wsc300 League meetings between the two Hampshire clubs have been relatively rare but their derby matches are as keenly contested as any local rivalry in English football. James de Mellow reports

On April 29, 1939, as Portsmouth pulled off a surprise 4-1 FA Cup final win over Wolves at Wembley, only 4,000 Southampton fans showed up for a home league game on the same day, preferring to cheer on their neighbours while listening to the radio. When the trophy was brought back to the south coast, it was displayed for a short time at Southampton Guildhall and even paraded around The Dell for Saints fans to salute Pompey's achievements. One wonders, then, what Hampshire's pre-war football supporters would make of Operation Delphin, which the police deemed necessary to prevent trouble before and after the south-coast derby on December 18. As a condition of purchasing a ticket, all travelling Saints fans agreed to be bussed in a "bubble" under police escort between the two cities, while eight-foot-high barriers were erected north-east of Fratton Park in order to keep a minority of idiots from both sides coming into contact with each other.

For a fixture that has only been played 37 times – including six in cup competitions – Portsmouth versus Southampton is a uniquely intense affair. In 2004, before the first derby at Fratton Park since 1987, there was a full-scale riot around the ground, which led to the arrest of 94 people, and trouble, albeit to a lesser degree, flared up once more after the 2010 FA Cup tie at St Mary's.

Superintendent Rick Burrows, of Hampshire Police, made the mistake in the run-up to this game of attempting to justify his force's tactics with reference to Hillsborough, Heysel and the Bradford fire. Quite what violence outside a football stadium had to do with the above tragedies is for Burrows to answer – and there are questions to be asked about how the police treat the Championship's away fans in general – but there were no serious incidents on the day and his "bubble" proceeded as planned.

Perhaps the trouble is related to the infrequency of the meetings between the teams. The two clubs' fortunes swing wildly between derbies. Together they have had three periods of administration, two promotions, three relegations and three Cup finals between them since 1998. But these events never happen at the same time, so one set of supporters is left bemoaning their situation while the other looks towards what seems to be a bright new dawn. So while Pompey celebrated their FA Cup win at Wembley in 2008, Saints avoided dropping to the third tier on the final day. They were relegated to League One the following year after their parent company went into administration, then met Portsmouth in the Cup in February 2010 before Portsmouth were relegated from the Premier League and in put into administration after having three different owners in one season.

Come this season's fixture at Fratton Park – the first in the second tier since 1976 – Pompey and Saints fans, affectionately known to each other as "skates" and "scummers" respectively, could not be having more contrasting seasons. Southampton have taken the Championship by storm since promotion from League One. Sitting top under manager and former Scunthorpe physio Nigel Adkins, Saints are unbeaten at home, having won ten out of 11. They boast the division's top scorer, Rickie Lambert, and possess one of its most eye-catching midfielders in Adam Lallana.

Pompey, on the other hand, face uncertainty once again. In June, Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI), majority-owned by Russian banker Vladimir Antonov, took over the club, talking about long-term plans and a stable future. In November, though, an arrest warrant was issued for Antonov amid allegations of fraudulent accounting at his Snoras bank and, days later, CSI itself went into administration. Pompey's chief executive, David Lampitt, has told fans there is "short term" funding in place, which most take to mean a couple of months at the most. The Portsmouth Supporters' Trust and other groups are looking at plans for worst-case scenarios, but in short Pompey need a buyer once again and they need one quickly.

Watching football at Fratton Park has mostly been a joyless experience since relegation to the Championship. Last year, after taking until September 24 to register a victory, a small squad with a few well-paid big names strung together two long winning streaks either side of Christmas and not a lot in between. The new season has seen a change of manager, with Michael Appleton replacing Steve Cotterill, another slow start and plenty of empty seats at home games. Only 12,200 supporters turned up to the home game against Coventry two weeks before the derby to see Portsmouth extend their unbeaten run at Fratton Park to five games. Pompey have not lost at home since a 3-2 defeat to Peterborough in September.

What strikes the visitor to Fratton Park is that, in terms of infrastructure, Pompey have absolutely nothing to show for their seven seasons in the Premier League. It is a wonderful old ground, with the Archibald Leitch-designed South Stand and the famous mock-Tudor facade. But the failure to invest during the good times has left Portsmouth as arguably the least-developed major club in the country. Prospective owners would have to make significant improvements to the stadium and elsewhere – they still don't own their training ground – to achieve any form of long-term success.

Compare that with the set-up at the other end of the M27. Southampton boast a 32,000-seat stadium and one of the best academy systems in the country. It is clearly a club ready to thrive in the top flight should they achieve promotion in May. There has been something of a return to normalcy about their rise above Pompey this season. After all, bar the past seven seasons, the team in red-and-white shirts have finished in a higher league position than their rivals every year since 1960.

As such, the capacity home crowd at Fratton Park has come to see the high-flyers brought down a peg or two by a side that start the game in 18th place. As early as half an hour before kick-off, the ground is rocking like it has not done in a long time. When the teams emerge from the cramped underground tunnel, it feels like the roof is about to come off the old place.

Portsmouth captain Liam Lawrence is back in the side after six weeks out. He takes up a position on the left of midfield in a 4-5-1, with David Kitson at its head. Southampton adopt a more traditional 4-4-2, with Guilherme do Prado supporting Lambert – who barely misses a game – up front. The home side's central-midfield three of Hayden Mullins, David Norris and George Thorne – on loan from manager Appleton's former club, West Brom­wich Albion – have clearly been sent out to put pressure on Saints' creative players and stifle the league-leaders' passing game.

The plan works to a degree, as both sides struggle to create a genuine opportunity in the first 30 minutes and are limited to a succession of half chances. For the visitors, Do Prado can't turn in a Daniel Fox flick-on from a corner and Lambert heads over from the right-back Frazier Richardson's cross. One feels for Richardson and Fox, Southampton's left-back, in particular, as they bear the brunt of the home fans' attempts to intimidate the visitors every time they try to take a throw-in.

With a goal not looking likely, the two sets of supporters take to taunting each other. From the home Fratton End, Pompey fans sing the name of Lomana LuaLua, who scored twice the last time the sides met here – the famous 4-1 win in 2005 that all but sealed the relegation of Harry Redknapp's Southampton. They also bring back their version of (Is This the Way to) Amarillo from that day. "We sent the scummers down" takes the place of "sweet Marie" between the sha-la-las. Saints respond to their rivals' sinking fortunes with "Pompey going down with no money in the bank" to the tune of Yellow Submarine.

A high-speed piece of skill from Lallana, who leaves three challengers in his wake on the left wing, draws attention back to proceedings on the pitch. The Portsmouth centre-half Ricardo Rocha punts the ball forward and a fortunate deflection allows Lawrence to break through on goal. The spin on the ball works against him, though, and the best he can do is hold up play and set up Norris, whose slightly scuffed drive just misses the left-hand post. Greg Halford then threatens Southampton goalkeeper Kelvin Davis's goal with a free-kick before Mark Halsey – on loan from the Premier League – blows for half time.

A different Southampton emerge after the break. Their passing is snappier and they look more confident. Portsmouth's players, by contrast, are increasingly making mistakes. There are the tough tackles and fouls you expect from a derby game, but Halsey is letting a lot go and not looking like a man who wants to make his mark with a flurry of cards.

The referee plays a key role in the build-up to Southampton's goal. To the right of the centre circle, Norris fouls Dean Hammond who, in an instant, puts the ball down and plays a quick, harmless pass forward – too quick for Halsey, who orders a retake. Fox sends one of those flighted, dangerous crosses into the Pompey box and Lambert gets in front of his marker Jason Pearce to head home the opener. The 3,000 Southampton fans in the Milton End are as euphoric as you would expect.

After the goal, Portsmouth's lack of attacking ideas becomes stark. Without a creative player of real quality, the game plan is to hit it up to Kitson in the hope that his header or knock-down will fall to someone. The plan relies heavily on chance but, after Do Prado is put through by Lambert only to be denied by Pompey goalkeeper Stephen Henderson, the home side get a bit of luck.

Daniel Harding, on for the continually baited Fox, panics a little and puts a through ball out for a corner when he could have composed himself and cleared to touch. Norris's corner is nodded back across goal by Thorne and Joel Ward – who was born in Portsmouth and raised just outside the city – shows more desire than Do Prado to get his head to the ball and steer it past Davis. Ward races away in front of a delirious Fratton End kissing the badge on his shirt, a rare example in the modern game of that gesture actually meaning something.

The home fans sense a shift in momentum, which doesn't come as Saints dominate possession in the last ten minutes without posing much of a threat. Both sides seem satisfied with a point at the final whistle. Pompey managed to get something out of a game they didn't look like even scoring in, and Saints avoided defeat in their most hostile away fixture of the season. When Ward is the last man off the pitch, visibly proud of his afternoon's work, you can't help but think that the Hampshire folk of 1939 would be happy with how it all ended.

From WSC 300 February 2012

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