For Brian Howard, life on and off the field of play at Pompey became uncomfortable all too quickly.
One of a whole team of players signed by Michael Appleton on the eve of the 2012-13 League One season with the club in financial meltdown, the midfielder had been given reason to be optimistic that good times were just around the corner at Fratton Park.
Promised the captaincy by Appleton and expecting a long-term contract to follow serious investment at the Blues, Howard soon found himself placed in an impossible situation when the money failed to arrive and he suffered a hernia injury.
In need of an operation but living off month-to-month contracts, the troubled skipper couldn’t afford not to play through the pain – taking a series of tablets both before games and in the changing room at half-time.
Continued uncertainty at the club, heightened by Appleton’s exit to Blackpool, gradually spiralled into Pompey’s worst-ever run of results.
But by the time the beleagured Blues, threatened with liquidation, had ended an unwanted club-record 23-game winless run in March 2013, Howard was long gone.
One of many forced out of Fratton in the January transfer window by the cash-strapped club’s insistance that players take further pay cuts, Howard made an impromptu yet overdue visit to the operating theatre.
Speaking to the Sports Mail following his retirement from football earlier this month at the age of 32, the man who wore the captain’s armband in arguably the bleakest period of Pompey’s existence reflects on an ‘unhealthy’ and ‘calamitous’ stay at PO4.
Howard said: ‘Leaving Reading, living down on the south coast and training in Eastleigh, location-wise it (Pompey) was a great opportunity.
‘I spoke to the manager Michael Appleton who was told that the club was going to get bought out and all was going to be good.
‘He was going to build a team around me and make me captain and I thought: “That sounds great.”
‘It’s a massive club with great support, everything fit the bill.
‘But then quickly it all started to get dragged out – the buyers were messing around and the investment never came.
‘It all went downhill after a bright start.’
The early warning signs were there when the Blues’ youth team was forced to start the season in a League Cup defeat at Plymouth.
Indeed, Pompey’s League One opener against eventual promotion-winners Bournemouth saw Howard skipper an entire team of debutants who had signed one-month contracts the day before the game.
He said: ‘We were told and led to believe that investment was coming, so we all signed pre-contract agreements for two and three-year contracts.
‘Obviously that investment never came and it became a point where everyone was on month-to-month contracts.
‘It was difficult, the atmosphere was quiet in the changing room.
‘There was such a high turnover of players that in the morning you never knew who was going to be arriving or leaving.
‘I remember one time Akos Buzsaky trained on a Friday, was left out of the team and we went in the dressing room after and his locker was empty.
‘We saw him walking to his car with a bin bag to never see him again, it was bizarre.
‘It was a crazy time and not healthy for a football club of that magnitude.’
Despite all of the off-the-field concerns, Pompey made a solid start to the campaign, winning five, losing five and drawing three of their first 13 league games.
Penalty shootout success in the Football League Trophy over Bournemouth, following their opening-day draw with the Cherries, gave notice to the ability within the Blues’ ranks – not least Howard himself, who scored a stunning goal at Fratton Park in front of the Sky TV cameras.
He said: ‘That was my highlight, scoring that goal and playing particularly well in that game.
‘I also notched a penalty in the shootout against a Bournemouth team who went on to win promotion from the league.
‘In the opening game of the season, we were 1-0 up but they scored a late equaliser.
‘That was all down to us being chucked together the day before.
‘Our two centre-halves turned up that morning and got chucked in.
‘It was calamitous really – it was difficult for the manager who had his hands tied behind his back.’
Howard was to endure his own difficulties, though, first from 12 yards out, when he squandered two penalties in succession to surrender spot-kick responsibilities for the Blues.
Misses against Scunthorpe and MK Dons in the space of two weeks were his first and second of an impressive career.
Most frustratingly of all, though, was a hernia injury which arrived around the time Pompey’s poor run of results began.
Howard said: ‘They were the first two and the only two that I missed in my professional career.
‘I had my opportunity – the manager wanted me to continue but I felt it was fair to the strikers at the club that I passed that on.
‘But it was very disappointing to miss two in a week when I had such a good record before.
‘It was around that time I picked up a hernia injury which needed operating on.
‘But because we had such a small squad and we were on month-to-month contracts, I couldn’t afford to not play.
‘I was taking five or six tablets before the game and five to six tablets at half-time to get me through. I wasn’t training, was on painkillers and could hardly walk.
‘You can kind of work out when I picked up that injury because my form dipped and I think when my form dipped the whole team did.’
Howard and Pompey’s problems worsened when Appleton left for Blackpool, three games into a 23-game winless run as club legends Guy Whittingham and Andy Awford stepped into the breach.
Howard said: ‘We never really knew what was going on.
‘When Michael was there he came in every Monday morning, put everything back to the players, was very strong and stood by us all.
‘Then, when Guy and Andy came in it was difficult for them because they were such huge fans favourites who were trying their hardest to salvage a situtation that was unhealthy for everybody.
‘The losses hurt us all an awful lot and once you get on that losing run, it becomes difficult.
‘On top of that, we then found out that unless we were willing to take pay cuts then we wouldn’t be offered new contracts to stay after the January window.
‘That was when I had to bite the bullet and get my operation because I knew I would need to find a new club.
‘Again, that was disappointing because I wanted to be at Pompey for the long haul.
‘I dedicated myself to the club and the supporters and wanted to get it back to where it should be.’
Relegated Pompey were saved from liquidation by the Supporters’ Trust at the end of the season but little more than two years on, Howard has hung up his boots.
Unable to settle elsewhere, the man who began this season at National League side Eastleigh has opted to pursue a career in sports management with Cassius Sports.
Howard said: ‘I had offers of contracts this summer to play in League One and League Two but it was to move back up north and at this time in my life, my family are happy here in the New Forest.
‘I just felt it was time to start the next part of my career – I am now classed as an agent which is a bit of a black word in football.
‘I prefer to call it personal sports management as I am here to use my experience to guide the players through all their mistakes.
‘I have also set up another company with a family member called MTA Live which trades stocks, shares and Forex which is going really well, so I am being kept very busy after football!’
BRIAN HOWARD ON...
...PLAYING FOR ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND
I played for England from under-15s to under-20s.
But when I was at Barnsley, I got called up by George Burley to play for Scotland against Croatia.
I was in the squad but a couple of days before I was set to join up, I had a phone call saying that Fifa had pulled me out.
Because I had played in European and World competitions for England at youth level, I couldn’t swap nationalities.
Since then, the rules have changed which is great but wasn’t ideal for me!
My family is Scottish so everyone would have been very proud for me to represent Scotland.
You can look at it and feel hard done by but I was also very proud to represent England from the age of 15 to 20.
Chelsea offered me a one-year deal after I left Southampton as a youngster.
I trained with them for a while but that summer I went to the Toulon tournament with England under-20s, and they were taken over by Roman Abramovich who then signed Joe Cole and Seba Veron.
For the right reasons, I chose Swindon.
Most people remember me for my winning goal for Barnsley in the FA Cup at Liverpool.
But I ended up scoring 15 goals from midfield that year in the Championship and was voted as both the midfielder of the year and in the Championship team of the year.
To be voted that by all of my fellow professionals is definitely up there for me.