The Pompey boss who had the toughest job of them all

Michael Appleton, right, with Ashley Westwood, is unveiled as Blackpool boss Picture: Bill Johnson
Michael Appleton, right, with Ashley Westwood, is unveiled as Blackpool boss Picture: Bill Johnson

They were words which condemned Michael Appleton to a lifetime of damnation among some.

‘I have got no idea if Blackpool will make an official approach,’ he said on that evening of November 6, 2012.

‘Until I am told by Trevor (Birch) differently, I will just continue to do what I have got to do.’

The following day he was unveiled as the Tangerines’ manager.

Pompey fans had taken to their heart a boss who talked straight, approached his many battles with immense dignity and represented transparency during an era when there was none.

A reputation largely destroyed during his final address as Blues boss.

It was no secret Appleton was on his way to Bloomfield Road following that 1-0 defeat to Brentford, the media and bookies had long installed him as the overwhelming favourite.

Yet the handling of his departure following an eventful 11 months and 29 days in the Fratton Park hot seat left a bitter taste of disappointment.

Such was his haste to flee, along with assistant manager Ashley Westwood, there was no farewell to staff or players.

Then there were those post-match comments, uttered at a time he very well knew Blackpool would be his home within 24 hours.

It taints memories of a character who today returns to Fratton Park for the first time since his departure, nowadays leading Oxford United.

In truth, considering what Appleton had to contend with, there should be empathy with his decision to quit the toughest job faced by any Pompey manager.

It was a year in charge which brought him into contact with Vladimir Antonov, Balram Chainrai, Levi Kushnir and David Lampitt. For that he deserves all our sympathy.

Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI) employed him in November 2011, unfurling a tantalising five-year plan that involved rebuilding the club.

Then 14 days later Antonov was arrested on charges of alleged fraud.

Five days after that, CSI entered administration – on February 17, 2012 – so did the football club.

There are some who believe Appleton should have kept the Blues in the Championship during that 2011-12 campaign.

Had it not been for a 10-point deduction for entering administration, they would have finished in 18th spot, ahead of Steve Cotterill’s Nottingham Forest.

As it was, Pompey were relegated along with Coventry and Doncaster, having languished in 22nd spot.

Such were the precarious state of the finances, from February administrators PKF had instructed Appleton to reduce the wage bill by 50 per cent so the club could see out the season.

It dictated the manager had to loan out first-team regulars Hayden Mullins, Erik Huseklepp, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Henderson for between 12-16 of the final matches that season.

There was also the issue of a recruitment embargo, the full extent of the situation withheld from Appleton by Lampitt.

The day before the chief executive was made redundant, Appleton confronted the Football League demanding to know the reasons for a frustrating one-out, one-in policy.

The Blues boss learned administration was not to blame, rather the club had been under a long-term transfer embargo due to outstanding payments to the likes of Wolves and Bristol City.

‘I can firmly put my tail between my legs and back off slightly and not put my foot in it,’ Appleton said.

The summer brought more turmoil for the beleaguered manager, as Chainrai and Kushnir’s okey-cokey act wreaked havoc.

The prospective owners promised a £4m wage bill in May, yet following a summer of recruitment, he was told in August it would instead be £1.5m.

With their takeover dragging on and Pompey still under embargo for their season-opener at Plymouth in the Capital One Cup, nine teenagers were fielded for that game.

Public criticism by Appleton in the build-up, backed by an angry reaction from supporters, saw Portpin withdraw their bid following that 3-0 defeat – although they later returned.

Meanwhile, Birch had to push all contracted players out of the door by August 10.

Appleton’s role in that achievement should never be underestimated.

At the time he was at the pre-season training camp in Benahavis, near Marbella, yet was acutely involved as SOS Pompey orchestrated protests at the Wellington Sports Ground.

It was no coincidence coach Guy Whittingham, having stayed behind to oversee the six-man contract bomb squad, had them at Eastleigh that day rather than the David Lloyd gym.

Certainly handy for those protesting fans to get their message across in person to the players concerned in their own inimitable way.

Even if Dave Kitson initially refused to talk to them, only to be persuaded by Birch, then claiming he mistakenly ignored them as he thought the Pompey shirt-wearing group were members of the media.

Of course, Appleton was desperate to leave in the end, holding talks with Burnley and Barnsley as he sought an escape route.

Before that he cannily attempted to raise his media profile, with the local press one day turning up at the training ground to discover a group of national journalists departing.

The interviews had been arranged through his management rather than the football club.

Eventually, Appleton got his wish with Blackpool recruiting him.

Regardless, he remains a decent man caught up in the Pompey carnage of that period.

An extremely likeable, honest character who valiantly fought the same battles as the Pompey fans with great dignity.

Well, before his ugly exit.

Of his 51 matches, Appleton won 14 of them and, unforgettably, picked up two draws against a Southampton team which won promotion.

Yet his toughest opponents were always away from the football pitch.