Monday, 22 February 2010

What the Tabloids don't tell you about Portsmouth FC

There's been a lot of hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and much else this week surrounding the plight of Portsmouth FC. It's a pretty sad story which has been documented in great detail and with some skill elsewhere. Some of the most readable and rewarding articles on the sheer hubris and financial calamity which has been the last five or so years at Portsmouth can be found at Pitch Invasion, Two Hundred Percent (and Two Hundred Percent again), and The Observer.

Notice the predominance of blogs in this list - which probably says as much for The Cynical Challenge's choice of reading material as for the treatment of the story in the national press.

Still, though, it seems that only in the "blogosphere" (it's an awful word, I know), and to a lesser extent among the broadsheets, have journalists truly got a handle on the situation at Portsmouth. The tabloid press have treated the story as a scandalous example of financial excess in the Premier League - but for the most part haven't really computed the stark realities of the situation at the club.

Those realities are as follows: 

Firstly, the likelihood of anyone bailing Portsmouth out of this mess is now approaching zero. The club are not only in serious debt, but such is its financial structure that even if these debts were expunged overnight they would still run at a substantial loss.

Secondly, as a result, Portsmouth are in very real danger of going bust. We're not just talking administration and a ten point deduction, but liquidation, which effectively means the club would cease to exist.

This may not be news to many, but it's worth emphasising because, had you only been reading the red tops since the story of Portsmouth's woes broke, you might still think the club could escape this brush with the Grim Reaper (otherwise known as HM Revenue and Customs).

The Daily Mail, for example, reported as late as Sunday that Portsmouth might be able to make a quick buck on central defender Marc Wilson, and implied that the option of administration - in which the club settles its debts under the supervision of its creditors - was still on the table.

The "administration" line has cropped up again and again across the week. On Saturday The Mirror suggested that administration and a nine point deduction would be the expected outcome should Portsmouth fail to find funds by this week to carry on trading. The Sun did likewise a day earlier.

Under the circumstances, though, administration would be a preferable outcome for Portsmouth. The club would incur a points penalty, effectively consigning them to relegation. But it would allow the club to pay off its debts and restructure its finances in preparation, potentially, for a tilt at promotion from the Championship next season.

But administration appears no longer to be an option for Pompey. As the Guardian reported this week,

Simon Wilson, a partner with Zolfo Cooper, the restructuring experts, warns that despite handing in their statement of affairs, Portsmouth still face the very real threat of extinction and that going into ­administration is an unlikely salvation.
"Arguably, the level of debt associated with this case, will mean that it is unlikely that a suitable or willing benefactor will be found," said Wilson. "Portsmouth therefore face the very real threat of liquidation because it is increasingly unlikely that an administration order will be sought or granted."

 In other recent cases, such as those at Leeds United, Southampton and Leicester City, HMRC were owed a substantial amount of money (in unpaid taxes, VAT and PAYE), but had to settle for a fraction of their debt when the clubs went into administration. Leeds United, for example, settled their debts at around 8p in the pound - in other words, only having to pay 8% of the outstanding tax bill - when Ken Bates bought them out of administration in 2007. 

It now appears the taxman has grown tired this situation, and is instead pursuing Portsmouth's liquidation. In this case the club would be shut down and all assets sold off to pay outstanding bills. All players' contracts would be immediately nullified. All the off-field staff would be immediately laid off. Everything of value would be sold off, including the the very name and emblem of Portsmouth FC. The club's registration with the Premier League would be terminated, and Portsmouth FC would no longer exist.

Under these circumstances it is irresponsible for the tabloid newspapers to continue to speak ignorantly of the potential for Portsmouth to survive the season intact. From the viewpoint of The Cynical Challenge only a miracle will save the club - in the form of a philanthropist who is prepared not only to pay off the £12 million in back taxes sought by HMRC, but to bankroll a loss-making business until the end of the season, when contracts and agreements will be up for renegotiation after the club's inevitable relegation from the Premier League.

That miracle looks increasingly unlikely to occur, even as rumours of a buyout from a South African consortium grow. And in dumbly repeating the "administration" line, the red tops are seriously misleading Portsmouth fans. The sooner we come to terms with the likelihood of Portsmouth's demise, the better. It's a bitter pill for those who hold Portsmouth dear to swallow - but more palatable than the shock which an unanticipated liquidation of the club would bring.

It's time to wake up to this likely outcome.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James