Some of you may have noted on Friday that, upon the release of news reports that Portsmouth were set to cease trading by this week if the club didn’t reach agreement with Sacha Gaydamak over repayment of his debts from the club, we didn’t pass any comment upon the subject. It wasn’t through a lack of interest in the ongoing story of the club’s fight for survival or because we didn’t feel that anybody else would have interest in it – it was because… we didn’t actually believe it. Last Friday was the second in a row that a press release promising the club’s imminent closure had found its way into the public domain and, after the week before’s false alarm, we weren’t getting drawn into that argument again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
These two Portsmouth stories (or, if you prefer, non-stories, because that is what they both essentially were) were further examples of the use of the media in the name of a word that has become rather more familiar over last few weeks or so that we might have expected – brinkmanship. One of the emerging fashions for this season seems to be football clubs showing off their shortcomings in the most public way possible, in the mass media. Considering that even Andrew Andronikou, a man that has seldom previously been described as a “wallflower”, had to come out and play down Portsmouth’s imminent demise last Friday evening, it could be reasonably argued that Portsmouth’s tactic was to tease Gaydamak into agreeing terms for his repayments in a hurry. We may never know what the real motivation behind their public statement being made at that time that it was might have been about, but terms were agreed by today, and the nightmare of the club’s supporters is finally over.
If Portsmouth were merely playing brinkmanship with Gaydamak, the fact that the story really made comparatively few headlines would seem to indicate that this particular example of the art was somewhat ham-fisted. The Football League didn’t accede to the club’s issues over its golden share and, had the issues concerning Gaydamak not been resolved as quickly as they were, they would have run the risk of becoming The Football Club That Cried Wolf. There were similarities with the situation at Liverpool as the club’s ownership drained the life out of the sports pages of the nation’s newspapers. The battle for ownership became a battle for hearts and minds, and the RBS representatives on Liverpool’s board weren’t backwards in coming forwards when it came to pressing emotional buttons.
The doomsday scenario of the club being put into administration and being deducted nine points on the 15th of October was allowed to become de facto, even though the likelihood of that actually happening was minimal, to say the least. As time wore on, Liverpool supporters fell behind Martin Broughton et al to such an extent that, by the time that confirmation of the sale (which, again, with the benefit of hindsight was always going to go through) was announced, RBS had achieved the impossible in becoming a British bank that was actually popular. Yet, for all the statements to the contrary, were the RBS representatives doing anything other than acting in the best interests of their own organisation? We might not have believed it if the newspaper reports at the time were to be believed, but RBS were acting as much in their own interests as much the odious Gillett & Hicks were.
Finally, we come to the case of Wayne Rooney and Manchester United. It was surprising to see Alex Ferguson make such an early and public pronouncement in criticism of Rooney and, likewise, when Rooney’s statement criticising the club’s lack of ambition was made in similarly public circumstances, many people felt as if they could see hands of Rooney’s agent Paul Stretford in the background, pulling the strings. For all the acres of analysis, culminating in the presence of balaclava-clad goons outside Rooney’s house at the end of last week, though, Rooney signed the new contract and everybody got what they wanted in the end. Rooney got the absurdly lucrative deal that guarantees him £800,000 per month for the next five years. Manchester United saw the value of their biggest single playing asset plumped back up after a week of watching his theoretical value plummet as the prospect of a move grew more and more likely.
If the case of Rooney’s new contract was brinkmanship, then Rooney didn’t make a particularly good job of it. Amongst Manchester United supporters, the best that can be said of his reputation is that the jury is out until he starts scoring goals regularly again. Whether it will be completely repairable is a different question. In the wider public realm, however – something which does matter, if we consider his place in the England team and his value to advertisers – his reputation is not far above that of dirt. He still, however, has the option to leave Old Trafford; it’s just that Manchester United would now receive a hefty fee for such a transfer. Rooney will get his money and Stretford will get his cut. To this extent, everybody is happy, just as RBS (who sold to New England Sports Ventures and will, we assume, be paid in full soon) and Balram Chanrai (who has agreed to buy Portsmouth out of administration).
Does any of this matter, though? After all, today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers. Well, it does and it doesn’t. On the one hand, these stories prove that we, the readers, need to be analytical when we are reading newspaper stories about a sport that is about money to such an extent that everybody seems to have an ulterior motive above and beyond what actually happens on the pitch. It is, however, also worth remembering that such fluff can distract from real issues. Manchester United supporters should, of course, be angry, but they should be continuing to be angry at the owners of their club and those that have facilitated the position in which their club finds itself through its laissez-faire governance. This is the elephant in the room, and there will be no meaningful change in the prognosis for the long term health of the game until the Premier League’s strangehold over the FA is reversed and more fundamental questions are asked of the financing of football than how much Wayne Rooney should be paid each week.