Glen Johnson on Redknapp luring him to Pompey & their FA Cup glory
“To actually hear that whistle, knowing that you’ve done it, it’s impossible to bottle up,” says Glen Johnson, reflecting on the moment, at quarter to six on May 17 2008, when he knew that he could call himself an FA Cup winner, then and forever.
Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth were cup champions. It was the first time since 1939 that Pompey had lifted it, and the first time in 13 years that it was not the name of one of the Premier League’s big four being etched onto the trophy.
“Even telling you now makes my hair stand up,” says Johnson, speaking on behalf of bettingexpert.com. “It’s one of those moments no one can ever take away from you.”
The moment, no. The medal he received minutes later was robbed from him that night, which we’ll come to later. For now, though, the story of how they achieved a remarkable feat.
To get hold of that famous silver pot, Johnson and his team-mates had trodden a hard path, in the final and leading up to it. For Johnson himself, the first step had been to join Pompey in the first place, not an easy decision given that he was leaving Chelsea to do so.
“I believed that I could play that level,” he says, “but I wasn’t getting the game time I wanted and needed.
“I was close to signing for Ajax and I was literally about to sign for Lyon and then I spoke to Harry [Redknapp] funnily enough, and he was like, ‘You know what? Out of sight, out of mind.’ That was literally what he said.
“If I’m playing in these other leagues, yes, I could do it, but then you could be missed a little bit. He said, ‘Come and play for me, play every single week, you know you’re going to enjoy yourself.’ Within 10 minutes I was sold. It was all about Harry, really.”
A season on loan on the South Coast turned into a permanent deal for Johnson a year later as Redknapp built the squad he desired.
“That’s what Harry is good at,” Johnson says, “Harry would just sign good players. There were guys who were 35 years old, guys who were 18. People that had won stuff, people that had won zero.
“But basically, the dressing room was just full of good people, the club was full of good people… When you get that with good players, you know it’s going to be a powerful force.”
The back five of David James in goal, with Johnson, Sol Campbell, Sylvain Distin and Herman Hreidarsson in front of him was, as Johnson says, “a hard defence to come up against.” And that solid platform allowed the likes of John Utaka, Sulley Muntari, Pedro Mendes, Niko Kranjcar and Nwankwo Kanu to do what they did best.
“Harry doesn’t really coach you or set up a team tactically,” Johnson adds. “He will just pick good players at the right time. And just literally let you go and play.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so [he thinks], ‘You’re good at this, you’re good at that, just keep doing it.’ And that’s the sort of belief that he’d give everybody.”
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The early rounds of that FA Cup run – wins against Ipswich, Plymouth and Preston – are hazy memories for Johnson, who says at that point it is a mere case of doing what is required to progress: “I don’t want to sound arrogant, of course, but if we play our game we’re gonna win.”
Yet in the fifth round tie away to Preston, James had to keep Pompey in the game. “He was phenomenal the whole time,” Johnson says. “You can’t win these competitions without a proper ‘keeper because you’re going to come up against good sides, and you need the ‘keeper to bail you out every now and then.”
One of those good sides stood in front of them in the quarter-finals. Not just good, but great. Manchester United, with their front three of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo. The team that won three consecutive titles and the Champions League between 2006 and 2009. At Old Trafford to boot.
Intimidating, you might think. Apparently not: “To be fair, we were just enjoying it. At the time, we were beating most sides, we were in a good league position, and we were just having fun.
“United were favourites and rightly so. But we knew that if we went there with a game plan, which was just to be an obstruction to them, we had the players to deal with it.”
Johnson was key among them, blocking a shot from Tevez on the line in the first half and keeping Ronaldo quiet.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Johnson says of the Portuguese, “but obviously I was a big lad and quick as well, so I wasn’t worried about getting close to him because if he wanted to have a race I could run, or if he wanted to be physical I could be physical.
“I wanted to get as close as I could and try and have an impact when the ball arrives so that you unsettle him from the start. As we’ve all seen for many years, if he starts enjoying himself then everyone’s in trouble.”
Portsmouth managed to keep United at bay and, Johnson says, “In those games, you’re always going to get one or two scoring opportunities, always.” They got one from the spot.
Not only did they have a chance from 12 yards with 14 minutes to play, but they got it against Rio Ferdinand. Edwin van der Sar had gone off injured at half-time and Tomas Kuszcak had been sent off for the foul that gave Pompey the penalty, so it fell to the United centre-half to stop Sulley Muntari converting.
“I was over the moon,” Johnson chuckles. “I’ve played in goal at St James’ Park and you don’t realise how big the goal is when you’re not designed or trained to play in goal. [But] I didn’t feel sorry for [Ferdinand] at all. Now it’s just funny and you can see by his dive he’s not a goalkeeper.”
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Pompey were going to Wembley for the semis and, having been underdogs in the quarter-final, they were suddenly favourites to win the competition. Three Championship sides made up the last four: Pompey’s opponents West Brom, Cardiff, and Barnsley, who’d beaten Chelsea and Liverpool to get there.
“After beating United, that’s when we were like, ‘We’ve got a chance to win this.’ And we get drawn against a Championship side which, no disrespect to them, but we were miles better.”
“We knew that if we played our game, we could win. But sometimes that’s difficult. The United game, when we weren’t favourites, it’s easy to go to play. When you’re favourites you’ve got to go out there to win the game. It’s a totally different pressure.”
The West Brom game was, he says, “a lot harder than we expected.” But they battled through, Kanu’s goal giving Pompey a second-half lead before they clung on while the Baggies pushed for an equaliser.
Meeting Cardiff in the final was similar, psychologically. Johnson says they dealt with that pressure “probably as badly as the first time.”
“It was probably our worst performance,” Johson recalls, “but there was only one opportunity I remember for Cardiff. Although we weren’t great, we just got the job done.”
It was Kanu again, this time scoring before the break with another tap-in from close range, like in the semi.
Throwback to Kanu’s 🇳🇬 match winning goal in the 2008 FA Cup Final for Portsmouth
Happy Birthday @Pompey 🥳
— JABULANI XI (@JABULANIXI) April 5, 2020
The agonising second period eventually passed and the referee blew that whistle. “If you could bottle up [that feeling], it’d be priceless,” Johnson says. “It’s one of those moments when you’re thinking of a hundred things in milliseconds.”
Yet it was not the end of the drama, not quite. “We obviously had a few drinks at the stadium and enjoyed ourselves,” Johnson remembers. “Then we got back to the hotel and I’m holding my medal like I won’t let it go.”
But they were going out to continue the celebrations and the medal had to stay at the hotel: “I put it into a couple of socks, wrapped it up at the bottom of the suitcase within clothes and hid the suitcase.
“When we come back the next day at 6am, I go in the room but the first thing I’ve done was check – I don’t know why, but I want to check to make sure the medal was still there – and it was gone. I was fuming.”
The same had happened to his team-mate Jamie Ashdown.
“The FA got us a new [medal],” Johnson says, “It’s not quite the same. It’s not the one we got as champions. But I’m not too worried about it anymore. The memories are what can’t be stolen.”
By Joshua Law