13 February ~ While Southampton and Portsmouth are ardent rivals they haven't played each other that often, having only been in the same division for ten seasons in the last 80 years. Southampton had been at a higher level than their neighbours for most of the past 40 years but Portsmouth have had the upper hand this century so far. Being two divisions and 37 places higher, they would ordinarily be hot favourites for their FA Cup fifth round trip to St Mary's today but if ever a group of players have had due cause to feel demoralised it's Avram Grant's team.
Grant was delighted with the resolve his players showed in fighting back for a last-minute point at home to Sunderland last Tuesday, but there's little doubt that they are heading for the Championship. That may be hastened next week by a points deduction for going into administration if HMRC succeed with their winding up order against the club. But while national attention has been on the chaos at Fratton Park, Southampton have had a successful start to a major week and are in confident mood.
On Tuesday night at a capacity St Mary's Southampton claimed a 4-1 aggregate victory over MK Dons in the southern final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. This means the club look forward to a first Wembley final since losing 3-2 to Nottingham Forest in the unlamented Full Members Cup in 1992. The Saints are also undefeated in the last eight games and sit in a comfortable mid-table position, despite the ten-point deduction imposed at the start of the season. Off the field, executive chairman Nicola Cortese seems to be doing such a good job (the signing of League One leading scorer Rickie Lambert in particular) that he was forced to deny he was moving to AC Milan at the end of January. "Southampton is my baby, I'm not going to abandon it," said the Swiss-Italian.
So today's game is a sell-out and the city of Southampton is expectant and hopeful. On the website of the Southampton Daily Echo a straw poll showed that 52 per cent of voters thought the home team would beat their local rivals. Alan Pardew, not known for his subtlety, seemed happy to be back in the media spotlight and added pressure on his opponents, claiming: "You see these classic FA Cup games when the pitch is poor and a big side slips up. But the pitch is perfect so there'll be no excuses for them, it's the perfect platform for them and they should win." The Southampton manager also professed sympathy for Portsmouth's financial problems: "We are not going to be smug about that situation because we were in it not six months ago."
Whatever happens you can't help imagining an overworked and overwrought employee of Portsmouth FC's accountancy department desperately hoping for a profitable replay at Fratton Park, scheduled for Tuesday February 23.