x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hart was not the problem

Paul Hart's sacking by Portsmouth was short-sighted and shows an ingratitude for the thankless task he performed.

Paul Hart gained respect for his uncomplaining attitude, his organisational powers
Paul Hart gained respect for his uncomplaining attitude, his organisational powers

Consider the following facts: the worst start to a top-flight season by any team for 79 years; 20th and last place in the Premier League; an average of roughly one point every two games. On the face of it, it was a straightforward decision when Portsmouth sacked Paul Hart. He departs damned by the numbers. FA Cup winners 18 months ago, Pompey are on course for an ignominious return to the Championship. They have lost 10 of their 13 league games and scored a mere 10 goals. Victories are rare, but Hart has won football's least prestigious contest, the sack race.

But nothing is straightforward at Portsmouth these days. After losing their first seven games, Pompey claimed seven points from the next six. Amid chaos and predictions of calamity, Hart transformed strangers into a team and oversaw an improvement in performances and results. He gained respect for his uncomplaining attitude, his organisational powers and his prowess in rallying a club in crisis.

As many as seven of Hart's first-choice team arrived in the summer and the fact that only two commanded fees is indicative of his limited budget. Five of them came in the space of a few days before the transfer window shut yet, without the benefit of a pre-season together, they have started to combine slickly and defend manfully. For the past two months, Portsmouth have been the superior passing side in most games they have played. Over the entire campaign, they have conceded fewer goals than Liverpool and Everton.

Both merit praise. Virtually an entire team (and a very fine one at that) has left Fratton Park this year: Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in attack; Lassana Diarra, Sean Davis and Niko Kranjcar in midfield; Sol Campbell, Sylvain Distin and Glen Johnson in defence. In several cases, their deputies have gone as well. Hart spent the summer operating with 14 outfield players. He publicly admitted that finishing one place above the relegation zone was his aim. Within football, there was a recognition that it would be tough. Portsmouth's league position was not the product of underachievement or poor management, but financial problems that compelled them to sell their bankable assets.

"We can't continue to be unlucky in games which we have been on top of," said Mark Jacob, an executive director at Fratton Park. But domination and defeat can go hand in hand for a side without goalscorers. Portsmouth sold their two finest, Defoe and Crouch, who have since displayed why managers pay a premium for proven strikers. At Fratton Park cut-price replacements have provided more erratic finishing. In no position are the consequences of a fire-sale more apparent.

Given a backdrop of chronic instability - in Hart's short reign, Portsmouth have had three owners - maintaining a focus on the football has been an achievement in itself. Engendering loyalty from a group of players who could have been deemed cast-offs, misfits or, at worst, mercenaries has been an accomplishment. Managing Jamie O'Hara, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Younes Kaboul to the extent that each has produced the finest form of his career in England is another feat.

None, it appears, have impressed Ali al Faraj, the Saudi businessman who is the latest, but probably not last, owner of Portsmouth. Hart's qualities - dignity, integrity, honesty - have endeared him to many, but not his employer. Others possess more charisma and bigger reputations, but do they want the poisoned chalice Portsmouth provides? Because Hart's successor will have at least seven games with the same, hastily and cheaply assembled group of players before the transfer window reopens, when it is unclear if funds will be available.

As those matches include meetings with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, the chances are that Portsmouth's plight will be more serious before they can tempt any reinforcements to Fratton Park. Before Hart's dismissal, their best hope lay with the unity he had forged and the displays he had coaxed from his players. Both are endangered by his axing. It was a decision that revealed an ignorance of the circumstances at Fratton Park, an ingratitude for the thankless task that he performed and an uncertain grasp of the realities of Portsmouth's predicament. There might not be a solution, but Hart certainly wasn't the problem.