions? Meanwhile the tens of millions in transfer fees are evaporating into what seems to be the black hole of debt consuming the present owner, Alexandre Gaydamak.

Quite what this gentleman expected from his tenure is unclear. Like every Pompey fan, he doubtless exulted that giddy day, just 14 months ago, when they won the FA Cup. But he knew that the trophy had partly been procured by his acquiescence in what was surely a wholly unsustainable wage bill – whose author, Harry Redknapp, was very soon slinking away to Tottenham.

And there, writ large, is the predicament of the Premier League. Here is a club one instinctively wishes well, representing a great maritime city, its sense of nostalgia extending even to an impractical resistance to corporate boxes. Much the same might have been said, not so long ago, of their neighbours at the Dell. But then Southampton built themselves a swanky new stadium, and their grotesque decline since measures the stakes for Pompey now.

Of course, they are only listing in the same unfathomable sea of debt sailed so gaily by the gilded galleons of Manchester United or Liverpool. While Al-Fahim completes the process of "due diligence" (a term of such implied solemnity that it is impossible to resist a dubious smirk) it remains unclear quite who will end up submitting to the Premier League's test of a "fit and proper person" (ditto). A confidant this week told a local paper that Portsmouth fans had more to look forward to than he did, as a follower of Arsenal. "We are clinging to the top four," he said. "But Portsmouth are going places."

This submission is almost as disturbing as it is startling, which is saying a good deal. In this deranged environment, even debts of £416m do not disqualify Arsenal as the paradigm among elite clubs. Its board appears so complacent in its capital structure that it recently dismissed the rights issue proposed by one of its major investors, Alisher Usmanov. Whatever the merits of that rather curious decision, it owes peace of mind chiefly to the principled stewardship of Arsène Wenger.

Wenger's wage bills are a coherent element of the club's operating costs, and he abjures exorbitant financing for new players. In turn, of course, impatient fans and pundits measure success a different way – one that exonerates the reckless leverage at other Champions League clubs, where "investors" load perilous, unnecessary debt into successful businesses as a conduit for private profit.

This model might work in business, as a means of coaxing value out of inefficient operations. But its use in sport prevents well-run clubs from enjoying due reward on the field itself. Sport, unlike business, is complicated by ulterior passions, and its governors should be concerned to see so much revenue doing nothing whatsoever to nourish those passions.

Quite where Al-Fahim fits into this picture remains to be seen. As a property investor, perhaps he hopes to turn stale talk of a new stadium into bricks and mortar. He has already implied a gesture towards continuity – albeit one unlikely to be unanimously welcomed among fans – in proposing to keep Hart at the helm. And he has apparently registered the alarming example of Mike Ashley at Newcastle. "He is not claiming to be an expert on football," his pal told Portsmouth's News. "And if 20,000 people are telling him he's got it wrong, he will change it."

But what on earth can those 20,000 be thinking, right now? They savoured their own, fleeting illusion last November, when leading Milan for 22 of the last 23 minutes in the Uefa Cup. Then Ronaldinho came on, scored that sumptuous free kick, and Pippo Inzaghi restored icy reality to the reverie.

"Turbot is ambitious brill," sings Buttercup in HMS Pinafore. "Gild the farthing if you will, Yet it is a farthing still."

Now where are they, with their cheery chimes? Dear old Pompey. Ask not for whom bell tolls...

Aussie left-handers face an up-hill struggle on the Lord's slope

Early days, but for the moment these southpaws are going west. After a shared breakthrough in South Africa, Australia arrived here with two left-handers united in unorthodoxy and match-winning potential. But English conditions have asked searching new questions – both technical and mental – of Mitchell Johnson and Phillip Hughes.

Johnson came to Lord's needing to restore direction and conviction to that low, slingshot action of his. But he has a reputation as a rhythm bowler and little wonder, when his default groove is so awkward. After a chastening start in Cardiff, he proved all at sea on the famous slope. He was heart-breaking to watch on Thursday. Seldom can a bowler have worn so grim a look in receiving the congratulations of his comrades for a 100th Test wicket.

As for Hughes, he clearly has an extraordinary eye. His brief innings at Cardiff showed unusual extremes of command and vulnerability, but while England have soon learned not to give him width, it was a ludicrous bonus to get him yesterday with such a vague ball down the leg side.

So far, perhaps, both men have largely been relying on intuition. Now they must find the fortitude to trust themselves again. Only the most foolhardy Englishman will discount the likelihood that both will again be turning matches before the summer is out.

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