James Lawton: Echoes of dark days at Portsmouth that once tried patience of a Saint

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The Independent Football

If you have been especially sceptical this week about quite how far football has travelled to its age of super riches you might well be connected, professionally or emotionally, to Portsmouth Football Club.

You might also be interested in a letter from owner to manager that tends to confirm the belief that the more English football changes the more disconcertingly it stays the same.

It reads, ''I confirm my telephone conversation with you today, when I intimated it was absolutely necessary to sell players prior to the deadline.

''I did outline to you the serious financial position the club is in. I am constantly putting my hand in my pocket to cover wages and other items and whether or not the selling of any star players means the affecting of results, even to the event of relegation, it is imperative at this stage that we realise cash for some of our players.

''I would be most grateful if you would kindly circularise the clubs with the names of the players that we talked about and let me know the names of any that make any enquiries and in fact keep me in the picture as much as you can.

''I do appreciate what you are doing. I hope you understand and appreciate my point of view. I'm sure the wheel of fortune will eventually turn and put us in a better position financially, but at the moment, for mere survival, we must realise some cash."

That old wheel seemed to have turned somewhat at Wembley 18 months ago when Pompey won the FA Cup but it's pretty much at full circle now. The letter, you see, is signed not by the embattled Sulaiman al-Fahim but one of his predecessors, John Deacon.

It was dispatched 34 years ago and today's manager Paul Hart, who was yesterday speculating on the possibility that few football men had ever been in a tighter corner as his players waited to receive their wages, might glean just a speck of consolation from the situation of the recipient, Ian St John.

St John, star of Liverpool and Scotland, had come to Portsmouth on the rebound from losing to Brian Clough the race to succeed Don Revie at Leeds United. He had been recommended to Leeds by their first choice, Jock Stein, who had been impressed by his work with Motherwell.

Deacon, a local businessman, had driven St John to the edge of town and shown him the site for the new stadium with which he intended to replace the beloved but now mouldering Fratton Park. In those more innocent days St John bought all the promises of Deacon, who had earlier pulled up outside the young manager's Scottish home in his Bentley.

Deacon said that St John would have a big signing budget and the foundation to take Portsmouth back to their old glory while rivalling reigning giants like Leeds and Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. Naturally he was excited. He drew up a shopping list. Unfortunately, he would be able to make just one signing in three years. Soon after he arrived Deacon told him that the expansion plan would have to await the completion of a business deal (sound familiar?) involving some land he had to sell.

When the crisis letter arrived on his desk St John was feeling pretty much like Hart this week. He recalls, ''Portsmouth had become a Skid Row club. The phone was cut off. We managed to keep my line open for incoming calls but if I wanted to make one I had to walk over to a public phone box. Sometimes I had to queue.

''Some weeks the players had to do their own laundry. An elderly woman was brought in to do the washing because the laundry company were demanding cash on the nail. The coach company also withdrew their services and we had to use our own cars. As a Liverpool player performing in packed stadiums I used to complain about the club's habit of handing us 10 shillings each for dinner on the road but now the practice seemed part of a fantasy world. At Portsmouth we stopped at a Happy Eater for tea and toast.

''It was heart-breaking because we had developed a good youth policy, with Ray Crawford, the old Ipswich Town hero in charge, and I was expected to hawk the best kids around the league. The club secretary, the great England half back Jimmy Dickinson, one week gave me the money for the match ball out of his own pocket."

An echo from an old dead world you might have said before some of this week's headlines, especially the one that appeared on the back page of this newspaper yesterday: "League ready to take control as 'penniless' Pompey crash". Nor is it encouraging to re-trace the ambiguous story of Notts County's apparently less than miraculous restoration. Most worryingly of all, though, is the fact that of the game's elite, only one – Arsenal – have a working business model that makes any kind of sense to a world which outside of football has never been so mindful of the need to at least try to put itself on a sound financial footing.

Liverpool have £350m worth of debt, a landslide against which the announcement of a four-year £80m new sponsorship deal is a puny riposte indeed as the club's American owners try to hock one of the greatest traditions in the game as though it is a family heirloom. A new stadium is as far away as ever. Manchester United have vast income and maintain brilliant momentum on the field but also a debt mountain that could become a volcano of toxicity if the presumption that television largesse is indefinitely proofed against hostile circumstances goes the way of Lehman Brothers.

Chelsea, monumentally unprofitable, are at the whim of Roman Abramovich as the opulent new boys, Manchester City, depend on the continued enthusiasm of their Sheikh benefactor.

This leaves us with Arsenal, a club who embrace the extraordinary ambition to live within their means and who this week had a new incentive to celebrate the 13th anniversary of Arsène Wenger's reign. They built their stadium at a speed that makes Liverpool look dysfunctional and their greatest assets have been produced by the genius of their manager for recognising and nurturing outstanding talent.

Meanwhile, St John confirms that when he looks at pictures of Paul Hart it as though he is gazing into a mirror. ''As someone who saw cheques bounce every other week, I feel for his hopeless situation – and I also worry for so many managers who face the prospect of the same ordeal,'' he said yesterday. He frets, and who cannot, that football has come so far but learnt so little.

Silent majority speaks volumes about cheating

It is perhaps the least surprising outcome of the whole numbing "Bloodgate" episode.

Rugby union's much trumpeted Task Force delivered slim pickings indeed when they reported this week. However, buried in the verbiage and the predictable inaction was a devastating statistic.

Despite the promise of anonymity, only 23 per cent of players bothered to respond to the questionnaire aimed at establishing levels of cheating. The overwhelming majority of respondents said they had never seen or heard of such a thing. Did the others stay silent out of any sense of collective guilt – or indifference?

If it was the latter, no-one could say that their stance had been excessively buffeted. If rugby really believes it is has drawn a line under "Bloodgate" they should examine the result. It is one so faint it might be in crayon.

Enough to make Adebayor think twice?

Emmanuel Adebayor's punishment for a complete failure of professional responsibility has been reliably estimated at roughly one day's pay, which is to say the cost of a mid-sized fully-loaded, tax-paid family car.

It is wholly inadequate, of course, but perhaps the next time he wants to provoke a crowd of ranting, boozed-up, racists masquerading as football fans he may think twice.

Let's hope so. He has a wonderful talent and it should not be put at risk for gratification almost as brainless as the provocation he faced from a section of Arsenal fans.

At least the FA have said that they recognise the need to deal with some of the worst of the effluence seeping down from the terraces. If they ever get around to it, and let's not hold our breath for too long, it would be a service to football, not to mention Western civilisation.