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Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Portsmouth set to get influx of cash from Russian investor


LONDON -- Imagine you won the lottery and suddenly had wealth beyond your wildest dreams.

Christopher Davies

What would you do?

Perhaps give up work . . . buy a bigger house . . . a top of the range car . . . invest for your family's welfare . . . many things spring to mind.

One of them would probably not be to buy half of Portsmouth Football Club, which has one of the worst grounds in the Premiership, and is battling against relegation.

When Roman Abramovich rode into town the Russian decided to buy Chelsea.

The Russians are now on the South coast and the suspicion is that more will arrive as the old Soviet Union's new millionaires look for ways to invest their cash.

While an underachieving club, Chelsea was established in the Premiership and had the potential to challenge for honors.

Portsmouth's ambitions are more survival than success, yet Alexandre Gaydamak, the 30-year-old businessman son of a Russian billionaire known to his friends as Sacha, is to become joint-owner of the club alongside Serbian chairman Milan Mandaric.

Roman II, as he has inevitably been tagged, is rumored to be ready to make £100 million available to manager Harry Redknapp for new signings.

Two questions spring to mind.

Why Portsmouth?

And you can have all the money in the world, but which top players are going to join a struggling Premiership club?

Gaydamak seems to be a football fanatic, though, there are billions of those around the globe.

As cynicism is an obligatory part of football life few would totally accept, "I love the English game and want to be involved in it," as the reason to jump on board a sinking Premiership ship.

Just as Abramovich keeps a lower profile than Howard Hughes did -- he has never done an interview since taking over Chelsea three years ago -- little is known about the younger Gaydamak, apart from the fact that he is based in London and has Russian and French citizenship.

His father, Arcadi, is also media shy, though the 53-year-old, who left Russia when he was 20 for Israel, before moving to France where he made his fortune with a trade-brokering company which allowed him to make significant contacts with French businessmen.

In 2000, he was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by Paris magistrates investigating alleged arms-for-oil deal with Angola in the early 1990s, though he denied any wrongdoing, claiming he worked on behalf of the French and Angolan governments.

Arcadi, who holds four passports -- Russian, Israeli, Canadian and Angolan -- is reportedly driven around Moscow, where he has lived since 2002, in a Bentley with Angolan diplomatic number plates.

In 2005, he became proprietor of the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper, while last September he bought leading Israeli side Beitar Jerusalem.

Gaydamak junior's involvement in Portsmouth is apparently a business investment which raises football hackles, but the days of a local wealthy fan simply plowing money into his club have gone.

A Russian and a Serb may seem an unlikely partnership for a Premiership club, though in 10 years, half of English football's elite league could be foreign-owned.

FREDDY SHEPHERD, the Newcastle chairman, held crisis talks with manager Graeme Souness a couple of days ago in the wake of two wins from nine games.

A season that promised much is going nowhere and defeat by League Two struggler Mansfield in the F.A. Cup third round on Saturday would increase the pressure on Shepherd to fire Souness.

That would be a popular move by the unpopular chairman -- it is difficult to know which is the more disliked on Tyneside, Shepherd or Souness.

Of course, chairman do not sack themselves, though the way Shepherd has presided over the club in the past couple of years would probably see him removed in another industry.

Having said he would never fire Sir Bobby Robson, Shepherd gave the manager the red card soon after the start of 2004-05 season, and, after finishing in the top five for successive seasons, Newcastle ended its first under Souness in 14th place.

"Let me make something perfectly clear -- there's no chance of me resigning, no matter what happens," said Souness, which was hardly a surprise.

Managers prefer to be sacked rather than walk away so they receive a generous payoff.

Shepherd has released funds of around £50 million to Souness since his appointment 16 months ago and, understandably, expected more than the club's current mid-table position.

There are also concerns about the number of injuries Newcastle has -- Michael Owen, Emre, Kieron Dyer, Scott Parker, Stephen Taylor, Stephen Carr, Craig Moore and Shola Ameobi are missing for the visit of Mansfield.

While all clubs have injuries, questions are being asked why Newcastle have so many.

Is there something wrong with the training or is it just an unfortunate coincidence?

It has not helped Souness' cause that he is not speaking to the Newcastle Chronicle after Alan Oliver, the newspaper's veteran and respected football correspondent, unfairly (in the manager's view) criticized a recent performance.

Most of the Newcastle faithful would agree with Oliver, but that seems to have been overlooked by Souness.

"I don't think I've done anything wrong," said Souness who may struggle to find a seconder for that outside of his coaching staff. "I know that I've brought some very good players to this football club and I know that we've been desperately unlucky in terms of injuries, but I'm sticking at it."

What may keep Souness in the job is the £3 million compensation Newcastle would have to cough up and the fact that no ready-made replacement is available.

Bolton manager Sam Allardyce would be the popular choice, but he has an excellent relationship with his chairman Phil Gartside and seventh-place Bolton is still in the UEFA Cup.

Newcastle, on the other hand, was knocked out of the InterToto Cup, a back door route to the UEFA Cup, last August.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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