Portsmouth hope court battle will see off threat of 20-point penalty

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The Independent Online

As Portsmouth's new manager Steve Cotterill prepares his threadbare squad for a trip to Coventry on Saturday, the club faces a more pressing date off the field that could send them towards a future even more precarious and uncertain than their current situation.

This morning in court 52 of the chancery division of the High Court, Mr Justice Mann will begin hearing a case that promises to have a dramatic impact on Portsmouth. HM Revenue & Customs are appealing against the Company Voluntary Agreement proposed by the club's administrators. If they are successful, it will see the troubled South Coast club facing a deduction of up to 20 points by the Football League, a penalty that would almost certainly sentence them to a second successive relegation, while also leaving them in a perilous financial position that could, in the worst-case scenario, leave them facing liquidation.

In June the club's administrators agreed a CVA that promised to pay 20p in the pound, but HMRC are challenging the ruling that football creditors are given preference. They say they are "unfairly prejudiced". It is a challenge they have made before, in 2004, but were unsuccessful in the Court of Appeal.

HMRC claim they are owed £37m, a figure disputed by the administrators. That sum has been raised by £13m with HMRC asserting they are owed the extra money through image rights, an issue the tax authorities are keen to pursue across football.

If the administrators are on the wrong end of Mr Mann's ruling today or tomorrow, they may decide that, rather than refashion the CVA, the only realistic option remaining is to place the club into liquidation. Nevertheless, Andrew Andronikou, of administrators UHY Hacker Young, is believed to be confident that HMRC's appeal will fail, leaving him to continue to oversee the task of finding a buyer for the club and paring back the cost of the squad to help meet the debt payments.

The first priority is to cut last season's £42m wage bill to £13.6 for this campaign and then down to £8-10m for next season. Tal Ben Haim, the club's highest earner on £38,000 a week, is likely to rejoin Avram Grant, Pompey's former manager, at West Ham. John Utaka, on £28,000 a week, is another the administrators are keen to move on. Kevin-Prince Boateng, who enjoyed a notable World Cup with Ghana, is the most saleable asset, although his price will be driven down by the club's predicament.

With the Championship season starting at the end of this week, the on-field preparations have been impeded by the continued uncertainty, but if the CVA goes ahead it would allow Cotterill to bolster his side with loan players. Jamie Ashdown, who was released at the end of last season, is expected to accept a new contract in the next couple of days and so become the only senior goalkeeper at Fratton Park. The other keeper Cotterill has to consider is a teenager, Liam O'Brien, who he does not regard as ready for first-team football.

If the ruling goes against Portsmouth, a points deduction is not inevitable, although it is highly likely. Any club in administration faces the prospect of a penalty and if the CVA falls through, Pompey would have to make a case for "exceptional circumstances" to the League's board. In recent seasons Leeds, Bournemouth and Rotherham have all followed a similar path. Bournemouth and Rotherham were both deducted 17 points as it was the second time they had gone into administration. Portsmouth last came out of administration in 1999. The deduction does not have to happen by the start of the season and could be imposed at any point during the campaign.

And then there were 15... Portsmouth's scant squad

Goalkeepers

There is no registered goalkeeper at the club. Jamie Ashdown is on trial at Portsmouth and has been made an offer to re-sign after David James's move to Bristol City

Defenders

Tal Ben-Haim who receives £38,000 per week, is close to rejoining former manager Avram Grant at West Ham, the move back on after he failed a medical with the club last week. That leaves experienced centre-back Aaron Mokoena, and new loan signing Ibrahima Sonko to forge a defensive partnership. Hermann Hreidarsson is still out with a ruptured Achilles but is close to agreeing a new contract at Fratton Park. Youngsters Marc Wilson and Joel Ward are to be fast-tracked into the first team

Midfielders

Kevin Prince-Boateng has been angling for a move away from the club all summer after his performances at the World Cup for Ghana. The club would love to lose his £20,000-a-week wages but as yet there have been no takers for the player. Seasoned campaigners Hayden Mullins, Michael Brown and Richard Hughes will provide experience, while 20-year-old Matt Ritchie will be used in the first team, despite only making his debut in April

Strikers

David Nugent is back from his loan spell at Burnley, and has said he wants to stay at Fratton Park but will have to take a cut in his £40,000-a-week wages. The club are desperate to get John Utaka's £30,000 wages off the books and he has recently been linked with Blackburn and is available for a cut-price £1m. Danny Webber and Tommy Smith have experience in the second tier and could prove useful

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