PL25: Somersaults in Spring (2003/04)

The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. With only one ill-fated season in the top flight since 1959, Portsmouth arrived in the Premier League at the start of the 2003/04 season hoping to achieve survival under the stewardship of non-wheeler dealer Harry Redknapp. Despite being one of the favourites to go down, Redknapp’s gung-ho philosophy provided the Fratton Park faithful with a season to remember, left Newcastle and Sir Bobby Robson with a moment to forget and, bizarrely, changed the Premier League loan system forever.

Having spent most of the previous fifteen years towards the bottom of the second tier, Portsmouth fans could have been forgiven for heading into the 02/03 season feeling less than optimistic about their promotion chances. Harry Redknapp had been installed as manager in the March of the previous season, having taken up the role of Director of Football at Fratton Park following his sacking at West Ham in 2001. Redknapp failed to win any of his first five games in charge to end the season, but Pompey avoided relegation by five points. Using his extensive list of contacts Redknapp managed to recruit a rabble of experienced players on free transfers, with Shaka Hislop, Paul Merson, Arjan De Zeeuw and Gianluca Festa adding some top-level knowhow to a team supplemented by the promising Matty Taylor, Hayden Foxe and Richard Hughes. Redknapp had also convinced owner Milan Mandaric to splash out £400,000 on striker Svetoslav Todorov from West Ham the previous March, and the Bulgarian was key to Pompey’s promotion. Redknapp’s renovated side flew out of the traps, losing only twice by New Year, and leading the table from August. They were crowned champions after a comfortable 5-0 win at home to Bradford, with Todorov scoring a hat-trick to take his season tally to 26. Ahead of the new season Redknapp knew that further quality would have to be added to the squad if Portsmouth were to stave of relegation, and consulted his little black book once again to secure the signatures of Patrik Berger, Teddy Sheringham and Pavel Srnicek on frees. Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni was brought in from Maccabi Haifa for £4m, and former Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Dejan Stefanovic signed for £1.9m from Vitesse. As far as newly-promoted teams go, Portsmouth’s had the look of a side familiar to the top division.

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An opening day home victory against Aston Villa was the perfect start for Redknapp and his side, with summer recruits Berger and Sheringham both getting on the scoresheet. Indeed, the team from the south-coast remained unbeaten in their first five games, including a thumping 4-0 win over Bolton at Fratton Park, and an admirable 1-1 draw away at Arsenal – one of only four sides to avoid defeat at Highbury in 03/04. Inevitably Pompey hit a sticky patch, and in their following six games they won only once – though a 1-0 victory at home to Liverpool was not to be sniffed at. By the time Leeds United visited Fratton Park, Portsmouth had slipped from 5th to 11th, with only four points separating them and their next opponents at the bottom of the table. Fortunately for Redknapp, Leeds were dreadful. Arriving off the back of comprehensive beatings at the hands of Arsenal and Manchester United, Peter Reid’s side collapsed in the second half of a game they’d been unfortunate to be losing at half-time. Yakubu’s 86th minute strike was the last of a ruthless 6-1 hammering dished out to the sinking Yorkshiremen, and it looked as though Pompey were back on track. Beware false dawns. Another five game winless streak followed, and Portsmouth sank into the bottom three. A 2-0 win over Tottenham on Boxing Day lifted them out temporarily, but a further two defeats at Villa Park and Stamford Bridge put them back in trouble. More signs of green shoots appeared after a spirited comeback at home to Manchester City to earn a 4-2 victory, but again the win was a precursor to a run of terrible results, going two months without a win. In the midst of this run, and in a bid to bolster his options in an ailing attack, Redknapp managed to bring Lomana LuaLua in on loan from Newcastle United.

Up to and including the 2003/04 season all stipulations of utilising loan players were agreed between the clubs, and, though the exact reason isn’t clear, Newcastle didn’t add a clause in the LuaLua deal preventing him from appearing against his parent club. The Congolese forward scored on his Portsmouth debut at White Hart Lane in a 4-3 defeat to Tottenham, but when Newcastle United supporters saw him lining up against their team for the visit to Fratton Park, they weren’t duly concerned. LuaLua had failed to find the net all season in the North East, and Champions League chasing Newcastle were expected to leave the south coast with all three points. Craig Bellamy gave the visitors the lead in the first half, and it looked as though the game was petering out to a 1-0 when LuaLua popped up in the 89th minute to equalise. Before the days of respectfully refusing to celebrate against former clubs, let alone current employers, LuaLua gleefully somersaulted in front of the visiting supporters, and dragged his temporary teammates out of the bottom three. In the away dressing room after the match, Gary Speed and Alan Shearer confronted Robson over their teammates eligibility. Football’s Granddad brushed it off, but at the end of the season the FA would implement a rule to state loanees would not be permitted to play against their parent club. Too little too late for Newcastle, who missed out on Champions League qualification by a few points come the end of the season.

Portsmouth v Newcastle United

It was nearly another month before Portsmouth won again, but their timing was impeccable. Yakubu’s goal sealed a narrow win over bitter rivals Southampton in the South-Coast Derby, and Pompey drew level with Leicester City on points, but remained in the bottom three on goal difference. Finally, Redknapp’s side started to put a run of form together and not a moment too soon. The following week another Yakubu goal sealed their first away win of the season at Blackburn Rovers, and a famous victory over Manchester United came in the middle of an eight game unbeaten streak and sealed their Premier League survival. Defeat at relegation bound Leicester City did nothing to dampen spirits, and the Fratton Park faithful were treated to another end of season goal bonzana, as Middlesbrough were put to the sword by four goals from Yakubu in a 5-1 win. A finishing position of 13th at the end of a topsy-turvy season was no less than Redknapp’s side deserved, and provided the catalyst for Portsmouth’s seven year stay in the Premier League.

Relegation scraps followed in the next two seasons, but by 2007 Portsmouth had established themselves in the mid-table of the Premier League, even winning the FA Cup the following year. In a bid to elevate Pompey towards the top of the league Mandaric began to spend big, splashing out £30m on players ahead of the 2007/08 season, and tying them up with lucrative contracts. Eventually results on the pitch would reflect the mess off it, and in 2010 Portsmouth were relegated to the Championship, having already entered administration. By the start of the 2013/14 season, they were sitting in the fourth division as the full force of the wheeling and dealing at the start of the century took its toll on the club.

Harry Redknapp sandwiched two spells at Portsmouth with a stint in charge of Southampton, during which the Saints were relegated, further enhancing Redknapp’s reputation at Pompey. The bejowelled cockney was poached by Tottenham in 2008, and enjoyed four good years at White Hart Lane, before a disastrous spell at Queens Park Rangers left the West-London club in a financial quagmire. A short spell in charge of Birmingham City helped the Blues avoid relegation, but quickly dispense of Redknapp’s services when calls for more transfer funds became a regular occurrence.

Lomana LuaLua made his move to Portsmouth permanent and spent three years on the south-coast, scoring fifteen times. He then embarked on a nomadic career, taking in Greece, the Middle East, Cyprus, Blackpool and Turkey. He is currently plying his trade in the Turkish Second Division.

Arsenal became the first English side to go a whole league season unbeaten since Preston North End in the 1880s, winning the title at a canter with Chelsea in second finishing eleven points behind them. Manchester United and Liverpool taking the remaining two Champions League qualification slots. Leicester City were joined in relegation by Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Leeds United, after years of financial mismanagement, finally succumbed to demotion. The tale of caution played out at Elland Road was clearly ignored by Mandaric, and he’d have been better off sticking to the free transfers and loan signings that had served his club so well in their first season back at the top table.

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