Brian Howard believed – only for the alarm bells to deafen two days ahead of that ill-fated 2012-13 League One season.
Having agreed a £4m playing budget with prospective owners Balram Chainrai and Levi Kushnir at their London offices, Michael Appleton enthusiastically drew up a promotion blueprint in the summer of 2012.
The Blues were under the jurisdiction of administrator Trevor Birch, who was in the process of removing all senior players from their wage bill to prevent a liquidation scenario.
In the meantime, Portpin had manoeuvred themselves into the position of preferred bidders, despite having twice previously placed Pompey into administration.
New Blues skipper Howard and 11 team-mates were recruited over the summer, enticed to Fratton Park by Appleton’s ambitious vision.
What unfolded was a tumultuous campaign, condemning Pompey to League Two football – just three years after being in the Premier League and FA Cup final.
‘We were promised a contract on July 1. We ended up signing two days before the first League One game,’ Howard told The News.
‘That’s when the alarm bells started to ring.
‘I was coming out of contract at Reading in the summer of 2012 and my father became ill. I certainly didn’t want to be moving away from where we lived in Eastleigh.
‘Pompey showed an interest, with Michael Appleton telling me a takeover was going through. They wanted me to join, be club captain, to build a team around, be his main guy in the dressing room, with a three-year deal on the table.
‘The talk was about doing a Southampton. Going bang, bang promotion, promotion. That was the plan and I wanted to be part of that.
‘I was aged 29 and this was a huge club, if I could be part of turning this mess around, getting Pompey to where they should be, that’s the perfect scenario.
‘Obviously it was just a dream, because what happened was the complete opposite.
‘Two days before facing Bournemouth, we were in the meeting room upstairs at the training ground and, one-by-one, were called into the office to sign our contracts.
‘Something was wrong, though. Everyone’s contracts had changed from what had been agreed.
‘We didn’t know it was monthly terms until that day we were signing. We’d been led to believe they would be six-month contracts and, when the takeover came in, we’d be given two or three-year deals.
‘That arrangement had been agreed previously, we had signed letters saying so.
‘Meanwhile, having trained and played friendlies for five or six weeks that summer without being paid, we had long been promised that once the contracts were signed, we’d receive pay backdated. This would be to when we arrived at the club for pre-season.
‘Yet when it was in black and white in front of us, it was changed. There would be no backdated pay.
‘If they had said from day dot you wouldn’t be paid until the day you signed, no problem, everyone gets their head around it. It’s more the principle.
‘The biggest issue, though, was being offered month-to-month contracts. If we had signed that and your contract is next up for renewal in a month, by that time it’s outside the transfer window, so you wouldn’t be able to sign for anyone until January 1.
‘Technically, you could play a month for Pompey and then be out of work for four months.
‘I spoke to the PFA, before getting them on a call together with the club and administrators. The argument was, should we sign that day, then the contact must be renewed by the club every month until January.
‘That also included whether you picked up an injury or not. Imagine playing the first 3-4 games, getting to September 2, then suffering an injury – and the club say: “We’re not renewing your deal”.
‘You don’t get your rehab and are stuck at home injured for four months without pay. That wasn’t right.
‘We weren’t being greedy. It was a case of you promised us this, now you’ve now changed it at the 11th hour. It wasn’t a great start.’
As Portpin’s prospective takeover floundered and eventually fell through, they informed an increasingly-exasperated Appleton that his budget would be reduced by a third to £1.5m.
Meanwhile, with the Football League prohibiting the registration of new players, the opening game saw the Blues name nine teenagers in the starting XI for a Capital One Cup clash at Plymouth.
Subsequently, the Blues were granted permission to sign players, prompting a frantic 48 hours in which 12 signings were completed, among them Howard.
Pompey’s league season began with a highly-credible 1-1 draw against Bournemouth, with Izale McLeod netting.
However, behind the scenes, the dressing room was already broken.
Howard added: ‘I spoke to the lads about the contract issues, we needed to stick together, but unfortunately a few went and signed it anyway.
‘I think the deals on the table were better than they could have got anywhere else. They broke rank – and, from day one, that broke the dressing room.
‘We were in the situation together, we were a team, but some, who I won’t name, didn’t stick with us. I think that caused an issue from the start and it kind of rolled on from there.
‘A couple of bits in the contract did get changed, mainly bonuses, but it was more a fact that we could create a siege mentality and say “Okay, we gave it a go lads, at least we’ve all stuck together on this”. But, unfortunately, some broke rank.
‘I was disappointed, really disappointed, with some of the lads' attitudes. I’ve played in promotions and play-off finals, had great FA Cup runs, and they’ve been with lads who stuck together.
‘You’re in training early together, you eat together, you go out to dinner together, you do everything together, But we never ever had that at Pompey – and it was probably something the club needed most at the time.
‘Over the years at Pompey there have been really tight-knit groups of players, it’s a family club, a blue collar city that wants players grafting for their team and doing their bit. It’s so important.
‘We had been sold the dream that the club was getting taken over any day, it was close. But as soon as you lose people in dressing rooms, it causes a big problem.
‘Despite the contracts changing, we’d done our hard work in pre-season and couldn’t walk out. Everyone else had their squads in place and, at that stage, you’d only end up going and sitting on another team’s bench.
‘That’s why I got the lads together and said “Look, it’s not perfect, but we are professionals. Let’s give it a go”.
‘I remember being in Spain for pre-season and speaking to the gaffer every day. It was “We’re close to the takeover, hopefully it’s getting done”. The longer it went on, he felt more and more let down.
‘As players, it got to the point where we just didn’t want to know the latest, it’s not my job, I need to concentrate on getting out on the pitch every day.
‘I don’t want to make too many excuses, but it did have a negative impact, whether it was conscious or not. I think it’s impossible for it not to affect you.’
Appleton walked out on Pompey for Blackpool following a home defeat to Brentford in November 2012.
Howard was attending a birthday meal for his brother when informed of developments through a phone call from newly-appointed caretaker boss Guy Whittingham.
The midfielder himself would last just two further months before released alongside Mustapha Dumbuya, Jon Harley, Lubomir Michalik, Lee Williamson and Luke Rodgers in January 2013 through more cost-cutting measures.
He had made 26 appearances and scored once.
In April 2013, the takeover the players longed for finally arrived, however prospective savior Chainrai had been outmanoeuvred and, following a High Court case, fan ownership was installed.
Howard said: ‘Before Michael Appleton left, I was playing with a hernia and really struggling.
‘I was pulled in and he said: “Look, you’re club captain, we’re in a real mess, just get through to January and have an operation. You need to play”.
‘I played for two-and-a-half months like that and, looking back now, that was my biggest regret. I was trying to help everyone when actually it wasn’t the best decision.
‘It was a case of injections before every game and taking tablets to enable me to train a few times a week. It wasn’t possible to train every day because my hernia would inflame.
‘I should have got the operation earlier, then I could have played in late November and December at a level I should have been. Instead I battled through and struggled, which wasn’t right for me or the team.
‘I remember warming up before games thinking “I’m not going to get through this today”, but gritted my teeth and carried on.
‘In the end, Pompey were cutting the budget even more, while I had interest from other clubs. I spoke to Guy and we felt it best for all if I left at the end of my next monthly deal.
‘Pompey were great with me, they took me for the operation two weeks before my departure, so I could get fit for a new club. I have no hard feelings whatsoever.’
Howard would see out the 2012-13 season with Bristol City, featuring six times, before clinching a move to Bulgarian giants CSKA Sofia in the summer of 2013.
He returned to England with Championship side Birmingham in January 2014, before spells at Oxford United, Eastleigh, Alresford Town, Romsey Town and Whitehawk.
Among those on their books is Marcus Harness, along with ex-Pompey pair Christian Burgess and Ben Close, maintaining strong links with the club he once skippered.
He added: ‘If that takeover had happened with Michael Appleton in charge, considering the players already there and others being added to the group, I firmly believe we would have won promotion straight away.
‘As it was, the takeover didn’t arrive, more and more money problems piled up, while players were in and out every month, with 54 used into total overt the season.
‘I remember finishing doing set-plays in training one Friday and coming back to the dressing room to find Akos Buzsaky emptying his locker into a black big bag.
‘He looked up and said “See you later, lads” and walked off. We never saw him again. They were strange times.
‘I look back with a bit of regret, it could have been a great time. Hopefully Pompey are now on their way back and the people in charge won’t make a mess.
‘I’d like to see the owners back their manager a bit more in the transfer window and push for that top six – which is something we never had the opportunity to achieve.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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