Senior Portsmouth players believe that next month's transfer window will give a true indication of the club's long-term ambition, with many fearing that a potential fire sale of their best players will provide evidence that the days of challenging for top-half finishes in the Premier League are behind them.
Pompey's owner, Sacha Gaydamak, indicated this month that he would consider bids for the south coast club, and the manager, Tony Adams, repeated after Sunday's narrow defeat at Arsenal – a result that left Pompey in 12th place but only three points from the relegation zone – that he would have to generate his own funds in the mid-winter window if he was to bring in players to a squad that won only twice in 13 games. No formal bids have been received for Jermain Defoe or Glen Johnson, the obvious attractions, but key players may follow Lassana Diarra, sold to Real Madrid, out of Fratton Park in January.
Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are expected to declare an interest in Defoe, who began on the bench at the Emirates Stadium much to his frustration, with Adams saying he remains "determined to hold on to all of my players". Yet there is a sense of resignation among the squad that further sales will take place next month. "We have to get on with it," said the midfielder Sean Davis. "The club has said it is up for sale so, next month, we will know what direction the club wants to go in.
"If they sell all their top players it is unfortunate. If they keep them it is a sign it wants to go places and keep progressing over the years. We have big-time players here, like Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Sylvain Distin. It might be frustrating for the fans that the club sells big-time players but Portsmouth will always be here and the players will play their hearts out. I wasn't shocked about Lassana Diarra [leaving]. It was Real Madrid. The only way they might have kept him was to say we are getting a new ground but that's not the case and he has obviously moved on to a bigger stage.
"But if they want to sell their best players, then the only objective is to defend the FA Cup and stay in the division. Since I've been here we have finished eighth, then seventh, then won the FA Cup. But if you sell your best players it is going to be difficult. For myself I just want to keep working hard and see where it goes."
Davis is out of contract next summer and has yet to be offered new terms to remain at Fratton Park. "It's been a long time now and I'm fed up with waiting," he said. "I am going to get on with things and see what happens at the end of the season. All you can do is work hard."
In the circumstances the club would most likely consider any offers for his services mid-season, with other fringe players – including the former Arsenal full-back Lauren, Djimi Traoré, Hermann Hreidarsson and Linvoy Primus – also effectively available for transfer.
"I want people here who want to play for Portsmouth," said Adams. "We're in a scrap with 14 other clubs so, if they don't want to play for Portsmouth, they are no good to me. It's not reading the riot act – it's a fact. If you are not trying everything you can to win games for the football club, then I don't want you around. But nobody has come to see me, nobody wants away, so I'm encouraged with the way they are performing."
Any sales would give Adams some leeway in the market and the manager has already earmarked potential targets, even if any recruits would be secured at reduced fees. There is interest in the former Pompey midfielder Gary O'Neil, now at Middlesbrough, while Crystal Palace's England under-21 international Ben Watson is available at around £1m after refusing to sign a new contract at Selhurst Park. Boro, too, are monitoring his situation along with the Championship clubs Reading and Queens Park Rangers.
There is sympathy in Portsmouth's ranks at the constraints within which Adams is working. "He has been thrown in at the deep end but will get on with it," added Davis. "He has never shirked a challenge in his life. He won't, and we won't, make excuses." It's just sad for the fans because I think they want to see us make progress too. But I am not worried about relegation yet even if we are in a dogfight. We need six more wins and this squad is more than capable of achieving that.
"We needed a response against Arsenal after losing so heavily to West Ham. We were nine minutes away from keeping a clean sheet and had a couple of chances ourselves. Football can kick you in the balls, but we can take heart from that and put a bit of pride back into Portsmouth Football Club."