The rise and fall of Portsmouth has become one of the great parables of modern English football – the dangers of overreaching in search of glory, the prevalence of shady owners and unreliable agents. The club’s great highs were followed by the crushing lows of a sorry descent; a litany of losses and three relegations in four seasons.
Portsmouth have only recently begun to recover from the excesses and uncertainties of their seven-year stay in the Premier League, which ended with administration, a nine-point penalty deduction, a transfer embargo, two managers and three different owners in the space of a season. They finished bottom of the table but did at least reach the FA Cup final, two years on from winning the competition under Harry Redknapp.
That was the undoubted high-point of Portsmouth’s brief dalliance with the Premier League, as Redknapp delivered an eighth-place finish and a first major trophy since 1950. Wedged in-between winning the FA Cup and being relegated was the 2008-09 season, where, as a result of their 1-0 victory over Cardiff City at Wembley, Pompey played European football for the first time in their history.
Although inseparable from the struggles that came afterwards, competing in the UEFA Cup remains a source of great pride for the club’s supporters and the players involved. Regardless of what happened next, those six games are a significant part of the Portsmouth story and something many fans never imagined they would get the chance to see. Playing in Europe wasn’t supposed to be achievable for a humble club like theirs. The novelty of the experience was inescapable.
“It was always a great team spirit at Portsmouth,” says Sean Davis, who joined the club from Tottenham in January 2006. “I think that’s part of the reason why we did so well. A lot of things have moved on in modern-day football but team spirit is still the main thing. If you’ve got a good bunch of lads then that’s half the battle won. Plus we had a lot of talented players who, no disrespect to Portsmouth, went on to play for really big clubs and have outstanding careers.
“It was a good time for Portsmouth. We had a lot of talented players. We won the FA Cup. We played nice, quick, attractive football and it was always entertaining to watch us. Playing at home was great, especially with the Fratton faithful, who were unbelievable. It was always a pleasure to play in front of them. Most of my three-and-a-half years there were great.”
To make it to the group stage, Portsmouth had to overcome Vitoria Guimaraes over two legs. The first went swimmingly, as Lassana Diarra and Jermain Defoe scored in a 2-0 win at Fratton Park. But that lead evaporated little over half an hour into the return match, which went into extra-time. As the pressure built, Peter Crouch rescued the tie with two quick-fire goals.
In the highly anticipated draw that followed, it was confirmed that Portsmouth would face Heerenveen, Braga, Wolfsburg and AC Milan once each to determine which three sides would proceed to the knockout rounds. Pompey’s run might have been cut short at that point, but there was plenty of incident and adventure to savour along the way.
The group stage got off to the worst possible start for Harry Redknapp’s men, who endured a thumping 3-0 defeat in Portugal. A few players had been rested but it was still a relatively strong side that fell to Braga. A sensational free-kick from Luis Aguiar beat David James for the opener and two more goals were added after the break.
Redknapp raged at the referee in his post-match interview for denying Peter Crouch a goal at 2-0 and David James spoke out against the gamesmanship of the Braga players, who he felt had been going to ground far too easily. The goalkeeper refused to shake the hands of any opposition players at full-time, so incensed was he at their antics.
“That was an eye-opener,” admits Davis. “Every time you went near one of their players they fell over. They were aggressive when you had the ball, but you couldn’t touch them when they had it. They were very smart and calculated. It was a very frustrating game. Tactically they were better than us, and mentally too.
“They were conning the referee and we got frustrated. We let our emotions get involved and we ended up getting beat handsomely. In general, European football’s a lot slower and you can’t be as aggressive. The referees blew for a lot more fouls than they would in the Premier League. The Braga players were rolling on the floor and winning free-kicks.”
The next match against AC Milan was a different kind of test entirely. Portsmouth faced one of the great aristocrats of the European game, a side packed with leading internationals and household names, managed by Carlo Ancelotti. The contrast was as pronounced as you could possibly imagine. Less than two years previously, many of these players had won the Champions League.
The starting line-up featured Dida, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko. The substitutes’ bench was just as intimidating, with Alexandre Pato, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo and Ronaldinho held back in case of emergencies.
“They had some great players, and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I don’t really get overexcited,” Davis says. “It is what it is. It’s just two goals, a green pitch, white lines and a size five football. I don’t really get overawed or think, ‘Wow, it’s Ronaldinho today, I need to play better.’ I always had the mindset of going out there, doing my best and getting on with it.”
Like Ronaldinho, Davis started off as a substitute. Also in the home dugout was Tony Adams, taking charge of just his sixth game as Portsmouth manager after Harry Redknapp had been poached by Tottenham. Everyone was having to adapt to a new regime.
“As players you just get on with it to be honest. Obviously those on the fringes who aren’t getting a game are excited because a new manager coming in means a fresh start, and the players that Harry bought might have been a bit nervous. But at the end of the day, the football club will always be bigger than any player or manager, so you just get on with it.
“Tony wasn’t as vocal as Harry. He tried to tighten up the defence a bit more by doing a lot of stuff with the back four and the midfield. He wanted less space in the holes. He did ok but being a manager’s different to being a coach. As a coach there’s no real pressure on you. You just do the day-to-day stuff and the managers bears the brunt of the results.”
If Adams and his players were expected to be out of their depth against such elite opposition as AC Milan, they certainly didn’t show it. On a frenetic November evening at Fratton Park, a capacity crowd almost willed their team on to victory as they came within seconds of completing a sensational upset.
Portsmouth survived an early scare as Inzaghi hit the inside of the post and the top of the crossbar when presented with two of the sort of opportunities he’d thrived on throughout his career. It was goalless at the break but Younes Kaboul changed that when he powered in a header from Glen Johnson’s cross. Even more wonderfully disbelieving scenes played out in the crowd as Kanu turned in another Johnson delivery from the right to make it 2-0.
“The atmosphere was always great at Fratton Park, especially for night games. But I think the roof nearly came off with the first and second goals against AC Milan. That was a great atmosphere that night and we were unfortunate not to get the three points.”
In response, Ancelotti sent for the cavalry, immediately bringing on Brazilian internationals Alexandre Pato and Ronaldinho in a double substitution.
Inzaghi hit the woodwork for a third time before Ronaldinho found a way back into the match for Milan, whipping the ball around a six-man wall and into the top corner from a free kick. Cruelly, Inzaghi finally did find the net in the 92nd minute to deny Portsmouth a famous win.
When Portsmouth came up against Ronaldinho.
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) July 29, 2017
For Davis, the disappointment was compounded by the fact that he’d remained on the bench until late on and could do little to prevent Milan’s comeback. “I came on when we were 2-0 up and we drew 2-2 so that speaks volumes,” he laughs. “I did nutmeg Clarence Seedorf though so that’s my claim to fame. I’m happy about that.”
The Milan result left Portsmouth struggling to qualify for the next round, and that task was rendered impossible following a valiant 3-2 defeat away to Wolfsburg a week later. The lead changed hands freely during an open first half. Edin Dzeko scored after three minutes but Portsmouth were soon in front as Jermain Defoe and then Arnold Mvuemba struck. Christian Gentner equalised as his ball into the box went straight through without anyone getting a touch.
Chances were at a premium as the game tightened up in the second half but a terrible mistake from David James gifted Wolfsburg the winner. Receiving the ball from a defender, his weak pass was easily intercepted by Zvjezdan Misimovic, who rounded the embarrassed goalkeeper to roll the ball into an empty net. James later saved a penalty from the same man but the damage had already been done. Portsmouth were out with one game left.
“Despite the result, Wolfsburg away was a good game,” Davis says. “It was the first time I’d seen Edin Dzeko and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, what a player he is.’ The atmosphere there was great because the crowd were really close to the pitch. Their style of play was similar so it felt like a Premier League game. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t go as far as we could have gone. I thought with the squad we had we could have gone a lot further.”
The journey home was eventful too. “We had a problem with the plane on the way back. Smoke was coming out of it and Richard Hughes went as white as a ghost, which was quite funny. He hated flying at the best of times, but when smoke started coming out of the plane before we’d even taken off we had to abandon the flight. He eventually got a train or a car home. We stayed the night and came back the next day.”
Although there was nothing other than pride resting on the outcome for the visit of Heerenveen, Pompey at least put on a show. Back in the team, Peter Crouch grabbed his second brace of the competition with a header and a tap-in. He had enough chances to claim at least a hat-trick but Hermann Hreidarsson rounded off the scoring in the final minute.
It proved one of just four wins that Tony Adams enjoyed as Portsmouth boss before he was sacked in February 2009. The club stayed up comfortably enough under caretaker manager Paul Hart but that summer marked the beginning of the end for their Premier League dream. According to Davis, the players already had an inkling that something had gone wrong behind the scenes.
“We kind of sensed it coming. There were a lot of players out of contract and people weren’t re-signing. It was a strange atmosphere. It was as though the owners had stopped putting money into the club. They’d bought all these players and then all of a sudden people were going, the manager was going and they weren’t buying anyone.
“They were so many players out of contract and they weren’t getting renewed. As players you don’t know too much about what’s going on upstairs but you could sense that something wasn’t right. It was hard to watch what happened.”
As Sulaiman Al-Fahim’s purchase of the club dragged on, its best players were sold, including Glen Johnson, Peter Crouch and Sylvain Distin. Once the deal was finally agreed in late August, there was no time left to find suitable replacements. The new owner was gone within six weeks but a patchwork squad struggled on under Avram Grant, rooted to the foot of the table throughout.
Things got much worse before they got better, as Portsmouth plummeted down to League Two at a remarkable pace, suffering two more damaging points deductions along the way.
Although they stabilised under fan ownership in the fourth tier, before winning promotion in 2017, at each stage in their decline the idea of ever having faced AC Milan as equals became even more implausible than it seemed at the time.
By Sean Cole