Eastern Road Debrief: Shots Across The Bow – The Budgetary Civil War Looms

By Ryan Stillwell

Three months have passed in the 21/22 season, and the football is not the only talking point on Portsea Island. This is generally an indicator that things aren’t going so well.

Unfortunately, such talk is justified in the midst of what has been a clown show of a campaign so far. Various elements amalgamate into that assessment.

Results/performances on the pitch, the matchday experience at Fratton Park, the communication capacity of the club, and the general progress of the club have all been cited as not good enough. It’s highly disconcerting considering there are still thirty league games to go.

Over recent weeks and months, the first of a series of veiled fingers have been subtly pointed from within the club regarding the wholly underwhelming start to the season that Portsmouth have made. Currently 14th in the League One table, enduring a run of two wins from fifteen games overall, the sense of frustration has permeated all levels of the club – from fans to players to coaching staff to hierarchy.

One of the key issues is that there is no general consensus on where the issue lies. In order to resolve a problem, you first need to acknowledge that the problem exists. Depending on which figure you listen to at the club, will shift the location of the fault. Putting all of the comments together, it would appear that a secret conflict is taking place in PO4.

The Timeline

It starts off with Danny Cowley, who in June first hinted that the budget allocated to fill the large void that opened up in the wake of the summer exodus at the club, would leave him with a considerable challenge. That challenge was exacerbated with the truth that two-thirds of the current playing budget is tied up against the third of the squad that remained, which was revealed by Andy Cullen during the September edition of the Tony Goodall Fans Conference.

This left Cowley with only one-third of the budget available to sign roughly two-thirds of a squad, especially when high earners such as Michael Jacobs and Ellis Harrison saw their respective moves collapse late in the window.

As results worsened, and the position in the table began to plummet from 1st, to 5th, to 10th, to 15th, eventually all the way down to 17th, a unified approach was needed to assure fans that everybody was singing from the same hymn sheet as they sought to repair their damaged start. Instead, the spin began, and several different angles of the truth became apparent.

The first instance of this was when CEO Andy Cullen revealed that the club had overspent on their budget for the summer, implying that the club went beyond their agreed original wage capacity to give the head coach as close to the squad they felt he needed in order to be competitive this season. In other words, he has had the necessary resources to put up a better fight than currently displayed.

Michael Eisner would then break his silence over the budget issues in his annual PST AGM video. Several notable snippets from that video include the owner labelling the football as “depressing”, which in fairness has been hard to argue with. He also stated that the budget was higher, that Cowley was being supported, and it’s more of how that investment comes together.

Buried behind the release of that video, was an October edition of the Tony Goodall Fans Conference. The minutes took eight days to be released to the public, following reports of some very unsavoury moments in the meeting. These moments were allegedly the focal point of several revised versions of the minutes, with different parties wanting that exchange portrayed in far different ways in the final version. In the meeting itself, Cullen admitted that his head coach might need between two and three windows to really get the squad he wanted, despite also citing budget overspend.

Cowley would return fire in the same month, claiming that the club “couldn’t afford to make mistakes” which implies a translation of “we didn’t have the money to bring a player that doesn’t work out for us, and then go out and get another one”. He further down claims that much of the budget was taken up in other areas, limiting his movement in the market.

At this point, the waters are incredibly muddy, the air is foggy, and nothing seems clear at all in this PR tug-of-war. One thing that is clear, is that some of Cowley’s signings have not cut an ounce of the mustard. To date, the scepticism surrounds the loan signings of George Hirst, Miguel Azeez, and Gassan Ahadme. The usefulness of Hirst, reportedly both a high earner and somebody that the club chased to sign, at this time has to go down as one of the poorer signings in recent memory. The accountability for that would fall fairly at the feet of Cowley. It’s even to the point that he has admitted exploring sending back some of his own signings as he seeks to hit a reset button in January, with players like Azeez, Hirst, and Ahadme rarely seeing the playing surface.

A series of injuries hasn’t helped the club this season. With long-and-short-term injuries suffered to Jayden Reid, Liam Vincent, Connor Ogilvie, Clark Robertson, Paul Downing, and Ellis Harrison, the capacity to rotate an ailing and failing squad around in order to keep competition in the squad has been greatly reduced, irrespective of the overall quality of depth. In this department, Pompey’s problems worsened with the news that Ryan Tunnicliffe will need to see a specialist following a muscle tear injury suffered in the victory over Bolton.

On the back of this, the head coach referenced the budget once again, citing in his own words “everyone knows we’ve had a small amount of the budget to work with this summer, so couldn’t afford to go with a big squad and haven’t quite got the quality we need”. This is potentially as open as either side has been in their claims over the budget, Cowley outright stating that it’s common knowledge he has had to work with heavily limited resources, and the squad has suffered as a result.

The Conclusion

All of these articles, claims, and veiled statements allocating accountability for the most part fade into the ether amid the backdrop of constant football. However, a simple collation of these various articles/clips paints a very messy picture. The communication from the club has been troublesome at best over a number of areas in recent times, yet once the veil has been pierced of this particular ongoing drama, this is not a unified camp in its assessment of finances, which is not good. The ERD is of the opinion that no singular accountable party, rather that critical errors are being made at multiple levels within the club, which is arguably worse.

Splicing all of these thoughts together as one voice, the following statement is the result:

“We at the club had a very limited, substantially increased budget during the summer; which presented the huge challenge of signing roughly fifteen players with limited room to manoeuvre without mistakes, while overspending to ensure we had the resources to sign an entire playoff-worthy squad.

Overall, we have a squad that should be competing among the better sides in the division; but we’re a small, limited squad because of the budget, and we need multiple windows to repair and change this squad with elements from both previous and current managers needing to leave.”

If that was a statement released by the club in full regarding its financial playing structure for the season, it would be laughed off as disorganised chaos. What’s more likely is that there is one single figure that all parties involved are referring to; but are in total disarray in regard to that figure’s true value in terms of how it represents this club’s capacity to finish within the top eight, challenging for at least a playoff spot.

The ERD has stated since June that this season will be one of transition, the money-making deadwood is to be cleared out in 2022 (either in January or May) allowing a near-full wage budget for Danny Cowley and co. to launch an assault upon this division in the 22/23 season, while wading through the problems of this season. That doesn’t seem to be the party line during the early part of this season, as Cowley supposedly has had what he needs to compete in the here and now.

The playing squad has been criticised so far for lacking an identity, a foundation of what they’re about in games. It’s all a very nebulous affair, and the same appears to be true off the pitch. Instead of a unified approach with all parties pulling together for the common goal, what the fans have been subjected to is the head coach and the board arguing indirectly between each other via the medium of the press.

The trust has been shaken in the operation of this football club both at boardroom level and pitch-side. This semi-regular back-and-forth does nothing to allay that distrust. One thing however is true beyond all doubt: This club needs January to come around quickly. There is just one problem with that: January is still eleven league games away. Harmonious times in PO4.

Photo: Daniel Chesterton

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