It was a small lie. But in the Portsmouth story it was difficult to find a more stupid and pointless one than that of a Portsmouth spokesman who blamed last Thursday’s long-forecast non-payment of December club salaries on “a file not being properly loaded at the bank – it wasn’t processed properly.” The only challenger was probably the Portsmouth spokesman (maybe the same one) who said: “This was caused by a changeover in banking systems…the automatic banking system rejected certain sort codes and they had to be switched to a different transaction file” after administrative staff failed to receive October money on time, while all the players did (ah, those were the days). Or maybe Peter Storrie’s early December classic: “The new financing is going very, very well.” Although to be fair to Storrie, he did finish that sentence a few words later with: “it looks like it’s all getting together now, that’s what I’ve been told” (my emphasis), his way of saying: “I’m only obeying orders.”
And the current regime has all the “disingenuity” awards wrapped up with their official reaction to HMRC’s Christmas present of a winding-up petition. Despite not having been “formally served” with the petition, they still had room to be “shocked and surprised” at it and to claim that it was “in respect of VAT, PAYE and National Insurance contributions which either have been or are about to be paid, or are disputed.” Of a petition with which they claimed they had not been served, they seemed to have a curiously detailed knowledge. As one local paper reader commented: “You just can’t believe anything the board say anymore.” At first sight, the recent drip-feed into the national media of various “It wasn’t me, guv” quotes from former owner Sacha Gaydamak appears to contain a few potential award-winners. He certainly has the “American sense of irony” award snapped up with his “I would like to know who the ultimate beneficial owner is”, even though, of course, Portsmouth is, and has always been, nothing to do with his father Arcadi Gaydamak.
For much of last week, much of the national media carried quotes from Gaydamak which suggested he’d been on a comprehensive charm offensive, talking to The Guardian, in particular, on what seemed like a nightly basis. “I’m a passive creditor” he claimed, saying he wasn’t the one putting pressure on Portsmouth to pay its debts, although his perennial presence on the week’s sports pages seemed to be doing precisely that. Whether or not he was talking to the nationals every night, he’d certainly had a chinwag with fans web-site truebluearmy.com which carried a huge five-part interview with him, including all the quotes in the nationals, and much more. Gaydamak had approached the site to give his side of the story. And Colin Farmery, a frequent and erudite fans’ spokesman throughout the latest troubles, conducted the interview, claiming he would ask the questions “the fans wanted answering.” In an almost unique occurrence in this sorry Pompey tale, Farmery was true to his word. Truer, certainly, than his interviewee was about to be.
If ever there was a way to thoroughly undermine an argument, describing Sulamian Al-Fahim as “very credible” would surely be one of the best. Fahim was, Gaydamak told us, “the only guy to put his money where his mouth is” (no jokes about where that might be) and, a pearler this one, “remember he met Mancini in July, why wouldn’t I trust him?”. “He looked very credible and I still believe he is,” Gaydamak concluded, which needs no further comment. Likewise, his insistence that Portsmouth were fine when he left. He sold to Al-Fahim in August, and his snapshot of the club – by then down to 14 first-team players after numerous, largely unreplaced, departures – was that Portsmouth’s debts “were fully serviceable and no worse or better than any other club in the context of the Premier League.” Over the course of the interview, this became a mantra: “We were always there or thereabouts with HMRC during my tenure in the context of a football club.” “The debts at Portsmouth when I left were normal in the context of a Premier League business.” And “When I left the club, we were not in default for any of our payment schedules to other clubs, as far as I am aware.” All fine and dandy, sort of, if this manageability hadn’t come after the club had sold over £70m of playing talent in three transfer windows.
Gaydamak is also consistently reliant on “the books” backing up his lack of culpability for Portsmouth’s state. It is difficult to see how this could be true, especially as he tells Farmery straight out that “the club made substantial losses over the period that I was involved, with a wage bill in the region of 90% of turnover.” And the “books” which covered the first two years under Gaydamak confirmed those losses were £40m worth of substantial. Farmery, as usual, asks the pertinent question arising from this: “But weren’t the debts spiralling out of control and wasn’t it your job to ensure they didn’t?” “I don’t believe they were out of control,” comes the amazing response, followed by assertion number 94 that “the club had manageable debts when I left… the books will show what the picture was and I am happy for them to be looked at…and I am confident they will bear out my view.”. “The books” are often cited as an aide memoire, as Gaydamak repeatedly stresses that he’s been out of the loop for four months. Some of the answers confirm the need for such a memory jog.
Asked directly whether he raised any money against the assets of the club at the time he took over from predecessor chairman Milan Mandaric, he simply says, “No”. Numerous newspaper reports at the time, from both sports and financial pages, and not remotely challenged by anyone, suggest that may not quite have been the full answer. In March 2006, the Telegraph ran the unequivocal headline, “Portsmouth take out mortgage on players,” with the story quoting directly from the “mortgage document”, confirming that Gaydamak had borrowed money against “the beneficial interests of the company in the players’ contracts.” As the story noted, it was not “unusual for directors to lend money by taking out a mortgage on club assets or TV or season-ticket income.” But, as the story again noted, “Portsmouth already have two charges by their bankers, Barclays, on everything else the club own.”
And throughout the year, Gaydamak’s first in charge, stories emerge of loans from such august bodies as Icelandic-owned bank Singer and Friedlander and South Africa’s Standard Bank (who, as Gaydamak admits in the interview, were in for a whopping “about £34m”). Singers had two charges over the club’s assets, ran a September story, “one over Premiership payments, such as TV rights, the other over the Fratton Park freehold.” Gaydamak, as ever, takes the opportunity to deny that his father, “Franco-Russian fugitive from justice” Arcadi Gaydamak, has ever had anything to do with Portsmouth. And his excessive borrowing in 2006 – which some might dare to think has an impact on Portsmouth’s finances to this day- suggests that to be the case. Yet every new name that is associated with the current regime seems to have very few degrees of separation from Daddy. And here is where Farmery’s question is so good: “It seems a strange co-incidence four people out of a world population of four billion who have had issues with your family or vice versa are now reportedly involved with Portsmouth?” Young Master Gaydamak can come up with nothing better than to “confirm that it is a co-incidence.” A case of the question being a more informative answer than the answer, perhaps?
Possibly the only question that Farmery couldn’t pursue was the link (alleged) to Gaydamak Senior. Arcadi was under suspicion of trying to launder millions of dollars out of Israel as his son began negotiating to take over at Fratton Park. And Arcadi had considerable assets frozen at the same time as his son began borrowing millions from banks. But Gaydamak junior was well able to quash those rumours: “I have always made it clear that there is no link between my father’s business interests and mine.” If need be, he would surely have been able to “confirm” that these were “a co-incidence” too. Because they were. Sadly, amid all the denials of fatherly links, protestations of Sulaiman Al-Fahim credibility and insistence that everything was fine last August, Gaydamak did clinch one award, for “stumbling upon the truth without realising it”: “Without my investment or loans, Portsmouth was a Championship or League One club. Maybe it would have been better to have been that?”
If Portsmouth don’t make it to February, it certainly would have been.