The hollow chimes of a corrupted soul

4-1 away at Portsmouth on the opening day of the season in front of 18,000. Sounds pretty good. No it was pretty good. It was bloody great. But, while we rightly celebrate, did we actually expose the corrupted soul of a stricken football club?

Here’s a theory; if, in order to be successful, a football club needs to do 100% of the ‘right things’. Within any given division, most clubs will do 95% of those things just to keep a club functioning; they employ a manager with leadership qualities and qualifications, they recruit players with physical attributes or a proven track record, they prepare a pitch and facilities of a ‘professional’ quality, they ensure money comes in and bills get paid. Sometimes it’s touch and go, but I’ve watched football for over 30 years and I can only remember two clubs failing to fulfil the basic functions of a football club; Chester in 2009 and Maidstone in 1992 – clubs who just about started their season, but failed to finish. That’s over 3000 club-seasons with a failure rate of about 0.6%.

The margin between success and failure, therefore, is determined by the remaining 5%. If that sounds like a small margin, think of the difference between promotion and the play-offs or being relegated and not being relegated; often it’s no more than a couple of points out of the 130-odd that are available. That’s a couple of kicks of the ball in 9 months of football.

Within this last 5% are things like a few extra quid for a striker who can score a goal, some time applied to a fitness programme that ensures your defence can protect an away draw. Little bits and pieces which add up to those 2-3 points which make the difference between success and failure.

Of that 5%, perhaps 1% is immeasurable; luck, spirit, a large crowd pushing you over the line. These aren’t magical spirits that take you through to success; they’re tiny moments that might make a difference; a milkman being late and not waking up your goalkeeper at 5 in the morning making him slightly sharper and more alert, that’s what ‘luck’ is.

So the difference between success and failure is in the tiny margins of the game. Two teams can look like equals but in the main the one that prevails is the one who has got the last 4-5% right. But, what if one of those teams have missed something in that first basic 95%? You become so complacent that those things are there that you actually forget to put them in place? What if they haven’t got the basics right?

When clubs get into trouble, they tend to cut back on the basics; back office staff go before players. But then although it superficially looks like you’re functioning (you’ve got players on the pitch, a kit, a manager, a pitch and so on) in reality that 95% might be 80%. If you can only influence another 5%; once you’re on the pitch, you’ll only ever make 85%. Then, you’re destined to fail.

The BBC did a documentary on the resurrection of Swansea City from near oblivion. When they were taken over by the fans, the biggest difficulty, they thought, was that nobody knew how to run a football club. But when they took control, they realised that the conventional way of running the club seemed to be to muddle through from one game to another. So they put in place plans, organisation, budgetary controls, marketing and so on. They got the basics functions of a business right first, because that was at the core of their failings, then things started to happen on the pitch too.

So Portsmouth fans stepped through the gates of Fratton Park on Saturday with the hope that their troubles, if not behind them, were on the wain. Physically, they still look like the team that won the FA Cup in 2008. Same kit, big crowd, nice stadium. And they’re now in the hands of their fans; people with the club’s interest at heart. And, well, League 2 is League 2. Lower league football. The spirit of the Pompey chimes should see the club through.

To compound the optimism, the all-knowing bookies have them as favourites. Except shortening odds only reflects the amount of money being placed on them; and if you’re ignorant of League 2 things and you want a bet, then you’ll probably go with the team you’re most familiar with.

We’ve been there; as you drop through the leagues, you fundamentally believe that something of your inner spirit will prevent you from falling further. Everyone keeps telling you how big a club you are. And then there’s physics, of course, which you can’t ague with: when you hit the bottom, the only way is up. Which misses the fact that in football there’s always another level to fall to (note Stockport playing in the Conference North) and as well as ‘up’ and ‘down’ there’s ‘stay where you are’ (Luton). One Pompey blog talked about how he felt more connected now that the real Pompey was back. This brought optimism. This brought 18,000 people through the gate ready for a new glorious future.

However, and we know this from painful experience, there’s much more to success than a big name, reputation and following. 90 minutes proves nothing, of course, but it in some way illustrates the need to get the basics right before planning for the future. They prepared for phoenix like resurrection, a spiritual awakening, we prepared for a game of league 2 football. Whether we can do it consistently remains to be seen.

Having been stripped of their ugly appendages of Premier League reckless greed, I’ve no desire to see Portsmouth failing further (or, really, I don’t really care that much whether they succeed or not). If they do find League 2 harder than they thought, I hope they don’t become disheartened, I also hope they don’t ignore that getting the basics right will come from dull things like organisation and hard work. I hate to say it, but for them purgatory may not be over yet as we emphatically showed on Saturday.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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