Pompey braced for showdown with taxman

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The Independent Online

A club in crisis against one in transition. There was a pre-season friendly with a difference on the south coast yesterday and, surprisingly, it was relegated Portsmouth, for all their seemingly interminable troubles, who came out on top against Mark Hughes's Fulham.

The game, Pompey's last warm-up before they start back in the Championship, was won with a first-half header from a corner by the home captain, Marc Wilson. That did not tell even half the story.

Portsmouth have only eight senior players likely to be retained, are under a strict transfer embargo and face an imminent day of destiny with the taxman that could lead to a second massive points deduction.

A disastrous pre-season tour of north America – defeats on the field, lost luggage and flight cancellations off it – was hardly ideal preparation for the club's new manager, Steve Cotterill. Now the challenge is to find enough players to send out at Coventry in next weekend's fixture. And if they thought things couldn't get much worse, Pompey are in danger of losing their shirt sponsor, Jobsite, who allowed their name to be used yesterday since the fixture doubled up as a testimonial for Linvoy Primus but who have made no decision about the new season.

"It's almost an impossible situation but I've got to make it work," said the beleaguered Cotterill. "There are so many people relying on me. We haven't even got a full team at the moment, let alone a squad. I have only eight players who are good enough at this level. The goalkeeper is 18 but he's not strong enough for the first team. I need another three just to make up a proper team.

"I have to admit the job is trickier than I thought it was going to be but I can only deal with the immediate. This is a great club with a great fan base. I don't want to let them down."

A dire situation could become a whole lot worse, if that is humanly possible, on Tuesday. That is when the High Court will hear HM Revenue & Customs' appeal against the Company Voluntary Agreement prepared by Pompey's administrators and agreed by the club's creditors after being offered 20p in the pound.

A CVA would allow the club to leave administration without a football sanction. If the tax authorities win, the consequences are near unthinkable – with between 15 and 20 points almost certain to be docked shortly thereafter. No wonder Pompey are already third favourites to go down again.

The taxman claims to be owed £37m, enough to block the CVA and thwart the club's attempts to escape administration. Pompey say the figure should be £24m. The disparity involves the payment of image rights to the club's foreign players but the administrator, Andrew Andronikou, is so confident of success that he is not cutting short his holiday in Cyprus to attend, allowing his lawyers to do their stuff.

Whatever the outcome, Andronikou said Portsmouth, already down to the bare bones, would have to carry on selling players in order to bring down the wage bill, with the likes of John Utaka and Kevin Prince Boateng likely to leave sooner rather than later.

"Lots of players are way over our budget and we are trying to get rid of them," he said. "I am very confident we will still get the CVA through. If we lose we'll have to go back to square one but what would the HMRC appeal achieve? A points deduction? Fantastic."

As for Fulham, Hughes, who dashed off without talking to the media, cannot have been pleased as his team put on a toothless display. The new manager's blank expression spoke volumes.

Fulham fielded 10 players who started the Europa League final in Hamburg in May but they rarely got up a head of steam, Bobby Zamora missing three chances. Now attention turns to which players Hughes will add to the squad after agreeing to a two-year deal. Having been handed £15m, he seems likely to go back to his old club, Manchester City, with Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz part of his thinking. Talk about contrasting fortunes.

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