Portsmouth’s return to Administration today (1) for the second time in a smidgen under two years speaks volumes, especially coming in the week that Rangers, a rather more iconic club, suffered the ignominy of Administration too (2). High profile those these events are, the phenomenon of financial problems is not confined to te top clubs. This season so far we have also seen Darlington go into Administration, as have Rothwell Town way down the pyramid. Prescot Cables have returned to amateur status mid-season, and poor Croydon Athletic have disappeared, at least for the moment. (A full listing of English football clubs’ insolvency events in the modern era is available here; a warning, it does not make pleasant reading)
It would be easy to dismiss the case of Portsmouth as a special case (especially bad, that is). The ‘club as company‘ has a long and shameful tradition. It was formed in 1898 to replace the previous club, Royal Artillery, who were disbanded because of that delightful euphemism ‘financial irregularities’ – payments to players which were blatantly undermining their supposed amateur status. Funny how history can return to haunt you.
By 1912 the owners were already in deep financial trouble, and the company was voluntarily wound up and promptly reformed, thus wiping out its debts (3), a procedure which is no longer legal, but was far from rare in those days. The mind boggles at how football clubs today would behave if it were still a legal option like this open to them. To use a ‘Partridgeism’, the club ‘bounced back’, entering the Football League in 1920, winning the FA Cup in 1939, and the old First Division title in 1949 and 1950.
The road was only downhill after that, obviously excepting the recent relatively spell in the Premier League and FA Cup win. Sporting decline was followed by financial decline. A series of owner/benefactors who failed in various degrees is a familiar mantra to Pompey fans – since 1973 the list reads John Deacon, Jim Gregory, Terry Venables, Martin Gregory, Milan Mandric, Sacha Gaydamak, Sulaiman Al Fahim, Ali Al Faraj, Balram Chainrai, and Vladimir Antonov. Whatever criticisms can be made about them individually, the lack of any continuity has hardly been good for the club. And there will doubtless be further criticism to come as the unravelling enquiries of both this period of Administration, and the previous one, tease more and more uncomfortable detail out of the wood work.
Of the 200+ files I have on English football clubs, Portsmouth’s is the biggest. It would be convenient to say that this is because I am Pompey fan. That would not though be honest. It’s because they have a spectacularly aberrant history of ownership and mismanagement. ‘Spectacularly aberrant’ from normal business, that is. Merely ‘worse than most’ with respect to other football clubs.
The themes which have dogged Portsmouth occur throughout my files, and all over this blog:
- Owners who did not have deep enough pockets, and yet push clubs further into unsustainable financial positions
- Owners unlikely to win ‘Ethical Businessman of the Year’ competitions
- Owners who have clearly not read the dictum of Mr Micawber in David Copperfield (Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, so the reference is particularly appropriate)
- Repeated failure to pay HMRC on time
Portsmouth’s latest ‘misadventure’ should provide a wake-up call. But then so so should their one two years ago. Will the governing bodies just hit ‘snooze’ again? I like to think not, but, would you believe it, I’m not optimistic.
I can’t argue that the imposition of the Financial Fair Play protocol, or effective club licensing ,or an effective Fit and Proper Person Test would necessarily have avoided Pompey’s current discomfort. Without them though, another round of insolvency events is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be that way and nor should it be.
Surely the football world must finally wake up to sorting out, as its highest priority, its financial messes, by attacking the causes rather than the symptoms rather than stressing over the number of English clubs left in European competition or who the next England manager should be.