Milan Mandaric has taken Pompey to a crossroads – and while the club head in one direction, Harry Redknapp chooses another after this straggly defeat. David Stubbs reports
The first time I saw Portsmouth play was in the first game I ever attended – September 1971 at Hull City’s Boothferry Park, a post-holiday birthday treat en route back home from a drizzly week at the Golden Sands Chalet Park in Withernsea. Hull City won 3-1, I vividly recall, except that they didn’t – a check on Soccerbase has confirmed that my lifelong belief to that effect is erroneous. In fact, it was Pompey who won by the same score. Still, what has stuck is the allure of what was doubtless a dismal occasion for the regulars. The combined stench of drifting cigarette smoke and fried onions acts like one of Proust’s cakes on me even now. I remember the bloke two rows down shouting “You Portsmouth pigs!” – the height of terrace invective to me. Mostly it was the floodlights that im- pressed me: tall, imposing and HG Wellsian, they were like giant cyber-sentries from another world.
XThe last time I saw Manchester City play was in 1992 at Highbury, in the first few weeks of the Premiership. In their overexcited attempts to jazz up the “brand”, Sky introduced half-time entertainment in the form of the Sky Strikers, a pom-pom troupe who danced along to the Shamen’s Ebeneezer Goode, with the band themselves ill-advisedly lip-synching along. Maliciously sensing a disaster in the offing, I’d gone along to interview the Shamen and cover the occasion. I wasn’t disappointed. If the Shamen had had a bugler among their musical ranks, he would have sounded the retreat two minutes in. The Strikers were dressed provocatively – in what looked like Spurs kits – but the pealing shower of hostility and derision with which they were greeted by every last fan was a reaction to one attempt too many to tamper with the culture of their, not Murdoch’s, game. Had the fans reacted peaceably, Manchester City might well be called the Manchester Rhinos today. It was an important victory: Arsenal won 1-0 and the Sky Strikers were soon disbanded.
Football’s old and new worlds still jostle ambivalently, not least at Fratton Park. Portsmouth are a Premiership side who recently beat Manchester United at home and who, in 2003-04, only failed to beat Arsenal by dint of a Pires dive. No one suspects they will be flushed back into the Championship any time soon. Yet they still have to pinch themselves to believe that they’re in such company.
In the course of an uncharacteristic 5-1 FA Cup shellacking against Arsenal, last season their sustained rendition, however co-opted or inappropriate, of The Great Escape tune was almost eerie in its cheerily defiant stoicism. Norwich fans have been in similarly full song recently, some of their fans suggesting that they regard this season as essentially a celebration party, win or lose.
It’s this humble mindset that Portsmouth’s chairman, Milan Mandaric, wants to eradicate. Pointedly welcoming new “executive director” Velimir Zajec in the programme to what turns out to be Harry Redknapp’s last game in charge, he writes: “On reaching the Premier League, I didn’t say, ‘Don’t bring too much luggage because we won’t be staying long’.” He talks in terms of long-term sustainability – he has a business plan. The desirability of such a plan is a moot point. What is, and how best to keep, the “soul” of a team such as Portsmouth? Commercially crafted success or ramshackle traditions?
There are plenty of the latter, approaching Fratton Park on a cruelly wet and dark Saturday early evening for what does not, in itself, augur to be a sparkling fixture. Shambling up past the roundabout from the station, past the B&Q at the roundabout, the drizzle seems to whisper: “Nil-nil, nil-nil.” Approaching the stadium, set snugly amid terraced housing, however, a sense of ancient magic is kindled by the sight of those outmoded, towering floodlights, a benevolent and blazing reminder of a lost era. Even a hoarding for a local waste management firm just inside the ground evokes a warm, beery nostalgia – this could be 1971.
On taking your seat, however, in the home section of the roofless end of Fratton Park, such magic evaporates. Up behind me is a pundit’s gantry, possibly occupied by Paul Walsh, that looks like a strong gust of wind could dislodge it from a fragile-seeming scaffold eyrie, sending it crashing down and resulting in my surreal extinction. The PA system is so feeble I initially mistake it for announcements drifting in from the railway station half a mile away. Home and away fans are separated by yards of netting, draped across the seating, the idea presumably being that if the 1,200 or so City fans foolhardily decided to rush the Pompey brigade, they’d be hopelessly caught up like tuna. The pitch, I’d swear, undulates a tad, something a poor six-year-old girl right at the front cannot confirm – only by standing on her tippy-toes can she peep over the low brick wall that obstructs her view. Furthermore, the electronic scoreboard is malfunctioning, as it flashes up a clearly erroneous “Arsenal 1-1 WBA” scoreline as a final result. A significant number of fans clutch toilet roll; not another old school throwback, I realise, but to wipe down their sodden seats. This is generously handed out to strangers such as myself, one of those reminders that you’re not in London but in England.
That said, the cry of “£30? You’re having a laugh!” from City fans, coupled with one woman’s vigorous attempts outside the ground to have me sign up for a Pompey credit card in exchange for a silly looking blue hat, are a reminder of Portsmouth’s “modernity” (for which, read commercial rapacity).
The game opens at a lively pelt, which goes against the initially subdued grain of the crowd atmosphere – Pompey are missing Yakubu Aiyegbeni, the elation at beating Man Utd has been snuffed out by defeat to hated Southampton and everyone is aware of the stand-off between manager and chairman. And, indeed, the action is all zinging one way, in the direction of Portsmouth’s goalmouth. Shaun Wright-Phillips makes an extraordinary pacy and ominous dash down the right wing; a minute or so later, he darts cheekily through a maze of Portsmouth defenders, as if running under their legs, and slots home the opener with absurd ease.
I worry for Wright-Phillips. The previous Wednesday he had been subject to racist chants in Spain and the prominent media outrage at this malign idiocy might have implanted the idea in a few boneheads that it would be devilishly contrarian to reprise such antics this evening. From where I’m sitting, I believe at one point I hear a short burst of juvenile “Oo! Oo!”. But that could as easily have been imagined. Generally, comments on SWP are of the sizeist variety. “Fackin’ little midget, isn’t he?” And they have a point – as they ran out of the tunnel, Wright-Phillips would indubitably, by a considerable margin, have been the last of the players to have realised it was raining.
While City are contemplating the disconcerting ease with which they opened the scoring, Pompey hit back, a David Unsworth cross followed by a Gary O’Neil volley. Thereafter, the first half settles into a sort of détente, each cancelling the other out with their grinding mediocrity. Pompey’s Lomano LuaLua limps off, as does Nicolas Anelka. A City fan on the train back later opines that while Anelka is one of City’s best players, the team perform better without him.
At half-time, I chat to the elderly lady next to me. I assume she’s a long-time regular and, indeed, she’s been a Portsmouth fan since first attending in 1946. However, this happens to be the first game she’s been to in 30 years, having lived out of town. Which explains how fazed she was by all the standing up and sitting down of the rows in front during the game. She recalls the old days when Portsmouth was a thriving naval base. “All the sailors used to come down here and support whoever the away team was. They talk about violence now, but ooh, back then, the fights the sailors caused – you’d see people being hurled over the hoardings.” Her husband grumbles at the iniquity of paying £3 for a programme that “used to cost threepence”. Not unjustifiably – a steep price indeed to read a questionnaire with 17-year-old Pompey forward Joe Carter-Harris, in which we learn that were an animal he would in his opinion be a rabbit.
The second half sees City gain the upper hand – they have yards of pace to spare against Portsmouth, beginning to look palpably depleted by recent results and off-field events, and whose forward line look to be observing a treaty of non-aggression long since torn up by the opposition. Only Robbie Fowler, whose onfield role nowadays is one of highly paid clown, provides Pompey solace as he scuffs a header laughably wide. The stadium should be sick with tacit dread, but again, as the bass drum and bells strike up, for 20 minutes Pompey fans sustain a looped chorus of The Great Escape, defiantly oblivious to the slow capitulation taking place on the field. However, late on, when it seems as if Portsmouth are mustering a revival, Fowler drags back a ball that looks like it has strayed out of play and crosses for Antoine Sibierski to drill home. A half-hearted rally by Portsmouth is finally snuffed out when Wright-Phillips, admirably zesty following his midweek trauma, wriggles adeptly through, shoots and has his rebound converted by Paul Bosvelt.
The home fans around me react not with righteous anger but with sheepish, rictus smiles that speak of a collective inferiority complex, as if deep down grateful to have been restored to their humble station. The lady next to me looks almost bereaved, however, on this, her prodigal return – for most of the second half she was flexing her hands prayerfully, as if clutching invisible rosary beads. The City fans are as insufferably cocky as a gaggle of Gallaghers, but theirs is a tottery perch from which to crow. Harry Redknapp disappears down the tunnel, for what will be a sadly abrupt end to his Pompey career. He denies he’s quitting in the post-match interviews, but talks in giveaway elegiac terms about his time at the club. In four days he’s out.
Mandaric wants to invest in the youth team and the infrastructure rather than rely on old-school chancer Redknapp’s sleight of hand in the transfer market and the consequent wage bill. So £36 million will be invested in turning the stadium around 90 degrees and expanding capacity. But you wonder what the true cost of this attempt to drag Pompey out of 20th-century mediocrity will be. And, on the rudderless quality of play today, what sort of future they’re heading towards and to whom it will belong.
From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month