Eisenhower once said that “the search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions”. This seems to be what Portsmouth’s administrators had in mind as in Tal Ben Haim, they have found a public figure for the fans to direct their ire at.
On Friday, a club which has existed since 1898 may exist no more. Portsmouth are due to play their first game of the season next week, but there is a very strong chance that there may not be a Portsmouth Football Club by then.
Portsmouth’s finances have been a disaster for years now. There have been horrendous financial mismanagements punctuated by abortive takeovers, or worse, takeovers that promised much, but in reality left the club worse off than they originally were. There have been bouts of unsustainable and barely controlled spending, which has left players on huge contracts that the club simply cannot afford to honour.
Earlier this year, Portsmouth went into administration for the second time in three years, following a winding up order from HM Revenue and Customs (the UK’s tax authority). Portsmouth are believed to owe at least £58m to various creditors. Portsmouth were relegated from the Championship last season, and this has further exacerbated the financial crisis, as the TV money they will receive will be greatly reduced. Portsmouth’s administrator, Trevor Birch, had made the gloomy prediction that Portsmouth will fold on August 10, unless they can pull some sort of a rabbit out of the hat.
Things are about as bad as they can get, but there is hope in the form of two bids for the club, one from a supporters group and one from former owner Balram Chainrai. However, both bids are dependent on the club being able to reduce their wage bill, which has been a millstone around the club’s neck for years, to a more manageable level. That meant that Portsmouth had to sell, or at least come to an arrangement to settle the contracts of, their entire first-team squad which at the end of last season numbered a mere eight players.
Five players had either been sold or come to an agreement on the payment of their contracts before last weekend, when Dave Kitson left Portsmouth after coming to an arrangement over the payment of his contract, which meant that Portsmouth are currently left with two senior players, Liam Lawrence and Tal Ben Haim.
After Birch made his statement that Portsmouth’s liquidation was imminent, a fans group went to speak to the players outside the training pitch to plead with them to come to a settlement on their contracts to give Portsmouth a chance of staying in existence. They handed each player who was willing to speak to them a copy of the following letter.
“When you joined our football club certain promises were made to you, you signed a contract and on that basis and you have every right to demand what is justly yours.
With everything that has happened, you, like us supporters, have every right to be angry; you are as much a victim of the incompetence that has left our club teetering on the brink of as anyone.
Now though you have the chance to write your name in the history of our club, the decisions that you make will decide whether one hundred and fourteen years of history come to an end. Generations of Pompey fans are praying that you are able to reach a compromise with the administrators and while legality and indeed morality are on your side, we can only appeal to your conscience.
While those who have done this squabble over the final remains of Portsmouth Football Club, without a care for those who have been put out of work or the businesses forced to make cut backs because of non-payment, you can show the world that you care. You can save this club that so many of us care about; you can demonstrate that footballers aren’t the shallow, selfish people that are portrayed in the press.
We hope that with your help Pompey can survive and, under the ownership of the fans, can slowly but surely be turned around. We know that the potential sacrifice we are asking you to make is immense, but we will not survive without it.
Tal Ben Haim is an average-to-good Israeli centre back who has played in the Premier League for several seasons with varying success. Portsmouth signed him just before their first spell in administration. He is believed to be on a £36,000 per week contract with image rights and other bonuses believed to be worth an extra £1m per season. This is a remnant of Portsmouth’s Premier League days, and it’s a frankly ludicrous contract for a League One player to have.
Ben Haim is being portrayed as the villain in this situation. He’s taking flak from Birch publicly, the fans booed him during a recent pre-season friendly and he’s getting lambasted in the media. But I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him.
I’m sure he doesn’t want to be the person who puts the final nail in Portsmouth’s coffin. It’s not his fault he was given a huge contract, it’s also not his fault that apparently someone evidently didn’t insert the standard clauses into that contract that would have seen his wages substantially reduced in the event of relegation from the Premier League. Ben Haim signed that contract in good faith, and it is a perfectly reasonable stance to expect that contract to be honoured. If you were owed an amount of money that’s in the millions, would you be happy to accept less, or nothing at all?
Ben Haim responded to the criticism of him yesterday saying
“Most of the negotiations were done through the media. When they (the administrators) actually sat and talked to us through the manager, the majority of the players moved quickly to do what was best for the club and themselves.
As far as I’m concerned, an offer has been made to me only recently. I have offered to waive a further £1.5m of my current contract. They now tell me this is not good enough. The fact is that we are only about £300,000 apart in negotiations. If they want to liquidate the club for that money while they still charge their huge fees then all I can say that the blood is very much on their hands.”
Ben Haim may have a point there. If, as he says, he’s willing to waive £1.5m, and the administrators are still getting paid their large fees in full, then surely he’s entitled to be annoyed that all of the compromise seems to be coming from him and is entitled to say ‘enough’?
There is an argument that Ben Haim will have made a lot of money over his career so can afford to walk away with nothing. But, how do those people know what state Ben Haim’s finances are in? How do they know that he can afford to lose such a large amount of money? How do they know that he doesn’t have financial commitments that require him to regularly pay in a fixed amount of money? Ben Haim is 30 and it’s unlikely he’ll ever get another lucrative contract in the remainder of his career, which will be over in a few years. He has to financially sustain himself, and he may well have a family to support too, for the rest of his life. So I don’t find it unreasonable that he doesn’t want to give up more money that he already has. Why should he potentially sacrifice his own financial future to save his current employer?
Part of the problem may be that this isn’t the first time that Portsmouth have been on the verge of liquidation recently. The club has been in worse financial straits than this and survived. Portsmouth’s woes have been so prominent for so long, people have just got fed up of hearing about them. Trevor Birch admitted as much when he said that we all have “Portsmouth fatigue...they have cried wolf so many times, no one believes it [liquidation] will happen”. Maybe that’s what Ben Haim is thinking too, he feels that the club is crying wolf and rather than it being a case of they can’t pay, it’s a case of they don’t want to pay, so he’s fighting for what’s rightfully his.
This is a situation entirely of Portsmouth’s making. Portsmouth punched above their weight for several seasons, and did so thanks to unsustainable spending from a succession of owners with plenty of big words but little money to back them up. In my opinion, the fault does not lie with the managers who spent the transfer money and handed out the contracts, and it certainly doesn’t lie with the players who signed those contracts; they were offered a job, and they took it, what’s wrong with that? The blame has to lie on the person, or people, who signed off on that spending in the first place.
Loyalty is for fans. It is neither feasible nor reasonable to expect players to demonstrate the same loyalty and passion. A fan’s relationship with a club is a love affair. A player’s relationship with the club is that of employer/employee. The idea fans have that, if they were in the same position, they would walk away with nothing and save the club, is nothing more than a romantic notion that has no basis in reality. Sure it’d be nice if a player did walk away with nothing, saving the club in the process, but why should they?
There are no winners in the situation. The players have not only lost money, and stand to lose more, but have suffered from Birch wielding their contracts as a stick to beat them around the head with in public, which has turned the fans against them. The non-playing members of staff at Portsmouth have suffered by losing their jobs; the local businesses who are owed money by Portsmouth have suffered by being so far down the list of creditors that they are being given only a fraction of the money they are entitled to.
The last people to suffer could be the fans, who are faced with the prospect that their club could no longer be in existence in a matter of days.