Portsmouth's manager was recruited to execute an ambitious five-year plan but is now living precariously from day to day
It is Monday morning at the Wellington Sports Ground just outside Eastleigh and Michael Appleton's week so far has been plain sailing. The Portsmouth manager has not been obliged to call his senior players together and inform them that, if they do not rip up their contracts, the club will cease to exist. No prospective owners have had second thoughts over potential budgets or ditched their rescue bids altogether. He has not even had to sign up an entirely new side as an awkward league fixture looms large on the horizon.
So ludicrous has been life at Pompey since Appleton swapped The Hawthorns for Fratton Park around 10 months ago that the fact the sky has not fallen in on this club is cause for celebration. Portsmouth are stumbling along in their third spell in administration, while the saviours in waiting, the Supporters' Trust, formalise a proposal to be scrutinised by the administrator, Trevor Birch. One of the former owners, Balram Chainrai, withdrew his interest but will still have a key role to play in the months ahead as a major creditor and owner of the club's stadium. The position is precarious, the manager's job virtually impossible. But Appleton does not do doom and gloom.
"There have been times when everyone's morale has been as low as a snake's belly," he says. "I'd be driving into work thinking: 'Jesus Christ, I'm going to be faced with a staff who have hit rock bottom.' So I'd use the 'Superman effect', something [the sports psychologist] Bill Beswick told me about. I'd get out of the car and be, 'Bang, this is what we're going to do today, this is how we're going to do it.' If people see me bright and breezy they'll think: 'If he's like that, I'm all right.' Then you get that bubbly atmosphere going.
"Sometimes you just have to put that poker face on. There have been times when I've been frustrated and asked myself if it's all worth it but I pick myself up. You hear 17,000 fans chanting 'Appleton's blue and white army' and the hairs go up on the back of your neck. Sure, you dread the news from the administrator that 'this is it, the end' but all you can do is control what's controllable. And when I speak to other managers, they tell me everything will feel like a doddle after this."
His has been a baptism of fire. Appleton arrived from West Bromwich Albion, where he enjoyed a brief spell as caretaker manager, to embark on a five-year plan aimed at establishing Pompey back in the top flight. He had been seeking to create a legacy – "build an academy, change the training ground … it felt the perfect project". It was a vision shared by the chairman, Vladimir Antonov, but the club's parent company, CSI, slipped into administration. "The five-year plan lasted 10 days," says Appleton. Birch was engaged in February and the inevitable 10-point deduction followed, along with player departures – Appleton travelled to Barnsley with a squad of 12 – and the spirited attempt at Championship survival came to nought.
Cost-cutting measures prevented Appleton sending players for scans on injuries, prompted whip-rounds to pay for food in the canteen and even had the lawnmowers locked up at the training ground. Wages were deferred and the belt-tightening became ever more painful, but it was the summer that really made Pompey's predicament feel unusual. Birch, working initially to Chainrai's instructions, sought to offload the senior players and their onerous contracts. When his efforts foundered, it was left to the manager to encourage his best personnel, senior players with families and commitments, to leave.
"Management should be about explaining to players they are not playing, not calling them into an office to tell them they have to leave," he says. "But I had to be blunt: 'Look, I don't want you to leave but you have to leave. You'll either get this compromise amount or nothing. Take a hit on what you're owed here and earn a living at another club. Some of my staff won't get that opportunity.' I had to be straight with them."
The honesty paid off and the decks were cleared, leaving the coach Ashley Westwood and a youth-team squad that exited the Capital One Cup at Plymouth . It was only on Thursday that the Football League, encouraged by the Supporters' Trust takeover bid, sanctioned Appleton to sign a new squad of players on short-term deals, with 10 joining on Thursday and another four on loan 24 hours before Bournemouth visited Fratton Park for the start of the League One campaign. . "We'd identified 20 players I could work with under the budget I'd been given but, as things dragged on without an owner, and particularly when that proposed budget was cut (by Chainrai), they became anxious. I maybe lost 15 of them. But we'd done our homework and other other options, and I sold them the club."
"God knows how I convinced them to come," says AppletonAn entire side of debutants – players who have tasted life at higher levels, such as Brian Howard, Izale McLeod, Jon Harley and Lee Williamson – were thrust together overnightand drew 1-1 with the Cherries.
This is the new Pompey. Where last year the club operated on an annual wage bill of £13m, now the figure is nearer 15% of that. "We'll have 20 players who earn, combined, what we were giving one player last year," says the manager, a reflection of the £36,000-a-week that was being paid to Tal Ben Haim. His budget is the equivalent of a side in the bottom five of League One, which neatly reflects the 2008 FA Cup winners' fall from grace.
They take on Colchester United on Tuesday braced for a difficult task. "Any injuries now and it will be a farce," says Appleton – as if things had not reached that state of affairs already. "But this remains a fantastic club. It just needs someone to show it a bit of love." Until someone does, in Appleton Pompey trust.