A Fratton fairytale
James Dall reflects on a poignant FA Cup journey that kept Portsmouth spirits afloat.
Last Updated: 15/05/10 6:42pm
That claustrophobic alley that one has to squeeze down to get onto Frogmore Road has felt like it is closing in - like manager Avram Grant's feeling of scavengers in the South Coast sky circling the Portsmouth carcass - as the 2009/10 season has progressed. None more so than when I was greeted with several hundred chanting fans stationed outside of the directors' lounge pre January's FA Cup tie with Sunderland - said entrance just so happens to be next to the door of the Media Centre.
This was an intimidating yet somehow inspiring sight. The passion emanating from the supporters was tangible. The usual Fratton Park waft of burgers and history had been diluted with a feeling of frustration and anger. Yet the salivation for meat, in this case then-chief executive Peter Storrie's, remained. After presenting my press pass to a nearby policeman, I was ushered into the Media Centre, with just a pane of glass now separating us hacks from the bellowing faithful. How fitting that the vociferous protests were organised on an FA Cup day.
We found ourselves covering round four of the competition, and little did we know there was still a hell of a journey to take. Indeed, there is no tight alley to tackle in the walk to Wembley. Pompey had booked a tie against the Black Cats after seeing off Championship side Coventry City - over two games mind, with the first meeting covered by yours truly and attended by just 11,214 other teeth-chattering observers - with a 120th minute header from Aaron Mokoena guiding them to victory over the Sky Blues at the Ricoh Arena.
An even smaller crowd sighed when Darren Bent scored in the 15th minute versus Sunderland, but there was to be a Blue hero: John Utaka. The Nigerian, often a target of criticism for the money (this season's enigma) involved in his switch to Pompey from Rennes in 2007, went about finding the target as he scored a second-half brace that ensured his team progressed. Then followed the draw the Portsmouth contingent had been crossing their fingers for: a South Coast derby against bitter rivals Southampton. Things had just got interesting.
Twenty-four hours before Valentine's Day came the fixture against the Saints at St Mary's Stadium. Grant's charges were rampant against their League One foes, scoring four second-half goals, while off the field tempers were fierce as crowd trouble roamed the streets. Nonetheless, Portsmouth were in the FA Cup quarter-final draw, which placed them at home against Birmingham. Another double assured their passage to a semi-final staged at Wembley, as Frederic Piquionne struck, and almost inevitably they were drawn against former boss Harry Redknapp's Tottenham Hotspur. From short story, to novel.
Portsmouth's chances against high-flying Tottenham were ranked laughable. It was considered a case of just how many Spurs would score, not if they would win. Pompey headed into the game doomed for relegation whilst the remains of their squad were beset with injuries. However, on a difficult pitch, Pompey dug deep to force the game into extra-time. Then the seemingly unthinkable happed as nine minutes into the first period, Piquionne netted to send the Blue fans beside themselves. Surely this was not happening? Then, with three minutes remaining, Grant's men were awarded a penalty, which was dispatched by Kevin-Prince Boateng. Surely this was all just a dream?
You've heard the nightmare all before: four owners, two managers, three late wage payments, one administration, 85 redundancies and £138million of debt. Those are the plethora of weeds that have strangled the flower bed. But there have been some shoots of joy. Grant has emerged as an unlikely cult hero while the players have done their bit. Indeed, so often in today's jealous society footballers are sneered at for having too much, for doing it just for the money - the green theme apparent. Yet there have been situations of genuine generosity on show here, that behind the blacked-out windows of the Range Rover decent people remain. For some, this is too hard a reality to swallow.
And now Portsmouth are here, at a Wembley final, for a second time in three seasons. And I'm here too. Sure, there is leg room and better food on offer (there's even ice cream), but something about me prefers the cramped nature of the Fratton Park press box. Like many, I've got a history and affinity with the stadium. The first proper game I ever attended was Portsmouth versus Manchester United when I spent the match on my father's shoulders in freezing conditions. This is not an obituary. Portsmouth Football Club is not dead - remember, the fans are Portsmouth 'til they die - although it has flirted with the cliff's edge, and by no means is it forgotten.
Portsmouth and Chelsea are of course poles apart in so many ways. Oh, how Portsmouth wish just one of their owners would have been a Roman Abramovich. And how fitting that Kasabian's 'Underdog' was played prior to kick-off. But it appeared as if glory for the 2008 FA Cup winners was written - five times Chelsea hit the woodwork in a truly bizarre first half. There were stand-out individual performances too: David James' acrobatic save, Aaron Mokoena's last-ditch blocks and Michael Brown like a wasp that won't go away. However, like Fulham during midweek, the triumph of the underdog was not to be. Yet this was never your classic fairytale - missed penalties tend not to feature in romantic novels.
This day out, this journey, for the supporters and players has been a welcome end to their stint in the big time. Perhaps this most dramatic of falls to the Championship is just what the club needed - a chance to start anew. Perhaps not even a Chelsea fan would have begrudged them victory on Saturday. And such a stance is testament to how even the opponent empathises with Portsmouth's plight. A plight that the club, particularly the fans, have dealt with in a typically Portsmouth manner. Like Grant said: "You can break many things but you can't break our spirit."