It is perhaps symptomatic of the times that at least one of this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals has seen the majority of the previews unable to properly be able to focus on the football itself. Given the nature of Harry Redknapp’s departure from Fratton Park and subsequent arrival at White Hart Lane, the match between Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth was always going to be a loaded affair, but the financial shenanigans at Portsmouth this season, the club’s entry into administration and its status as the poster club for financial mismanagement in recent years has meant that the light being shone upon this particular match is harsher than most.
Harry Redknapp has been characteristically bullish over press questioning his time in charge at the club. In an interview reported in The Guardian this morning, he made it pretty clear where he feels the responsibility for the club’s current problems lay when he stated that, “The problem was that the owner when I was there, Sacha Gaydamak, suddenly lost interest and stopped putting money in”. It is probably fair to say that, at Portsmouth, the responsibility for the club’s purse strings should have rested with those running the club. However, the list of correlation between Harry Redknapp and subsequent financial crisis remains a damning one.
There is a clear line in the sand to draw between managers that frequently turn up as fire fighters at clubs that are already in desperate financial straits and the circumstances of Harry Redknapp’s career. It remains a stark fact that every club that Harry Redknapp has been involved with as a manager (Bournemouth, West Ham United, Portsmouth and Southampton) has suffered desperate hardship after his departure. This may merely come down to being a matter of edknapp being persuasive when it comes to persuading chairmen to make money that a club has available. It may be just a coincidence (after all, Redknapp’s departure from Bournemouth in 1992 and West Ham in 2001 can hardly be blamed upon their current circumstances). The whispering, however, continues.
For the current adminstrators of the club, however, the headaches continue on a daily basis. It is unsurprising that reports this week have focussed on the possibility that the club will have to lose players should they beat Spurs at Wembley tomorrow afternoon. Many players have convoluted bonus clauses built into their contracts, and the nature of many that seem to have been signed at Portsmouth seem to include clauses that will be triggered by tomorrow’s match and will mean that those players concerned will either have to leave the club, miss out on playing in the FA Cup final or waive the bonuses that they would have earnt from playing at Wembley next month.
According to the club’s administrator Andrew Andronikou, “five or six players who will not be allowed to play after the semi-final, and one who might not be allowed to play in the semi-final”. Those of us that still harbour occasional daydreams about one day scoring a winning goal in an FA Cup final might not be able to believe that a player could want to jeopardise his place in the team on Cup Final Day, but the reality of modern football is that Andronikou is saying much about the priorities of the modern game when he states that, “it will be the players, or their agents, decisions” whether to forfeit their contractual rights in order to play or not. It’s an issue that puts the badge-kissing nature of the modern footballer into perspective.
Meanwhile, while Portsmouth have enough problems of their own with such decisions, they may even only be a Premier League in name only by tomorrow afternoon. Should Hull City beat Burnley and West Ham United beat Sunderland in this afternoon’s two Premier League matches, Portsmouth’s relegation will be mathematically certain. Such a combination of results may or may not seem improbable, but there is a possibility that the Portsmouth team will turn out at Wembley tomorrow with their relegation already confirmed. Against such a background, it would be unsurprising and understandable if their supporters at Wembley tomorrow took a “last days of Rome” attitude towards it all. Should they lose, it seems unlikely that they will have too much else to celebrate in the near future.
This weekend, though, the fairytale is all set up and there has been much talk in the press this week about a sense of “destiny” surrounding Portsmouth’s run in the FA Cup. It is certainly fair to say that their FA Cup run so far has had an element of derring-do about it. They were a kick away from being knocked out in their Third Round replay against Coventry City in January before managing to stay in that match, and their run has also taken in a thrashing of local rival Southampton as well as Premier League form defying performances against Birmingham City and Sunderland. We shall see how much “destiny” there is in the competition tomorrow, as they face their biggest challenge yet in the competition in a Tottenham Hotspur side that has started to look like genuine challengers for a place in the Champions League. Yet Spurs were surprisingly (and, it has to be said, unexpectedly) poor at Sunderland last week, and such a wobble will only have increased the feeling amongst Portsmouth’s players and supporters that the most unlikely FA Cup final appearance of recent years can be managed.
The match on Sunday between Spurs and Portsmouth (in spite of its slightly ludicrous Wembley staging) carries an air of throwback about it. The suspicion remains that both Chelsea and Aston Villa would rather be focussing on the league when they turn out for their match later today, but the FA Cup continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many Spurs supporters and Sunday’s semi-final will at least be played by two teams that desperately want to win the match. One would hope that the Portsmouth players will see sense and agree to drop the clauses in their contracts that would force the club to omit them from playing in the FA Cup final should they get there, and that it wouldn’t make any sense for them to decide to not play in the final if they win tomorrow. “Common sense” and “Portsmouth Football Club”, however, are not phrases that have been heard in the same breath much over the last couple of years or so.