Taxman beats tactical retreat in Pompey battle
Earlier this year, I saw a documentary on BBC2 that explored the theory Osama Bin Laden is long since dead and the only reason we don't all know about it is because powerful people want us to think otherwise. Bin Laden the bogeyman is good for business, apparently.
It was fascinating stuff and when I read more about it I was surprised to see it was part of a series called "The Conspiracy Files" - surprised because they have only made four of them in three years.
I suspect there is a conspiracy theory in that but if the makers are able to get another one commissioned they should consider the strange case of Portsmouth Football Club. Fratton Park is a conspiracy theory factory.
The latest is perhaps the best yet (give or take the one about the Israeli loan shark) because it encompasses almost every element in this wondrous tale, brings us up to speed and still manages to pose more questions than it answers.
Well, the talk of Solent's classier salons last week was that Portsmouth North MP and junior Treasury minister Sarah McCarthy-Fry had pointed out to HMRC that shutting down the local football team might not play well in a marginal seat come election time.
I wouldn't normally entertain such gossip on these pages but I feel I can share this with you because it is nonsense. Intriguing nonsense, nonetheless.
I should probably state fairly quickly that it is nonsense because McCarthy-Fry would never do anything like that and even if she wanted to, she couldn't. The Treasury is a machine that brooks no human interference.
But it is also nonsense because HMRC, which is owed at least £15m in unpaid taxes (ie our money), is not backing off. The tanks it parked on Pompey's lawn earlier this month might have reversed a little but they are still out front and their guns remain trained on reluctant Pompey owner Balram Chainrai, his numerous predecessors, all recent members of Portsmouth's board and even Andronikou himself.
Administrator Andrew Andronikou is striving to put together a rescue package for Pompey - Photo: PA
Deep down, HMRC knew it had little chance of halting Andronikou before he really started but that does not mean its courtroom aggression on 2 March was pointless machismo. Its concerns about the validity, independence and feasibility of this administration are now indelibly on the record, and the judge's remark about a "shadow" being cast over the whole affair was probably worth the effort on its own.
That aggression also brought significant concessions in the peace talks which started last week and were ratified on Tuesday. The winding-up petition is suspended but HMRC's legal costs will be paid by the administration (an unusual step) and a first meeting of a provisional creditors committee must be held by 26 March.
And there were other small wins. By questioning Chainrai's right to place Portsmouth in administration, the taxman established a timeline for the frantic final days of previous owner Ali Al Faraj's farcical tenure at the Hampshire club. In particular, it shed light on the role played by Al Faraj's lawyer and club director Mark Jacob.
In the interest of readability I will not dwell on the details, but HMRC is very interested to know exactly when Jacob was acting for his putative client Al Faraj, when he was acting for Chainrai and how this potential conflict of interest could be squared with his responsibilities as a director at Portsmouth.
Nobody is accusing Jacob of anything at this point - and he denies any wrongdoing - but he no longer works for the law firm Fuglers or Portsmouth.
Of special concern to HMRC are two significant bits of legal work Jacob did for Chainrai/Portsmouth: the first, a "charge" mortgaging Chainrai's £16.5m loan to Al Faraj against Fratton Park, and the second a "debenture" that broadened Chainrai's security to include all of the club's assets.
The importance of these documents is that they should make the Hong Kong-based investor a "secured" creditor, placing him at the front of the queue, alongside the players, for whatever cash Andronikou can squeeze out of the club.
I say "should" because buried in the subtext of Tuesday's deal between HMRC and Chainrai/Andronikou was some devilish detail: the taxman is reserving the right to challenge Chainrai's secured status ("that may have to be decided by a court at a later date", as Gregory Mitchell QC so expensively put it).
This appears to contradict the acceptance of Chainrai's ability to appoint Andronikou in the first place. But then nothing has been straightforward about Portsmouth for years.
So where does all this leave the club? In the Championship next season, is the short answer.
Andronikou was not in court on Tuesday as he was preparing for battle at Premier League HQ on Wednesday. He is still talking a good game on getting that nine-point penalty waived but in truth it's just a negotiating tactic so he can extract a few concessions of his own. An opening of the transfer window and an advance of next season's parachute payment would be nice.
His search for a buyer will also continue. Much has been made of a possible bid from "Secret Millionaire" Rob Lloyd but much was also made of possible bids from Kiwi investor Victor Cattermole, the Saudi ambassador to Ireland and other unidentified consortia. Andronikou, like Portsmouth's hard-done-by supporters, is still waiting to see the colour of their money.
But progress has been made. Andronikou wasted little time on "cutting to the bone" and the worst fears of Pompey failing to complete the season can now be dismissed.
The shame of it is that the wrong bones felt his knife. Kit men and catering staff were given the boot while others far more culpable than them stayed on the payroll. And that is why I will be holding HMRC to account as well as Andronikou.
Just as US sport failed to deal with doping until government agencies got involved, football won't tackle its debt problem without outside help. By sticking to his guns in this case, the taxman could help football help itself.