BY BARCLAY BALLARD
The 24th of April marks 10 years since the last match between Portsmouth and Southampton took place in the top-flight of English football. In the decade that’s passed since Portsmouth won 4-1 that day, both teams have experienced their share of ups and downs, but the current situation of the two clubs couldn’t be more different.
Following their historic FA Cup win in 2008, years of mismanagement saw Portsmouth enter administration twice in the space of 24 months before plummeting to League Two, where a fan-owned consortium finally promises some green shoots of recovery.
Southampton, meanwhile, have experienced their own troubles, including a seven year absence from the top-flight. However, a consistent ethos from touchline to boardroom now sees the club challenging for a European place.
At the time of writing, 75 places separate the two teams, demonstrating just how fleeting success can be. However, to understand the contrasting fortunes of these sides, one must look at not only their on-field approach to the game, but also how management and executive staff have shaped their current standings, for good and bad.
For Southampton, their troubles began when on-field failure wasn’t mitigated by sufficient caution from the club’s directors. Relegation from the Premier League in 2005, while not entirely unexpected given Southampton’s limited budget, came after 27 years in the top-flight. This was a club that had become accustomed to dining at English football’s top table, even if they sometimes required some heroics from Matt Le Tissier to do so.
The relegation in itself was a setback or the club, but attempts to spend their way out of the notoriously competitive Championship were unsuccessful. The club spent an estimated £6million on transfers shortly after relegation, and even with the high-profile sales of Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, the club was unable to avoid administration and relegation to League One in 2009.
For Portsmouth, financial issues were also clearly at the heart of their rapid descent down the league structure, but their problems were exacerbated by a club living dangerously beyond its means for some time.
Expensive transfers and high wages may have helped propel the club to an unlikely FA Cup win in 2008, but two years later they too would enter administration with debt estimated to be in excess of £70million.
It would be easy to lay a large portion of the blame for the club’s troubles at the feet of Harry Redknapp, manager of both teams and responsible for a number of big-money deals. Signing the likes of John Utaka and David Nugent at Portsmouth for a combined fee of £13million certainly suggests that spending was at times reckless when he was at the helm.
While Redknapp should accept some blame – something he is reticent to do – he is right to suggest that those in charge of the club’s finances should have had tighter control to prevent the club going into freefall.
Portsmouth’s financial difficulties, when looked at in comparison with Southampton’s, must also recognise the historic differences between the two clubs. In 1978, when Southampton were beginning their 27-year stint in the top-flight, Portsmouth were beginning life in the old Fourth Division. Therefore, to see the club drop to England’s fourth division may be shocking in its rapidity, but it is not entirely without precedent. Bradford City are another ex-Premier League team that also found themselves rooted in the lowest tier of the Football League.
The respective recoveries of the two south coast teams have been achieved through differing methods, but both have – in their own way – been successful. Southampton required outside investment in the shape of new owner Markus Liebherr and chairman Nicola Cortese, but crucially the new owners were not simply concerned with making a quick buck.
Instead, the club has instilled a long-term vision involving technical director Les Reed, the current manager Ronald Koeman and the playing staff right the way down to youth level. This, combined with Southampton’s famed academy has allowed the team to recover from managerial and playing staff losses relatively unscathed.
From the outside, with Portsmouth still in League Two and a promotion push looking unlikely any time soon, it would be easy to assume that the club remains in difficulty. However, in the context of how close Portsmouth came to liquidation, the relative security the club now possesses is a recovery in itself.
In April 2013, the club was purchased by the Portsmouth Supporters Trust, a consortium of more than 2,000 fans, and within 18 months was able to declare itself debt free. Although the club may struggle to challenge for major honours in the near future, Portsmouth fans have arguably won something even greater, the chance to have direct involvement in the running of their beloved club.
Success, and indeed failure, is relative and while the two clubs remain miles apart in terms of league position, both Portsmouth and Southampton can justifiably look forward with renewed optimism.