There was a certain inevitability about it.” And with these words, Mark Jacob, executive director of Portsmouth, encapsulated everything that is crass and short-sighted about football management in the Premier League era.
He was talking about the defeat of his team at Stoke City last Sunday, but he might as well have been summing up the decision-making process that led to the dismissal of Paul Hart, the coach. Portsmouth are bottom of the league with seven points from 13 matches, but there is a reason for this and it is not solely Hart’s doing. The previous owner over-stretched the club’s finances in return for success and now it is payback time. This season, Portsmouth have owed money all over town and at one time were struggling to pay the wages of the staff that remained. Every good player has been sold, almost all of the mediocre ones and a sprinkling of the rotten ones, too.
Harry Redknapp, who is a talented manager, saw what was coming and jumped ship to Tottenham Hotspur and whoever his successor was he would have struggled with the number of departures.
The financial fall-out did for Tony Adams and now it has done for Hart. Avram Grant, the director of football, has been mentioned as a potential successor but he would be mad to take the job. Better to direct football at Fratton Park than to attempt managing it; the present predicament is beyond control.
The inevitability here was that Hart, who had the thankless job of holding the club together through turmoil on and off the field, should be the first one out of the door once there was a hint of stability.
Peter Storrie, the chief executive, is embroiled in a court case over tax evasion, but the club are standing by him. Sulaiman al-Fahim was going to rescue Portsmouth from financial oblivion until he was taken mysteriously potless when the moment of truth arrived, yet he still gets seats in the directors’ box.
Grant’s position would appear to be a meaningless extravagance considering Portsmouth have conducted a glorified fire sale of the first team and all the best young talent on the south coast is snapped up by Southampton, who have a vastly superior academy system.
Yet it is Hart who is made the scapegoat, because the board feels he should have done better. Incredibly, Jacob talked of planning for the long term. He did not want a knee-jerk appointment, he said. No, it’s all about coolness and calculation at Fratton Park these days.
“If the fans chant ‘sack the manager’, they think about sacking the manager,” David Pleat once told me. “If they chant ‘sack the board’, they definitely sack the manager.” This is what has happened at Portsmouth. A succession of useless owners have plunged the club into crisis and the current ones have no clue how to turn it around, so they take the easy way out to make it look as if they have a plan. Jacobs is right: there was inevitability about it. Depressing inevitability, in fact.