Nine days to go until the big hearing then, and Portsmouth are acting bullish. Balram Chainrai has still given no indication that he is going to pay the amount of money to satisfy the club’s debt to HMRC (as some had suspected that he might), and the club has given no indication that it is going to seek the legal protection of administration. Such a move would almost certainly seal the club’s relegation from the Premier League, but it would be foolish to believe that football has anything to do with any of the reasons why the decisions that are being made at Fratton Park are being made. This is all about business, and nothing else. It’s pretty apt, really.
The club has until late tomorrow afternoon to lodge a statement of affairs at the High Court. This is paperwork which outlines the company’s exact financial position, both presently and for the near future. It lists their liabilities and outgoings and will be used by the court to determine whether the club is, in a legal sense, solvent. In other words, can they meet their day to day financial obligations? HMRC are owed £7.1m immediately from a total tax debt of £12m. If rumours are to be believed, the majority of the remainder of their debt is believed to be what would be called “soft” debt – money owed in loans to their former owners.
The reality of the situation is that if Portsmouth cannot pay the amount that they are owed to HMRC in full by Friday, they are at the mercy (in a quite literal sense) of the court, and how their financial outlook is regarded will be down to the – extremely subjective – opinion of the court. The club will make great play of future television revenue for the remainder of this season and parachute payments that they would receive in the event of relegation from the Premier League, but this is a high-risk strategy. Parachute payments aren’t a contractual obligation on the part of the authorities of the game – they are entirely discretionary and the club has no automatic “right” to them, but how will the court choose to interpret them?
It is also becoming increasingly uncertain whether the Premier League is going to ride in to the rescue and save the club with future television money. The moral argument for and against this is a different matter altogether, but it has to be said that many had expected them to. It would be very much in the best interests of the Premier League as a “brand” that a club doesn’t go bust during the middle of the season and it would certainly have been expedient for the Premier League to postpone the club’s complete finanicial meltdown until a later date by advancing them money from future television deals to save their skin in the immediate future. Perhaps there is a reason why the Premier League and Portsmouth Football Club appear so confident about it all. We shall see.
Meanwhile, though, the government is, predictably, trying to follow public opinion by making noises about tighter regulation of football clubs. Whilst it is welcome that there might finally be someone out there in a position of some power that is prepared to do something about the peculiar form of free market capitalism that football has turned into, it would be remiss of us to celebrate this as if they are finally coming around to our way of thinking. For one thing, there is a general election this year, which is likely to be informing every statement being made by ministers at the moment. For another, it still seems highly likely that we will have a different (and bluer) government by the summer. Labour ministers can say whatever they like – will they actually be here to anything about it, though?
Regardless of this, the amount that the government can actually do is very limited. If we think of the Football Association as being something like a trade association, the legal remit of politicians in being able to regulate football is very limited. The game itself expects national competitions and the clubs that compete in them to be regulated by FAs rather than government, and FIFA takes an exceptionally dim view of what it views as “meddling” by governments in the running of the game. Therefore, it is largely down to the Football Association to try and keep these people in line. Whether they will be able to do so or not is, of course, a completely different matter. The FA was effectively infiltrated by the Premier League during the 1990s. The people that need to be regulated look strikingly similar to those that are in charge of regulation.
So, we find ourselves in a stand-off situation – the calm before the storm, if you like. Unless the club comes up with the £7.1m required to settle the HMRC debt, it is impossible to predict what will happen in court a week on Friday. The club could be forced into administration by the court, which would, of course, mean a nine point deduction and almost certain relegation from the Premier League. The alternatives are that they can strike a deal with HMRC (who have given no indication of being prepared to accept such a deal) or that they can persuade the court to allow them s second adjournment in order to raise the money to settle debt, whether that be through bringing in new investment or by other means. There are nine days left to save Portsmouth Football Club. We shall see whether their high risk strategy reaps dividends on the second of March.