It is fairly ironic that Chairman Iain McInnes and directors Ashley Brown and Mike Dyer today took a trip up to Bolton to tell some very concerned fans about how Pompey are an exemplary run club these days.
Even more so that the invitation came from my old mate Trevor Birch who presided over Fratton Park in just a portion of the bad days when Pompey truly could be described as a ‘basket case.’
Ironic to me because the first time I went to Bolton’s then brand new stadium I couldn’t help but feel envy. It was December 1998 just a day after Martin Gregory had bowed to the inevitable and officially put Pompey up for sale. It wasn’t so much the ‘putting up for sale’ which was definitive but more the fact that nobody was going to touch them with a barge pole causing Pompey to bow to another inevitable of entering administration the following month. That day Bolton seemed to epitomise all we were not.
A fresh spanking brand new stadium, a decent team who were obviously destined to go back to the Premier League they had left a couple of years earlier.
Some years later I actually stayed in the hotel attached to the ground. On one occasion I came out of the hotel bar, through another adjoining door and straight into the lounge I was in for the day. That was a match day experience, to coin today’s terminology, which was manna from heaven for this tippler. Ironically that was twelve years on by which time Pompey had made the amazing U-turn from potless paupers to Premier League perfectionists who had won the FA Cup and competed in Europe. Only one problem. It had all been with money that they neither had nor could afford long term and things by this time had turned full circle with Pompey back in administration. The second of three.
So you see despite the temporary golden times, and the temporary moderately good/mediocre periods Pompey have in fact perpetually been teetering on the thinnest tightrope throughout of hurtling back to ‘basket case’ status. Through all that time where Pompey had been plummeting, rising and diving once more like a demented gymnastic trampolinist the Lancashire club to all appearances looked to be ticking along like an immaculately accurate timepiece. If ever there was a model of how to survive and thrive in the Premier League according to cutting one’s cloth then Bolton Wanderers appeared the exemplary model of excellence.
I had the privilege of being in the Boardroom there twice and the place just seemed to ooze business-like efficiency off the field with a stellar like consistency on it. But gradually there were disturbing rumblings coming out of Bolton and someone in the know had warned me some time ago that the Lancashire club were the latest car crash waiting to happen. So it passed as slowly the club succumbed to relegation from the Premier League followed by a spell of mediocrity culminating in hitting rock bottom of the Championship. Sounds familiar dosen’t it.
Along with the revelation that Bolton, far from being the model of perfection were in fact something to the tune of almost £180m in debt. Not a debt you accrue overnight, in a year, five or even perhaps a decade. If ever the Pompey situation deserved some mitigation, which it didn’t, it comes with the fact that it all happened rather more quickly in the form of a frozen bank account. Of course like Bolton the spending beyond one’s means for so long was always going to create a problem somewhere down the line, but Sasha Gaydamak’s father’s assets being blocked seemed to signal the beginning of the end whilst taking Pompey into the company of more fruit cakes than the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Meanwhile Bolton appear to have gone a slightly different route leading to the same destination although it hasn’t at the time of writing quite reached the Pompey total meltdown.
In this case an extremely rich owner in Eddie Davies has pulled the plug on putting more money in but crucially prevented Bolton from being in even more a horrendous position by apparently writing off that £172.9m of personal debt. It is that which is surely the saving factor that has prevented Bolton not only going straight into administration but probably liquidation also. Yet even given that saving grace they were forced down the same depressing route of transfer embargo, and being unable to pay staff or players for a period. And administration has lingered over them although if there is anyone who can save Bolton from that fate you would bet on Trevor Birch. He may have rolled up this time with a slightly different brief and position but in all truth Pompey and Bolton’s plight both requiring his presence prove both showing similar if not identical symptoms of demise.
As someone who many years ago sat with and spent an afternoon in the company of Bolton’s legendary ‘Lion of Vienna’ Nat Lofthouse I always kept a keen eye from afar on the club.
At that time they played at Burden Park in the town and had dived to the status of a struggling fourth division club, the first time they had been in the basement in their history. I was told that afternoon the clamour from disgruntled and disillusioned fans for them to sign players and move up the leagues was predictably in process Ten years on I would make my first visit to their sparkling new out of town stadium with all the feeling of envy stated in the opening paragraphs of this piece.
Now as Pompey show signs of upward mobility at last by some quirk of fate Bolton are desperately trying to avert the desperate plummet that we suffered after our own relegation from the Premier League.
A plummet that at times took us far too close to the hammer of a judge finishing the club and thereafter demotion from the football league maybe never to return. As Paul Cook continues the quest to revive not so much a sleeping giant but a brutally beaten one it is so easy to forget pain with the passing of time.
When Pompey lifted the FA Cup in 2008 most thought it was all systems go when in fact a few of us knew even then that all was not as it seemed. At the time as I noted Bolton also appeared the exemplary example of excellence but somewhere there also all was not what it appeared. Like Pompey they have done their fair share of rising and now diving again and it still might be in the not too distant future that we pass them on our respective directions. If that is not wishful thinking on Pompey’s part at least then it is a rise that needs to continue to be achieved by prudence within means. But there is no doubt all present incumbents in control of the club know that having suffered so personally and psychologically from the imposed meltdown themselves. Of course Pompey have to move on but we must also never forget what so nearly befell the club, not once but three times within four decades.
Bolton are a stark reminder that even a supposedly well run club to the eye is not always so and therefore not immune to implosion.
I’m sure Trevor will have wasted no time in recounting the tales of the ‘basket case’ that was once Pompey as a salutary lesson. The fact that the once ‘basket case’ of a football club is now considered competent enough to tutor one once simultaniously considered as immaculately governed is indicative of what a precarious knife edge football clubs teeter on.