Just as everyone was basking in the unlikely glory of a last minute goal at Fleetwood and even more improbably, in the fact we’re still top of the league a story broke. Portsmouth want to talk to Chris Wilder. But, would this a good move for him?
Twitter is at its best moments after a story breaks, and at its worst for the 2 weeks after. I hadn’t really kept up with our draw at Fleetwood; I was in Tesco when Danny Rose missed his penalty. By the time I’d got in the car Jerome Sale was winding up the game saying we were still unbeaten away. Somewhere in between Dave Kitson scored.
By the time I’d got home I knew that Radio Oxford would have been heading round the grounds to people like Headley Feast to find out how the Oxford City Nomads got on, or giving out the results of the Cherry Red Records 8th Reserve Division. I didn’t bother putting the radio on.
Later, I checked Twitter; something had happened. Wilder, Pompey, #wilder, #pompey. Mick Brown said something, Ian Lenagan said something. I love these moments, when fragments of a news story start coming together into something vaguely coherent. Twitter is perfect for something like this.
Eventually it transpired that Portsmouth had made an approach for Chris Wilder. Mick Brown appears to have revealed it to the media despite there being no official acknowledgement of the approach from either club.
This is big news; Portsmouth are a massive club, FA Cup winners in 2008, they were finalists in 2010. How could Chris Wilder resist the lure of such a massive opportunity to manage a such a massive club…
… who are currently languishing in 18th in League 2 without a win in 5.
Ian Lenagan referred to them as a ‘failing club’ which is a little ungracious but ultimately true. In his defence, it was said under pressure, but Portsmouth fans were incredulous at the slight. They’re fan-owned, they’re HUGE and they’ve got a history to die for. Hear them roar.
This delusional behaviour should be enough to put Chris Wilder off whether we were top of the division or not. Portsmouth may have taken a worthy step in the right direction, but the corner they’re turning is a very long one.
When I started going regularly to football, Portsmouth were just another lower-league team. They were, to me, no different to, say, Lincoln City or Exeter. We seemed to be kindred spirits for a period; having very similar levels of success, mostly around the Championship.
Since 1980 Portsmouth have won two domestic divisional titles, three promotions and one major domestic trophy. We’ve won two domestic titles, two promotions and one major domestic trophy. On balance, their successes probably slightly outstrip ours, but what I’m saying is that this massive club, in reality, has a fairly moderate history.
In the mid-2000s, as our world collapsed, they suddenly did something remarkable; Harry Redknapp got them promoted to the Premier League almost without warning.
They established themselves by signing a slew of top players; Peter Crouch, David James, Kanu, Jermaine Defoe, er, Dave Kitson. One thing that never added up was how they were doing it – signing such players with such a ropey infrastructure. The PR keeps it pretty simple – the line goes that there’s such an enormous amount of money flowing through the Premier League from Sky that everyone’s getting rich.
In reality, as Alan Sugar pointed out at the league’s inception, the money flows straight through the clubs and into the players’ pockets. The size of the TV deal doesn’t really matter to the clubs, they won’t get to see any of it because it goes on the colossal wages that need to be paid to keep you in the league. If you keep the money, you go down, if you spend the money, you’ve got nothing in the bank. Portsmouth were hugely trapped in this cycle; they looked and spent like a Premier League club; but they had a ramshackle ground and an owner of limited means.
Only two things breaks you from that cycle; better facilities and/or a mega rich benefactor. When the new stadium failed to materialise and the owner sold up to an Arabian who, it seems, didn’t actually have any money, it became clear the club couldn’t service their debt. They had to liquidate their assets; sell their players. What followed was three relegations and two periods in administration.
So Portsmouth’s massiveness is overstated; their history artificially over-inflated only by a brief, recent period in the Premier League they couldn’t really afford.
The artifice of their size brings with it a complacency. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Portsmouth are currently the 85th in the football league; that they haven’t won in 5, that, on current data, the only way is down for them.
However, it is not their on-the-pitch situation that is of most concern. What they have been through is deeply traumatic; the psychological damage that they have suffered lingers on, the cognisant discord between being a club 10 times the size of those around them, but not 10 times better brings with it a deep trauma. Every defeat by an insignificant spec of a club is another mortal blow to their confidence and self-esteem.
We speak from some experience; we were a terrible team with a glorious past and, apparently, money to burn. Guy Whittingham is Mark Wright, the former star who failed to reignite the club. Chris Wilder, in this case, is John Ward or Chris Turner 7 years ago – a good manager we should just bring in to solve all our problems. As easy as picking up a bottle of milk from the newsagents.
Perhaps Portsmouth have got everything in place to turn the corner, there’s no evidence on the pitch that this is the case, and it’s difficult to ignore the lingering financial burden of having to pay-off former players eye-watering amounts.
A big club? A glorious history? Turning the corner? Ready to return to the big time?
I don’t have anything against Portsmouth, I hope on a human level that they survive and prosper. On a football level, I’m not that bothered either way. However, from what I can see, they’ve got a long way to go before they’ve recovered and may well fall some way yet. From Chris Wilder’s perspective, unless the financial offer is breathtaking, he would be mad to accept the job at this stage in their evolution.