Sometimes, managers just carry the aura of being a dead man walking. The way that they carry themselves betrays a combination of being fully aware of just how lucky they are whilst permanently looking over their shoulder as if the ides of March are due any day now. To be fair to Paul Hart, he never had a chance. Portsmouth Football Club has been given the impression of being something like a cross between the final aria of an opera and and a black comedy so far this season. Having been forced to offload most of their best players, a long, hard winter was expected before a ball had even been kicked this season and the only surprise has been just how chaotic things have got at Fratton Park.
All the while, Paul Hart bore the growing anarchy at the club with grim stoicism. With the odds stacked against him, the club racked up defeat after defeat before they finally managed to turn a corner of sorts. An away win against Wolverhampton Wanderers finally broke their duck, and since then they have managed a further two wins and a draw – wins against Stoke City and Wigan Athletic, with the draw coming against Hull City – before a couple of defeats in their most recent matches saw them sink back to the foot of the Premier League. Relegation is certainly far from inevitable but if Portsmouth fans face the reality that three clubs will have to be relegated at the end of the season, it seems more and more likely that their club will be one of them.
Whether anybody would be able to turn their fortunes around over the next month or so is debatable. On Saturday they entertain Manchester United in the league and next Wednesday they are at home to Aston Villa in the League Cup, the only competition in which they have shown anything like any form this season. They then play Burnley, Sunderland, Chelsea and Liverpool before what could be a relegation six pointer against West Ham United on Boxing Day. The timing of the decision seems surprising, to say the least.
Two names have come into the public domain as favourites with the bookmakers to succeed Hart. Avram Grant was a surprise choice to be appointed as the clubs Director of Football last month and, with the benefit of hindsight, his arrival at Fratton Park was the first sign that Hart’s days at the club were numbered. Hart was not consulted when Grant was appointed as Portmouth’s Director of Football last month and Hart’s public comment on the subject, that “”Avram has been brought in to assist me” almost seemed to give the impression of somebody that already knew that the new broom of new owners were likely to make changes that weren’t going to involve him.
The other name being linked with the position is an even more curious one, Darren Ferguson. Ferguson recently departed Championship strugglers Peterborough United, but what are his qualifications to take charge of a club that is entrenched in a relegation battle in the Premier League? He made twenty-seven appearances for Manchester United between 1990 and 1994, but this is the height of his involvement with the Premier League, a league that has changed almost beyond recognition over the last fifteen years. His time as a manager involves just over two seasons at Peterborough, a club whose position – a small club with a lot of money – is almost the polar opposite of Portsmouth. The exact combination of qualities of a manager required to lift a football club out of a relegation battle remains a tantalisingly elusive formula, but the behind the scenes rumours from London Road this scene – he was rumoured to have been involved in a fight with a Peterborough player after his final match in charge of the club against Newcastle United – don’t exactly hint at the required temperament to steer the club to safety.
It’s difficult to not have some degree of sympathy for Paul Hart, who has had an almost impossible job trying to get the football to be the most important thing at Portsmouth Football Club this season while a ludicrous soap opera has battled for everyone’s attention in the background. Whether Portsmouth go for Avram Grant, who is unproven outside of the relatively pampered world of Stamford Bridge, or Darren Ferguson, who it is not unreasonable to suspect is primarily being linked with the job because of with whom he shares his family genes, it seems unlikely that merely replacing the manager will do much more than apply a sticking plaster to their rapidly unwinding season.