Ailing Pompey keen to savour final moment
Whatever happens in Saturday's FA Cup final against Chelsea, it will not be the end of the world for Portsmouth Football Club or its fans. As you probably already know, they have been experiencing the football equivalent of an apocalypse at Fratton Park for most of the season anyhow.
But for most of Pompey's players and staff, the weekend trip to Wembley is as far forward as they can look. It is only their supporters and, I daresay, most of the club's creditors who are considering a future any more long-term than that. Not that many of them can do so with much confidence.
The off-field circumstances make for a unique build-up to the game in Cup final week and are far removed from Portsmouth's preparations the last time they were on this stage.
Ahead of their victory over Cardiff City in 2008, I travelled to the club's training ground for their pre-final media day to hear then manager Harry Redknapp talk about the dazzling future that lay ahead. There was talk of revolutionary new stadiums and plans for a new training facility. Harry being Harry, there was also lots of chat about plenty of new players being on the way, too.
Portsmouth had just finished eighth in the Premier League and had been in contention for fifth place until the final weeks of the season. Now their expensively assembled and star-studded squad was expected to brush the Bluebirds aside to lift the trophy for the first time since 1939 and qualify for Europe. Players were even asked questions about whether they could go on to challenge for the top four in the following campaign. Anything seemed possible. Looking back, I suppose we were all taken in.
Fast forward to this week's media day. Just about the only thing that remains the same is the setting. The Wellington Sports Ground is a shabby reminder of how hardly any of Portsmouth's £135m-plus debt is due to investment in the club's infrastructure. They still hire the facility from the nearby King Edward VI school, to whom they owe the small matter of £41,714.01.
Most of those big-name players of 2008 had departed long before this season - a campaign that saw four different owners, unpaid wages, transfer embargoes, administration, points deduction and, finally, relegation the day before they beat Redknapp's current team Tottenham to reach the final. There is definitely no European adventure to look forward to either, while any mention of a new stadium now would have been something of a cruel joke.
True, current boss Avram Grant was also asked questions about the future, but they were not along the lines of whether the club can go onwards on and upwards, more whether it can continue at all and whether he will be around to see it.
Like everyone else, he is not sure of either. "I love this club and I want to stay but I don't want a season like this one again," the former Chelsea manager told the assembled media. "I'm not worried about my future and I don't think about it. The future of the club is the most important thing. Who knows what will happen to Portsmouth next season."
It is the same for the players I spoke to, Hayden Mullins and David James, neither of whom know whether they will be here next week, let alone in August. No wonder they can only focus on Saturday's match.
"We all know it could be our last game for the club," Mullins told me. "You read in the papers that everyone is for sale but the administrator has just told us to wait until after the final to discuss our future."
Mullins, 31, has two years left on his current deal and is apparently up for grabs for £1m if the contents of a fax reportedly sent to other clubs at the end of April by Pompey's administrator Andrew Andronikou are true.
"I don't know what to believe," added Mullins, who is not even certain of a starting place on Saturday but is used to Cup final heartache after missing West Ham's final against Liverpool in 2006 through suspension. "I was a kid at Crystal Palace when they went into administration in 1998 but I've never seen anything like this. Just when you think things can't get any worse, the debt gets bigger every week.
"When I came here in January 2009, I thought I was signing for a good club that wanted to move forward. When I signed, I was told we would be buying more players. It's not only broken promises to me, it's to the manager and fans.
"I don't understand why people have come and bought the club without having any money to do anything with it. It has been difficult to concentrate on football when people are losing their jobs."
Led by James, who was listed as a free transfer on the infamous fax and says he will begin talks over his own future next week, Mullins and the rest of the Pompey players stepped in when 85 employees were made redundant in March, striking a deal to save the jobs of four staff, including training ground manager Tug Wilson.
But that arrangement only lasts until the end of this month, as the players paying Wilson's £60-a-day wage are not guaranteed to be around any longer than that. Wilson remains defiantly upbeat and even jokes that he could still be watching Premier League football next season. "I'm not worried about my future," he told me. "The same thing happens to a lot of people who lose their jobs. The administrator is going to review things then but if I'm not kept on, I'm a Blackpool fan and hopefully I'll get a season ticket with them."
Pompey fans don't really have that option, unfortunately. The reality is that they are stuck with the wreckage of their club long after Saturday has come and gone, which is probably why their return to Wembley means such a lot to them. Their journey there has shown the spirit of the club is still alive, if little else remains.
People may rightly question whether neutrals should cheer on a bankrupt club in the final of our national game's most famous knockout competition but Pompey's supporters are blameless. If this is to be their last hurrah, then they have my backing, too.
The Cup will be special to Chelsea fans, too, on Saturday as the Blues target their first Double. But the tournament has taken on added significance for Pompey followers all season. After all, they have had precious little else to cheer.
Matt Rogers, 34, a lifelong fan and season ticket holder, told me: "A lot of supporters have become numb to what's been going on off the field. It's gone on so long now.
"The Cup has given us something to focus on. It started with the Southampton tie in the fifth round. At the time, that was the only game that mattered in the whole season. We won that and the next one, too. For the semi-final against Spurs, my feelings were the same as they are now - just to enjoy the occasion. Saturday will be a fantastic day and when I am there I won't be thinking about what will happen next.
"In 2008, the game itself really meant something because we were favourites and it was our big chance to win a trophy. But to be honest, the result on Saturday is almost irrelevant. We need a buyer and the game might just be a showcase for us. If people are sitting watching and thinking 'there is something about that club', that might persuade them to get involved."
I think Rogers, who is on the committee of the Portsmouth Supporters Club and runs their website, has a point. It would be an incredible story if Grant does steer Pompey to victory over his old club. But the real fairytale ending would be for Portsmouth fans to see their club back on a solid footing again.
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