Saturday 5 April ~
West Brom and Portsmouth fans are at Wembley today. One set will be coming back next month for the FA Cup final. But whoever loses may still have cause for celebration by the end of the season. Portsmouth seem set to finish in their highest league position since they were third in 1954-55. West Brom, meanwhile, may achieve automatic promotion from the Championship and, if not, could be back at Wembley in the play-off final. Unfortunately, today's winners are bound to make a Cup final record. Frank Skinner is primed and ready to help with the West Brom effort and you can bet that John Portsmouth FC Westwood, their self-styled number one fan, won't need much coaxing to take his bell with him into a studio.
West Brom were a cup team in the Sixties. Similar to Leicester City under Martin O'Neill in the 1990s, they were solid performers in the league who seemed especially fired up for knockout ties, appearing in three Wembley finals in four years, winning the FA Cup in 1968 – when striker Jeff Astle scored in every round – and losing in the League Cup finals of 1967 and 1970. The last time they reached the last four of the FA Cup, however, was in 1982 against QPR. This was at the tail-end of a successful, albeit trophyless, period which began with Ron Atkinson's flamboyant side of 1978-79. By common consent, Tony Mowbray's current team are playing the best football of any West Brom team since the Atkinson era. Mowbray himself has said that he likes “technical” football, something that has marked his side out as the best to watch in an exciting but mediocre division.
West Brom's defence has often looked shaky, however, and Portsmouth will begin as clear favourites. Portsmouth's chances of playing in Europe depend on their winning the cup as they have declined to enter the Intertoto. Harry Redknapp doesn't care for the tournament, claiming that his experience with West Ham in 1999 showed that the extra competitive games in the summer affected players later in the season.
Redknapp completed his 1,000th match as a manager last year but has never made any claims to be a deep thinker on the game, insisting instead the key is to buy good players and then encourage them. The Portsmouth manager's often frenetic buying policy has occasionally come under scrutiny but there is no doubt that he is a good communicator who is respected by his players and that, like Mowbray, he is something of a football purist. His over-eager son can be extremely grating as a Sky pundit, however, so we should be thankful that today's game is on the BBC.