As the Portsmouth players put on their uniforms in the Wembley locker room this afternoon, they were under no allusions about what the future held for them and their team. They were going to be relegated down to the Championship League after the season. Once there, they were far more likely to be relegated again this time next year as opposed to being promoted back to the Premiership. For most of the players, that would be a future event they would read about in the newspaper, having long been sold by Portsmouth for whatever cash could be gotten in the transfer market and replaced by whatever players could be picked up for free.
Their manager, Avram Grant, had been re-hired at Portsmouth in November to captain what was essentially a ship of the damned. With no hope of surviving in the Premiership or avoiding administration, this Pompey team was better off simply avoiding injury and making themselves as attractive as possible to a future suitor. Grant, who was a John Terry-choke away from winning the Champions League two years ago as manager of Chelsea, was now drafted to be a hospice care-giver to the dying body that was Portsmouth Football Club.
Yet, somehow, Grant has inspired this team to play with courage, hope and determination. Since taking over the team, Grant has managed to steer the team to some dramatic league victories including beating Liverpool 2-0 and a last minute come-from-behind victory over Hull. However, the Pompey FA Cup run this spring has been nothing short of breathtaking.
Starting with their replay victory away at Coventry City, and victory at home against Sunderland, Portsmouth had to travel down the road to their arch-rival Southampton. Portsmouth 1-4 triumph over their south coast enemy was supposed to be the highlight in their otherwise season of pain, but when they followed up that win with a victory over Birmingham, bankrupt and relegation-bound Portsmouth found themselves scheduled to play at Wembley in the FA Cup Semis against Tottenham.
If there is a God, He definitely dabbles in creating the football fixture list. When Portsmouth reached their apex two years ago winning the FA Cup, Harry Redknapp was their manager and, though he was cup-tied for Pompey that season, Jermaine Defoe was their most important player. After lifting the FA Cup that season, Redknapp saw the financial writing on the wall for Pompey and left for the safer, wealthier environs of North London and Tottenham. Defoe soon followed. A year later, Tottenham are on the brink of finishing the top four and going on to the Champions league. Portsmouth is on the brink of going out of business and down to the Championship league.
Redknapp has managed to break Pompey hearts a couple of times. He has left Fratton Park twice, once to go to arch-rivals Southampton and another time when the money looked like it was gone. By drawing Tottenham in the FA Cup semis, Portsmouth had the chance to return the favor.
After bending but not breaking for 90 minutes this afternoon, Pompey held Tottenham to a scoreless draw. The extra time saw Portsmouth score twice, once courtesy of the embarrassing Wembley turf which helped Michael Dawson lose his feet at the worst possible moment and left Frederic Piquionne with a clear shot on goal. The ecstasy of the passionate Portsmouth supporters, who clearly deserve a better fate than the one their club is giving them, would warm any cynic’s heart.
Now, Portsmouth faces mighty Chelsea in the finals. In sports, as romantic as games often are, David rarely defeats Goliath, Butler rarely beats Duke, and Portsmouth is unlikely to beat Chelsea.
But, as Avram Grant looks across the pitch at team that fired him for coming within an ill-taken penalty of Europe’s biggest trophy, and the Pompey fans look upon their beloved team that will shortly be sold-off for spare change, who cannot root for them on May 15? The players will be playing without hope of collecting any FA Cup bonus money that will be in their contract and without the opportunity to qualify for the UEFA cup, which is prohibited to teams that are in administration. They will be playing for the most pure reason of all – to pay tribute to their supporters and the love of the game. The odds are long, but the prize is there to be won. I, for one, will dig out any blue shirt I have in my drawer, go to my local pub, and cheer on my new favorite team in the world.