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Sep 3, 2009

Quantity over quality

So here is a revolutionary idea. Take a threadbare Premier League squad, transform it within the space of a week and attempt to compete in a division many believe is the best in the world. Were it a product of planning, it is the sort of experiment that would be conducted under the guise of reality television. As it is an accident of timing, such malign motives cannot be detected.

Events at Fratton Park are noteworthy nonetheless. At one stage, Paul Hart had as few as 14 senior outfield players. Now the Portsmouth manager has a considerable collection, many of whom are strangers to their colleagues, charged with the job of keeping the club in the Premier League. There is a temptation to add a message of good luck; Hart will need it.

To recap, Portsmouth spent a summer in limbo, followed by a few days frantically signing whoever was available before the transfer window slammed shut. One owner, Alexandre Gaydamak, planned to sell to another, Sulaiman al Fahim, at the end of May. The deal was eventually completed at the end of August, by which time the chief executive, Peter Storrie, had become the public face of a rival bid.

An eventful time in Portsmouth's often turbulent history has taken another turn for the strange. At the time, Milan Mandaric appeared an unusual owner. Compared to Gaydamak, however, the Serb seemed rather less mysterious. And pitted against Al Fahim, whose decision to wear a replica shirt and then sit among the paying fans had unfortunate echoes of Mike Ashley, Gaydamak now seems somewhat normal.

The businessman from the UAE and the Lancashire-born coach make an odd pair. Al Fahim seems to relish the spotlight, Hart would prefer to shrink away from it. One is a property developer whose wealth and credentials have been questioned, the other is the son of a player and manager with an authenticity that is the product of almost four decades' experience in the game. The owner appears a romantic, the manager is a realist.

Portsmouth's recent past can feel hallucinatory. They finished eighth and won the FA Cup less than 16 months ago. The debts incurred while living the dream, to borrow Peter Ridsdale's phrase, resulted in a fire sale of rare proportions: Sulley Muntari, Pedro Mendes, Lassana Diarra, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch left. Now Sylvain Distin and Niko Kranjcar have followed the well-trodden path to the exit door this week, presumably demoralised by the disbandment of such a hugely accomplished side.

That was Portsmouth's finest team for half a century. Now, of those who were involved regularly, just David James, Hermann Hreidarsson, Papa Bouba Diop, John Utaka and Kanu remain. And Utaka, the only one of that quintet under 30, has underachieved at Fratton Park.

Before the season began, Hart signed comparatively well considering the lack of funds available to him; solid professionals were acquired without a fee and the loan striker Frederic Piquionne's speed suggests he will provide a threat. The past week has brought the first expenditure since January, but the picture has no greater clarity.

As players continue to trade Fratton Park for White Hart Lane and vice-versa, Portsmouth spent £4m on Kevin-Prince Boateng and borrowed Jamie O'Hara. Observers of Tottenham in the past couple of years could be forgiven for wondering if the English midfielder was worth it, while the German, at best, merited a loan deal. In a squad that was short of defenders, wingers and strikers, the first big-money recruit was a player who operates in the one outfield position where Portsmouth possessed cover. He appears an unlikely choice for the pragmatic Hart.

Other arrivals were, understandably, the last ones left on the shelves after more desirable purchases had been snapped up in this special edition of Supermarket Sweep. The worrying aspect is that possible strugglers had deemed some surplus to requirements: Wigan manager Roberto Martinez was quick to dispose of Michael Brown just as the earlier addition Aaron Mokoena had conspicuously failed to impress Sam Allardyce at Blackburn.

Nor is it especially auspicious that Tal Ben-Haim passed through Chelsea, Manchester City and Sunderland without making a positive impact, or that Tommy Smith's two previous seasons in the Premier League culminated in relegation. Mike Williamson, at £3m, was plying his trade in League Two eight months ago and Aruna Dindane and Hassan Yebda are equally untried in the Premier League, though both have a grounding in international football.

Then there are Spurs' cast-offs. In a part-exchange of players and identity over the past four years, Harry Redknapp spared Portsmouth from relegation with the wholesale importing of Tottenham players. He is now challenging at the top of the table with a contingent of former Pompey employees while his old club have turned to old Spurs in a bid to avert the drop.

That eight signings have been made within five days at least provides a guarantee of quantity, if not quality. When the new-look squad convenes in full after the international break, there is a case for making each player train wearing his first-team shirt; with name and number on his back, team-mates might then discover who they are before next Saturday's game with Bolton.

The game is already assuming vital proportions for the two pointless Premier League teams. For both, it is effectively a 34-game season. They already trail potential relegation rivals Burnley by six points and Wolves, Birmingham and Hull by four apiece. At least Bolton's plight offers Portsmouth an opportunity, but experiments, especially those conducted at great haste, have a tendency to prove rather dangerous.

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