Sulaiman Al Fahim took his seat in the directors' box here for the first time yesterday, but the mood at Portsmouth is still one of unease – both on and off the pitch. Fulham's win was their first on the opening day since 2003, but it had at least as much to do with Portsmouth's shortcomings as it did with any great achievement on their part.
As Portsmouth's prospective owner sat in the directors' box, happily clapping along to an isolated chant of "Sulaiman's blue and white army", the image was reminiscent of Nero fiddling as Rome burned. He is right, of course, to point out that the takeover of a football club is a complicated process, and Mike Ashley's reign at Newcastle is evidence of the dangers, for both sides, of rushing into a deal. But it is three months now since the putative takeover from Sacha Gaydamak was announced, and still nobody seems quite sure if or when it will go through.
Due diligence has been completed and Al Fahim has passed the fit and proper person test (not that it is ever much of a barrier), but a deal has yet to be finalised. The sticking points seem to be the new man's reluctance to repay Portsmouth's debt within the time-frame agreed with the banks, and Gaydamak's desire to recoup the £23million he claims to have in the club.
All that may be understandable, but every day the talks go on, a little more life drains out of the club. Almost £80m of talent has left since the start of last summer, while only four players have arrived, none for a fee. Yesterday's attendance was the lowest for a league game at Fratton Park in two years: perhaps that is evidence of the recession biting, but it could equally be evidence of disillusionment.
"It's going to be tough," said the Portsmouth manager, Paul Hart. "[We] have to adjust our sights somewhat. Over the last few years because of an influx of money we've punched miles above our weight. What's been achieved is magnificent, but it's just not the same. As we sit here today there's no money to spend. That's where we go from, but [it] could improve. The situation needs to be sorted."
The centre-forward Frédéric Piquionne, on loan from Lyon, showed glimmers of promise, but for the most part he was feeding on crumbs. Niko Kranjcar never hid, but nothing quite came off. John Utaka, even when playing well, has a tendency to run quite quickly in straight lines: yesterday he didn't even do that.
There were problems at the back too, where Portsmouth were oddly diffident. That presented Bobby Zamora with a couple of chances and after Marc Wilson had made a dreadful hash of a Zamora cross, there was a golden opportunity for Andy Johnson, who perhaps was startled to be given so much space and pushed his shot wide with just David James to beat. There was at least energy and commitment to Portsmouth, and the goal that undid them was born of misfortune, as Clint Dempsey's speculative drive clipped Zamora's lower back and deflected past James.
"The way [Zamora] and AJ worked both offensively and defensively they probably deserved some luck," said the Fulham manager, Roy Hodgson. "Quite a few clubs wanted [Zamora]. At the time we were competing for the signing of Peter Crouch. I've never been anxious to lose him, but I did understand that signing Crouch would have pushed him back a step."
Hodgson hopes to strengthen his squad tomorrow with the signing of Damien Duff from Newcastle. A fee, believed to be around £4m, has been agreed and the Irish winger had a medical yesterday. But personal terms are yet to be finalised.Reuse content