There was a time, not so long ago, when they would be outside Fratton Park from daybreak to last thing at night. Harry Redknapp would wind down his car window to let us know who was next to arrive. He would thank his chairman and talk about how terrific it was to sign another player for a big fee and fat contract. Then he would drive away with a little wave to the crowd who had gathered expectantly.
No point going down there now, though. The gates are locked. The curtains tremble. Portsmouth won the FA Cup under Redknapp and were bucket-collection skint within six weeks of handing it back. These days you will find them grubbing around for points towards the bottom of League One, just grateful still to be going. Pompey are the rusty old Fiat that has failed its MOT and been left out over winter. There's an engine in there somewhere, but it sounds terrible.
All of which may make this an appropriate moment, perhaps, to ask what measures Queens Park Rangers have in place to avoid the possibility of their own meltdown if they drop out of the Premier League this season. Is there even the basis of a fully integrated plan? Or, looking at their business over the last couple of weeks, is this the point when they, too, appear to be basing their entire financial strategy on the theory of chaos?
They are not alone, to give them their due, when it comes to the frenzy of the transfer window and what it tells us about the clubs who prefer to do their business the sensible way and those who can be found on the trolley dash.
Yet QPR stand out for a number of reasons when their chairman, Tony Fernandes, increasingly comes across as the gambler desperately trying to cover his losses with a series of wild bets. Redknapp, the man who once walked out of a television interview after he was described as a "wheeler-dealer", has brought in half a dozen players and tried for goodness knows how many others. For the club's sake, you just hope they know what they are doing.
There is, after all, a point when spending becomes reckless and QPR are surely straying close to the line when, even ignoring for one moment the Loïc Rémy deal, they have just splurged £12.5m on a 28-year-old centre-half – Chris Samba – and agreed to pay him somewhere around £20m in wages over the next four and a half years.
It is true, granted, that someone with Samba's competitive courage could be an important player for a club that have won two league fixtures all season and that, if the gamble comes off and there is a dramatic late feat of escapology, they will no doubt consider he was worth every penny. But £12.5m? Simon Jordan may be a tiresome old rent-a-quote sometimes but when the former Crystal Palace chairman described it as "financial suicide" it was almost reassuring to find someone within the sport who was not willing to sugarcoat the truth. Niall Quinn was also in Sky's studios alongside Jordan on deadline night. Financial suicide? "It's heading that way," the former Sunderland chairman agreed. Jordan talked about a club with "lunatics running the asylum", where the culture was to sign the cheque and think of the consequences later, and it all boiled down to one thing: where does it leave QPR if they go down?
On Friday, at Redknapp's press conference, he was asked that very question and delivered a masterclass in evasion. Will they be financially stable? "I don't know," he replied. "It's the chairman's decisions." It's big money, though, Harry … "That's up to the chairman and the shareholders. That's their decision to spend the money."
Nobody returned to the subject or pointed out that, a few days before the transfer window opened, Redknapp had talked about wanting to change the spending culture of the club. It was his job, he had said, to make sure the owners no longer had "their pants taken down". He was sick and tired of agents wanting a quick payday, and he made it clear that a club the size of QPR had to stop being such an easy touch. "You shouldn't be paying massive wages when you've got a stadium that holds 18,000 people." Quite.
It sounded very noble at the time and still does, in fact. It can also look a bit silly, however, when the club then breaks their transfer record twice in the space of two weeks, first for Rémy and then Samba, and agrees to pay them more than Gareth Bale earns at Tottenham and more than everyone bar Theo Walcott takes home at Arsenal.
There will be QPR supporters, of course, who argue that it is worth the gamble. Far better, they may say, that Fernandes is throwing money at the problem rather than the shift in policy that his Aston Villa counterpart, Randy Lerner, has brought in. Yet there is a middle ground otherwise known as common sense.
Certainly it's a bewildering set of events when, in 18 months, a club can make 31 signings. In three transfer windows QPR have now signed seven new strikers, seven centre-halves, four goalkeepers, eight midfielders, a winger, two left-backs and two right‑backs. They now have such a bloated squad – 42 players if we are counting the 10 they have out on loan – that it has been impossible for them to shoehorn everyone into the revised 25-man squad they submitted to the Premier League on Friday. Luke Young, one of football's forgotten men, has been left out. Andy Johnson, another former England international, is due back from injury next month – but no need to rush now. Radek Cerny has not played for 13 months. That won't be changing between now and May.
Redknapp brought in Samba, Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas to go with Rémy, Tal Ben Haim and Yun Suk-yung but missed out on Peter Crouch and Peter Odemwingie. He had no joy with an ambitious inquiry for Scott Parker and, most perplexingly, he also tried to sign David Bentley, the player he marginalised at Tottenham to the point he ended up at Rostov in Russia. They, of course, are just the deals we know about.
It is a scattergun approach that may yet form the backdrop to one of the great escapes if Redknapp can make the most of his restorative powers. At the same time, QPR are still bottom of the league, with 17 points from 25 games, and it does makes you wonder whether there is any kind of joined-up thinking behind the scenes and what might happen a little further down the line bearing in mind Fernandes has already indicated he will relinquish his position if they go down. Who clears up the mess then?
Because it would be a mess. Maybe not as extreme as Portsmouth but a mess, all the same.
Time for centurion Cole to earn belated show of appreciation
Ashley Cole will make his 100th appearance for England on Wednesday and join an exclusive club that has only half a dozen other members. Steven Gerrard was ushered in when England played Sweden in November and the others are Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Sir Bobby Charlton, Billy Wright and Bobby Moore. Each, in their different ways, have ensured a lasting place in the affections of England supporters.
Unfortunately for Cole, it hasn't quite worked out like that. It's difficult, say, to imagine followers of the national team delivering him a giant congratulations card, as they did for Beckham five years ago. Gerrard was applauded by all four sides of the Friends Arena in Stockholm. In Cole's case, Roy Hodgson had a message for England's supporters heading to the Brazil match. "I am expecting people to give him the credit he deserves," the England manager said. "If his reputation is this, that or the other, hopefully it will be forgotten on Wednesday." In other words, cut him some slack and just appreciate what he has done for the team. Which sounds like a perfectly reasonable request.
A stand-out memory is the night in Lisbon, back in Euro 2004, when Cole came up against Cristiano Ronaldo and produced as good a performance as there may ever have been from a left-back in England's colours. Ronaldo wanted the ball every time. Yet Cole refused to be cowed. It was an epic battle, and the night very possibly that he announced himself as a truly exceptional left-back.
It's just a shame really that, somewhere along the way, Cole's life took those turns from which his reputation has never fully recovered. At one stage, it felt like parts of Wembley were hoping for a mistake so they could loudly let him know how they felt. Of his 99 caps, number 71, against Kazakhstan in 2008, was a particularly spiteful occasion.
It's a few years ago now, though. Cole's controversies have generally been away from the England setup and, while there will always be the occasional dunderhead in any Wembley crowd, it would be nice to think there is enough appreciation of his ability for England's supporters to recognise him properly. Is it asking too much to think they may actually sing his name?
Odemwingie's drive to opprobrium
Peter Odemwingie strikes me as a classic case of someone who thinks money is how they keep the score in football these days. "Running for money doesn't make you run fast," the Kenyan athlete Ben Jipcho once said. "It makes you run first." Or in Odemwingie's case, it makes you get on the motorway and drive all the way down to QPR to spend transfer-deadline night in a blustery car park.
At one point, sitting outside Loftus Road and trying to work out whether he should actually go and knock on the doors, Odemwingie moved off and parked a little more discreetly behind one of the stands. His cover was broken by a small but persistent group of local kids and that middle-aged man you might have noticed on Sky, wearing a white T-shirt on which he'd scrawled in black felt tip: "We beat the scum 1-0." Nobody from QPR came out to offer so much as a cup of tea. The M6, the M40, follow the signs to London and then one embarrassing U-turn – it's fair to say Odemwingie has had better nights.
He won't be at The Hawthorns on Sunday when West Brom play Tottenham and it's not clear when we will see him back on a football pitch. An apology would be a start, though there hasn't been even an ounce of contrition so far. In the meantime Odemwingie may want to contemplate why so many people have taken a malicious form of pleasure about seeing him get his comeuppance. Or failing that, stock up on Toblerones and set the sat-nav to Dundee next time.
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image: © Tom Cuppens