Play Up For The Cup: Pompey are Rolling Back the Years and Firing for Round Five.

“Warren Neil…oh, that’s a good looking ball! It’s Anderton! A real chance for Pompey! Darren Anderton! IT’S THERE!”

Ask any Portsmouth fan for their favourite memories of the FA Cup, and you’re likely to receive similar answers. Watching Harry Redknapp’s side lift the trophy in 2008 is surely the pinnacle for Pompey supporters in recent memory, while the implausible victory over Manchester United on the road to Wembley will also rank highly. There was the victory over Tottenham in 2010 that sealed a place in the final against Chelsea, but for those of a certain vintage, the run to the semi-finals under Jim Smith in 1992 invokes a purer sense of nostalgia.

From the early to mid-twentieth century, Portsmouth were a team with serious pedigree, both in league and cup. Back-to-back First Division titles in ’49 and ’50 joined the 1939 FA Cup in the trophy cabinet, as Pompey enjoyed twenty-five consecutive years in the top flight. Relegation at the end of the fifties sparked a downturn on the south coast however, and by the late seventies the club were staving off bankruptcy by appealing for cash contributions from supporters and selling their best players. Less than thirty years after becoming champions of England, Portsmouth were relegated to the fourth division. The eighties saw a major rebuild at the club, with promising youngsters like Mark Hateley and Neil Webb turning a quick profit after impressive seasons, and promotion back to the first division was achieved in 1987.

Once again the black cloud of financial ruin gathered over the club, and after immediate relegation back to Division Two, it was left to former Queens Park Rangers chairman Jim Gregory to turn Pompey’s fortunes around. Gregory injected money into the club, refurbishing Fratton Park and stabilising the accounts. Meanwhile, on the pitch, the team’s place in the second division was consolidated, before Jim Smith was brought in to challenge for promotion. Smith inherited a team that combined talented players who would go on to become household names in the Premier League and Football League veterans, and the new manager would also put his faith in youth as Pompey surprised everyone by reaching the FA Cup semi-final.

The emergence of Darren Anderton had been the story of Portsmouth’s season in 91/92, and it was the Southampton-born winger that gave Smith’s side a shock extra-time lead against Liverpool at Highbury. Eventually succumbing to Ronnie Whelan’s equaliser four minutes from time, further heartbreak would follow in the replay, as nerves got the better of Portsmouth’s players and the First Division side won on penalties. Departing  for Derby County in 1995, Jim Smith would return to Fratton Park in 2002 as Harry Redknapp’s assistant manager, as the pair masterminded Pompey’s surprise promotion to the top flight.

Those who cannot remember the past though, are doomed to repeat it. Redknapp and owner Milan Mandaric quickly fell out over the appointment of Velimir Zajec as Director of Football, and both manager and assistant left for rivals Southampton. Redknapp would return after relegating Saints, and even established Portsmouth in the top half of the Premier League under the ownership of Alexandre Gaydamak. Victory in the FA Cup final against Championship side Cardiff City would prove the apex of the era for Pompey.  A swift decline followed, with Redknapp resigning as manager for a second time only months after lifting the only major trophy of his managerial career. Within two seasons Portsmouth had been relegated from the Premier League, and entered into administration.

Things went from bad to worse at Fratton Park. In October 2010, it was announced that the club was likely to be liquidated, before Gaydamak was able to raise funds to secure the club’s future. They would enter into administration again the following season, suffering another points deduction that condemned them to relegation. A string of cowboy owners had already passed through the doors of the club, including Russian banker Vladimir Antonov, who was issued with a Europe-wide arrest warrant as part of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at Lithuanian bank Bankas Snoras. Following relegation to League One, the entire professional playing staff left the club. At their lowest ebb, a ray of light emerged in the shape of Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust, who purchased the club and pulled it out of administration. By now the damage on the pitch had been done, as Pompey suffered their third relegation in four years and found themselves in League Two.

Despite the dawning of a new era as a fan-owned club, Portsmouth still flirted with relegation to the Conference, with the intervention of caretaker manager Andy Awford stopping the rot and saving the club from slipping out of the Football League. From there, the only way was up. Miraculously, in September 2014, the club declared itself debt-free, having racked up arrears of £135m just four years prior. Awford’s single season as permanent manager saw the club stabilise in League Two, before Paul Cook arrived and set the club on course for promotion. Having won the league despite only being top of the table for less than half a match all season, Cook was then spirited away by Wigan Athletic, to be replaced by Kenny Jackett.

Something of a specialist when it comes to the third tier of English football, Jackett had previously earned promotion to the Championship with both Millwall and Wolves, and the injection of positivity following his appointment was increased tenfold by the announcement that The Tornante Company, a consortium headed up by former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, was purchasing the club from the Supporter’s Trust. After a decade of depression on the south coast, Pompey were suddenly headed in the right direction. Last season’s respectable eighth-placed finish has been followed by a storming first half to the 18/19 season, with Jackett’s side sitting top of League One heading towards February.

Like that Jim Smith side that pushed Liverpool all the way in ’92, Jackett has assembled a squad with a mixture of lower league grit and youthful exuberance. The spine of the team comprises Christian Burgess, Gareth Evans and Brett Pitman – all aged thirty, and all with vast amounts of Football League experience – while youngsters like Jack Whatmough, Matthew Clarke and Jamal Lowe have worked their way up to become first team regulars. Indeed, despite his inexperience at League One level, Lowe is currently the side’s top scorer this season, having arrived from Hampton & Richmond Borough for a pittance in 2016. Long gone are the fiscally irresponsible days that saw Mike Williamson brought in from Watford for £3m and fail to make a first-team appearance because the club couldn’t afford to pay the add-ons agreed in the transfer.

Another of Pompey’s standout players this season has been Andre Green. The highly-rated 20-year old arrived at Fratton Park on a season-long loan from Aston Villa, having seen his development stymied by injury in the West Midlands. A pacy dribbler, and dangerous cutting in from the left, Green has already shown his quality at League One level, and both he and Portsmouth could do worse than making the move permanent in the summer. Thanks to his form in Pompey’s FA Cup run, he’s already made a folk hero of himself on the south coast.

Given that promotion is Jackett’s number one priority this season, Portsmouth’s supporters could be forgiven for expecting their team to drop out of the competition early doors, though a first round tie at National League Maidenhead United provided the perfect opportunity to continue a run that had seen Pompey lose just twice in their first eighteen games of the season in all competitions. Goals from Ben Thompson, Oliver Hawkins, Lowe and David Wheeler completed an emphatic victory at York Road, and a trip to League Two Rochdale in the second round would hardly have given Jackett and his players sleepless nights. As it was, Green’s 90th minute winner settled the tie in favour of the visitors. A sterner test awaited in round three.

Norwich City have been the surprise package in the Championship this season. Elbowing their way into the promotion picture thanks to the goals of Teemu Pukki and a knack of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Daniel Farke’s side would have fancied their chances against Portsmouth. This time though, it was their opponents that would grab a late winner, with Green again leaving it late to score in the fourth minute of stoppage time and spark scenes of jubilation in the away end at Carrow Road. On Saturday, Steve McClaren and his inconsistent Queens Park Rangers team will head to Fratton Park in the hope of avoiding another upset.

We spoke to members of The Pompey Chimes forum about the forthcoming tie, Portsmouth’s resurgence, and how supporters view the FA Cup. So what do the fans pin the club’s upturn in fortunes on? Pompey Penguin thinks the takeover by the Portsmouth Supporter’s Trust played a big part, “Although this only extended over four seasons, it brought stability to the club and established the principles by which the club still runs; the club now operates within its means, moves forward slowly and steadily and prioritises engagement with communities in and around Portsmouth.”

Would supporters have swapped lifting the cup in 2008 for a decade of Premier League stability? Not according to Portchester PFC “No way would I have swapped that feeling of being at Wembley with my father, brother and friends, to watch Pompey lift the cup for staying in the Premier League. Unfortunately the Premier League and the obscene money involved is poison for the game, sadly I can’t see it changing or improving though.”

What about this year’s competition? Is there a worry that it might derail a promotion bid? Selsey Bill doesn’t think so, “The cup run can only be a good thing. Winning is a mentality and a massive confidence boost, and a run in the cup has to be good for us financially. Personally I’m not concerned about any distraction, I think it’s a good thing.” Locky_McLockface thinks the draw could have been a little more glamorous, however, “I’m fairly certain the club were disappointed, they quite fancied a big pay-day. I don’t mind either way to be honest. QPR is, I think, a winnable game, they had an awful start to the season, although Schteeeve McLaren has turned it around well. No team likes coming to a rocking Fratton Park, and we’ll just get one of the big boys in the next round!”

So what does the future hold for the newly resurgent Portsmouth? Streetrifle thinks the only way is up “The future looks great with the Eisner family in charge. The fans have great respect for them and their plans for redevelopment of the ground, building of the team, academy growth, and fans representation. They are a dream come true for the fans after what preceded them.”

Whether Portsmouth can cause another upset when QPR come to town remains to be seen, but the city hasn’t seen this kind of positivity for over a decade. That a club’s supporters can drag their team up by the bootstraps and bring them back from the brink of extinction is an extraordinary story in itself. Now Jackett and his team are busy writing the next chapter, and once again Pompey fans can believe that anything could happen.

 

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