5 December 2009 ~ With only seven points from twice as many fixtures, Portsmouth welcome Burnley to Fratton Park this afternoon desperately needing a win. They have lost their last five matches – including their midweek exit from the League Cup – and are steadily sliding towards the Championship. As unthinkable as it sounds, however, the players may have more pressing concerns than their dire run of form. The arrival of a new owner, Saudi businessman Ali al-Faraj, and new manager Avram Grant was supposed to signal an upturn in the club's fortunes. But for the second time in the past three months players have not received their wages on time.
Only last week Grant seemed positive that the new regime would provide funds for new players in January: "The new owners want to give money to buy new players because they know this squad was put together at the last moment. Now is the time to improve the team." But before Portsmouth can buy in January they must circumnavigate their transfer embargo. The club were banned from signing new players earlier in the season after they failed to pay installments on transfer fees.
The club's previous failure to pay up led to Al-Faraj taking the club over from the previous owner, fellow Saudi Sulaiman al-Fahim. Where the club go from now is unclear.
Contrary to Grant's intimation that funds will be available in January, Portsmouth's chairman Sulaiman Al-Fahim has now cast doubt on the club's ability to pay their debts. Al-Fahim, the club's former owner, had backed Al-Faraj to lift the embargo but has now altered his view. "I would like to apologise for saying publicly last month that I was confident the transfer embargo would be lifted. I said this in good faith. As the embargo is still in place, it seems there is still an ongoing issue. Avram Grant needs this situation clarified one way or another as we are now less than a month away from the January transfer window."
Portsmouth have claimed they will pay their players by the end of the coming week but their latest cash crisis shows how perilous the club's finances have become. If wages are late by more than two weeks players have the right to terminate their contracts. David James was aware of this ruling back in September and has since spoken of the turmoil he faced in keeping it to himself. "In the midst of the wages chaos there was a moment where the players came together and wondered: 'Just what are we dealing with here?' Privately, I had been told about a ruling that if a club do not pay wages within two weeks of them being due you can terminate your contract. I sat in a meeting with the other players, armed with that knowledge and wondered whether to share it. Things were so bad at that point that I worried that if I told the lads about it they might think 'sod it, this is the perfect excuse to leave'."
Talk of players terminating their contracts might seem reactionary but the excessive wages that clubs pay are crippling finances throughout the leagues. Gordon Taylor, the PFA chief executive, argued yesterday that while financial difficulties are understandable in the lower divisions, Premier League clubs should generate enough revenue to turn healthy profits. “You can understand much better problems in the Football League and lower down – Chester City, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Watford,” he said. “But there can’t be any good reason in the Premier League with the money they enjoy from television income alone, never mind sponsorship. That is what life is about in football, paying the wages of the players."
Despite what Taylor believes, Portsmouth are simply not making enough money to support the £1.8 million they pay to players in wages every month. Everton – who have a stadium twice the size of Fratton Park – finished fifth in the League, reached the FA Cup final and played in the UEFA Cup in the 2008-09 season but still made operating losses of £6.7m. Wage structures are bloated and ready to burst even in the highest reaches of English football. Portsmouth's players are every bit as liable as their counterparts in the lower leagues.
At least one Portsmouth player at today's game will not have to concern himself with economics. David Nugent, who is currently on loan at Burnley, will watch the match from the stands. The loan arrangement between the two clubs stipulate that he cannot play against his parent club. No doubt Nugent would like to show Portsmouth's new boss what he can do, but he won't be too dismayed – his loan terms also require that Burnley pay his wages.