After the completion of Sulaiman al-Fahim's takeover of Portsmouth in midweek – so belated that it caught everyone by surprise – today's game against Manchester City at Fratton Park might be called the Dubai derby. It is clear, however, that the two clubs do not go into it on anything like equal terms, financial or otherwise.
A year ago, the Abu Dhabi group completed their purchase of City the day before the transfer deadline and promptly allowed Mark Hughes to spend £32m on the stunning capture of Robinho. On Friday, two days after al-Fahim unexpectedly agreed his buyout after all, Portsmouth's manager Paul Hart sat at the modest training ground (one owned by a local school) and admitted: "We're working to a limited budget. There may be some money available in January."
In the meantime, he has managed to bring in Tommy Smith, Michael Brown, Jamie O'Hara, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Aruna Dindane, none of whom exactly qualifies as a marquee signing, while at the same time losing his highly regarded centre-half Sylvain Distin to Everton. With the transfer window extended to Tuesday at 5pm to compensate for the Bank Holiday tomorrow, Hart is hopeful of adding – indeed, is desperate to do so – two more defenders. A bid for John Terry or Rio Ferdinand seems a little unlikely.
Al-Fahim has faced widespread doubt about his financial assets, and the worry is that by January, Ports-mouth will have lost too much ground in the Premier League to make up, however much money he has made available. Hart, once a manager at Chesterfield, Barnsley and Rushden & Diamonds, points out in his dry manner that he has been in much worse situations. "Crikey, when I was at Nottingham Forest I was having meetings with potential administrators. So this is quite nice, compared to that. It needed to be settled and it's taken a long time but now we've got it done."
He was not alone in wondering if that would ever be the case, admitting of the period since he was appointed caretaker manager in February (and later awarded a two-year contract): "We've been in this situation for nine months. It's been a long summer." The positive attitude he hopes to instil in his squad even extends to the three League defeats. "Against Fulham, a goal goes in off somebody's backside and we've had 15 attempts on goal. At Birmingham there's a dubious penalty given against us and Arsenal, it was a sound performance."
City were the visitors for Hart's first game as a Premier League manager six months ago, and were beaten 2-0. It was an emotional day for him, as the son of their former defensive stalwart and manager Johnny Hart (who signed Denis Law from Manchester United). "I was brought up at Maine Road and City were my team," he said.
Having watched the 2009 version win at Crystal Palace on Thursday night, he is impressed by how quickly they are gelling together. It is a remarkable turnaround in personnel as the midfielder Stephen Ireland has pointed out. "If you look at the team that started at Palace," he said, "there was only Micah [Richards], me and Nedum Onuoha left from last season. It's a transformation, isn't it?"
Of the three, Ireland is the most likely to keep his place, his form early on matching that of last season, thanks to a gruelling summer schedule that he put himself through at a martial arts centre in Glossop. "When the kids were off school I couldn't go in because of the holidays, but when they were back I'd drop them at school every morning then go up to Glossop about 8.45am, train until about 1pm. I'd come back, collect my kids, go home, put them to bed about 7pm then go back to do it all again until about 12 at night. I've done that every day, Monday to Friday."
It is the sort of dedication that would appeal to a man like Hart as well as Mark Hughes; and a welcome reminder to the rest of us that all the money in the Arab world cannot buy the perspiration necessary to supplement inspiration.
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