When Sulaiman Al-Fahim talks, people listen – and then laugh, much of the time. The problem with Portsmouth Football Club at the moment, however, is that Fahim’s successor as owner is proving every bit as cack at the job as Fahim ever was but nothing like as funny. Fahim’s latest Portsmouth pontifications have had the intellectual depth of a stroppy teenager. Indeed, it’s hard to read them and not hear Harry Enfield’s “Kevin the Teenager”, especially his whinge about not being consulted on or told of Paul Hart’s sacking as manager. Fahim still hasn’t grasped the concept of “non-executive”, but if anything can get past his delusions of significance, it will surely be the erasure of the one decision he made at Fratton Park, giving Hart the manager’s job on a permanent basis. “I was not involved in the decision at all,” he bleated of Hart’s sacking. “As chairman of the club, they should have run this by me”. And he said he was “really disappointed”. Three times in two paragraphs.
It clearly didn’t dawn on them that they could make such fundamental decisions without him. And he betrayed how out of touch he was by complaining that “we should have had somebody to replace him.” Even my mum said: “I suppose that Chelsea guy will get the job now.” The most disappointing aspect of Fahim’s next move, however, was the Guardian’s complicity in it. Recently the paper has been on top form with its revelations about Notts County and its ability to persistently annoy Ken Bates. But they’ve afforded Fahim’s ill-informed ramblings rather too much space (i.e. any at all). Fahim phoned the paper to “apologise for saying publicly last month that I was confident the transfer embargo would be lifted” and helpfully inform us that Portsmouth had a lot of bills to pay, such as £2.5m to previous, previous owner Alexandre Gaydamak and tax and VAT bills of many millions more.
His information was probably reliable. They were, after all, the bills he left unpaid when he was owner. The Guardian claimed that “Portsmouth’s ability to make signings next month has been cast into doubt.” But it was nothing new. All that had changed in the intervening month was that Fahim hadn’t been consulted over Hart’s sacking. Of course, had Fahim delivered a penny of the £50m finance he’d promised the club just before he sold 90% of it to Ali Al-Faraj, none of this – not even this week’s version of the salaries farrago – would be happening, none of which excuses the basic problems the new regime are having, such as paying their employees. They are playing every bit as dangerous a game with the club’s future as Fahim did.
Another month of delayed salary payments and, employment law experts advise, the players could claim breach of contract, resign from the club and become free agents for the January Transfer Window, out of which Portsmouth would surely be looking to get some financial return. “I would say failure to pay salary is a fundamental breach because it’s at the root of the contract,” noted one such expert, correctly and, though the money to pay November’s salaries has appeared, its source hasn’t, which should ring more alarm bells at Premier League HQ than currently seems to be the case. Chief Executive Peter Storrie has been citing the club’s “refinancing” for what he sees as temporary problems. But even if this is true, it was surely unwise of him to say the refinancing was going “very, very well.” Yeah, looks like it. Mind you, he did add “that’s what I’ve been told.” And for that combination of self-awareness (the lack of) and gullibility Portsmouth are paying over £1m-per-annum.
Meanwhile, back with Fahim, “As a chairman and shareholder, I want to know who is (Al-Faraj) and what plans he has for the club. I have never even met him.” You might imagine Fahim would have done all that stuff before selling him 90% of the club, but never mind. This, of course, raises the issue of Ali Al-Faraj’s very existence. A while back, I wrote that Al-Faraj might have been another News of the World “fake sheikhs”, designed to expose the inadequacies of the Premier League’s ‘fit and proper persons’ regulations. I wasn’t being serious. Yet the theory sounds less outlandish each day. Whatever the considerable faults of other club owners in modern English football, they’ve always seemed to turn up for the Manchester United game. And we were promised the Al-Faraj would be the same. He wasn’t. Scarier still were Avram Grant’s comments this week. Anxious to meet Al-Faraj to talk transfer funds, he said: “I met him one time or two, I think”. He THINKS??? Why is he not sure? Did he meet someone who looked like the bloke in the one sepia-tinted photo claiming to be of Al-Faraj? Was he not introduced, formally or otherwise?
It all adds to the mystery. The one interview with Al-Faraj was conducted by phone, and Al-Faraj passing most of the questions on to his “brother,” who has at least been to a few Pompey matches. He seems to be encountering endless “work permit” problems, which his “brother” hasn’t encountered. Even Fahim got into the country unhassled. And none of “his” money has knowingly entered the country, let alone Portsmouth’s bank account. A cynic might start to think that it is almost as if Al-Faraj didn’t exist. Harry Redknapp, of all people, asked: “Why can’t [Portsmouth] find someone who cares and has the money to back the club?” And if Harry Redknapp is asking the pertinent questions, you’re in bigger trouble than you thought you were in, no matter much trouble you thought you were in.