This time tomorrow, Fratton Park will either be reminiscent of the Cenotaph Memorial on Remembrance Sunday or the scene of carnival-like jubilation. No matter what the outcome of negotiations between administrators and potential owners, the 10th of August 2012 will always been seen as a momentous day in the club’s history. The previous stumbling blocks of players earning excessive wages is all but removed now and the next 24 hours is going to be crucial if the sound of the famed cow bell that reverberates around Fratton Park during home games doesn’t end up sounding like a death knell.
Until a few weeks back, I’d never really understood the full brevity of their situation. I took a call late on a Sunday night a few weeks back, asking me if I’d be interested in joining Portsmouth on their pre-season training camp in Spain. They were willing to give me the opportunity to get two weeks worth of solid training in while I was still looking for a club and they, in turn, got a chance to look at me. It was perfect for both of us. I later found out I was only given the chance to join them as another keeper had pulled out at the last minute but I wasn’t bothered about that. All I wanted was to get fit and play football again, so I jumped at the chance.
Two days later and a £400 air fare lighter, I arrived in Benahavis, up in the hills behind Marbella, to join the rest of the squad who’d already arrived at the complex the day before. I’m 35 now and I’m a bit of an old hand at seemlessly blending in to new environments but I wasn't aware I was only one of many newbies. The situation hadn’t been fully explained to me as of yet but I was shocked to see that none of the senior players under contract with the club had travelled out to Spain. They’d all been left behind in hope they’d accept their severance deals and find new clubs.
What greeted me was a group of players that were a mix of youth team and development squad players and another eight players who, like myself, were kind of trialists. I knew a few of the guys just to say hello to, the likes of Brian Howard, Jon Harley and Lloyd Sam amongst others but to all intents and purposes we were strangers. As we sat around the dinner table exchanging our stories of how we ended up in that room together, I couldn’t help but think it was all felt a bit like the film Con Air. A mish-mash of differing characters who’d all been thrown together by misfortune and misdemeanours. More of a B Team than an A Team but we were all just desperate to get our careers back on track at a club who were FA Cup winners only four years before.
Surprisingly enough, not one one of the stories told came over as bitter. From what I’d heard, a few of the lads had been dealt a bit a bum hand by their clubs at the end of last season and were due a bit of luck. For an out of contract footballer, today’s climate is a tough one to find yourself unattached. UEFA’s financial fair play rules have been introduced into Leagues 1 and 2 and clubs are quite rightly having to cut their cloth accordingly. While they still have to honour the contracts of current players, the stipulation of only being able to spend 60% of your total income on players wages means that any new players acquired have to fit into that wage structure or they have to cut their squads to keep to budget. Basically, below the Championship, finances are tighter than they have been in a long time. I’m being offered deals that are worth less than the one I signed at Darlington in 1997. In fifteen years since that day, I’d like to think I’m a better keeper but like anything, your worth is only as much as someone is willing to pay.
Two days later and a £400 air fare lighter, I arrived in Benahavis . . .to join the rest of the squad
Yeah, I know. You’re heart bleeds for us but that’s the situation. Look at someone like Luke Rodgers, for example. It was almost like all his dreams had come true a year ago when he secured himself a deal with New York Red Bulls in America’s MLS and finished his first season there as a big success playing up front alongside Thierry Henry, only for his green card application to be rejected. This meant he had to be sent back to blighty heartbroken and having to chance his arm that someone would rescue Pompey so he could continue his career with them. Talk about having it in the palm of your hand and someone snatching it away from you.
So there we were, a veritable motley crew of outcasts thrown together by managers elsewhere who had judged us surplus to requirements. I’ll admit it was difficult at first. It can be hard enough being the new boy in the playground but even the simple task of organising ourselves in those first few days was made difficult until we actually remembered one another’s names.
If effort and determination is enough, Appleton will turn this ship around
Progressively things got better as the days passed but the games that’d been arranged were a bit of a shambles, which is probably to be expected. Matches against Gibraltar and Brighton resulted in heavy defeats as we struggled to form anything like a cohesive unit. The one man to come out of all of this with any dignity at all is the manager Michael Appleton and he was doing everything within his powers to make things work. He had a real head down and get on with things approach. No moaning. No complaining. Just work. I couldn’t quite believe how calm he kept in a situation, which seemed to be akin to managing the unmanageable.
Just like the players in the squad he was trying to cobble together, he was banking on the club pulling through so he could begin his managerial career in earnest. He’d put up with so much s**t since he’d taken over, that experience had proved to make him doubly determined he’d be the man at the helm when the club’s financial situation was restored because he knew more than anyone else the potential a healthy Portsmouth holds.
With only a week to go until the start of the league campaign, Appleton finds himself in charge of the most underprepared club in history and whilst he has recruitments in place ready to go if the club does pull through, even just survival this season looks a big ask. If effort and determination is enough, there's no question in my mind that Appleton will turn this ship around and after the preseason he’s just had, if he isn’t in line for a manager of the year award, they should make one for him anyway.
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