El Clasicoast: The Portsmouth view

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Journalist, FourFourTwo contributor and Portsmouth fan Steve Morgan tells the story of the South Coast derby from the blue side...

Seventeen miles. One – as Southampton fans will cheerily point out to any Pompey aficionado – for each of the points currently separating the clubs in the Championship as they gear up for another shuddering bout of El Clasicoast.

Southampton still head the table after an impressive start, but have wobbled of late. Pompey are mired in 16th, but show signs of life on the pitch under rookie boss Michael Appleton (the less said about life off it, the better).

Just four games into his Pompey career Appleton is chasing the kind of result and performance which can make a reputation. Lord knows Portsmouth could use a bit of local pride. Even the otherwise mostly-hapless Alain Perrin, or ‘Reggie’ as our charismatic, bonkers, briefcase-sporting French boss was inevitably known during his time passing through the ever-revolving door of the PFC managerial suite under chairman Milan Mandaric, is a legend. Pourquoi? For ‘beating the scum 4-1’ in 2004/05, of course. Allez les Bleus. Chapeau monsieur!

On paper, this encounter arguably has all the makings of a scrappy draw, maybe even an away win, though the horror of that admission makes me want to gag. It’s certainly a prime opportunity for Appleton to assess the talent at his disposal where it really counts. No less is it the sternest test of nerve yet for Nigel Adkins’ promotion-seekers. Urgh The.Very. Thought. Of. It.

Still, on the plus side Southampton don’t travel well and a trip to Fratton Park when the mood is right is about as welcome as an invitation to a picnic in a wind tunnel. Faint hearts in the blue corner should take succour at being reminded of Pompey skipper Arjan De Zeeuw’s reflections on the 4-1 triumph over the recently-defected Harry Redknapp’s Saints in the afore-mentioned L’Affair Perrin in 2004/05 – the last season the clubs spent in the same division.

Old 'Arry was made to feel at home on his Fratton return with Saints...

That day, all five goals came in a breathtaking opening 24 minutes in which the sides traded blows charging around the turf like frantic, puffing, stark-eyed heavyweights in search of haymakers. Lomano Lualua bagged his spot in Pompey folklore with two goals before crocking himself with a traditional backflip. Job done, this was one of the greatest cameos Fratton Park has witnessed, at least in my relationship with the old girl.

De Zeeuw talked of having had the game won in the tunnel, Pompey’s pumped-up players realising that Southampton, already teetering on the Premier League precipice simply didn’t fancy it.
‘Win it in the tunnel’ would be the keynote of any fan’s pre-match address, especially today. Rumour has it that Peter Crouch, due to play for Southampton, failed to re-appear after the warm-up because he’d felt a bit queasy. Such occasions, though probably apocryphal, are nonetheless food and drink to fans ever-hungry for popular mythology where derby-day tales, or ‘ledge bants’ if you’re unlucky enough to be Tim Lovejoy.

Come what may, events at Fratton Park will certainly ruin one city’s collective Sunday lunch. If familiarity breeds contempt, one wonders what the blue and red corners would make of each other were that old adage to fit the bill here, for while this is one of English football’s fiercest, least-understood derbies, it’s also one of the least-contested. Absence – it’s only the seventh league meeting in 24 years – has not made the heart grow fonder.

Cross-city derbies dictate by geography that both sets of supporters have to rub along together during the week at work, and often at home. Pompey-Southampton is perceived by extremists in the former camp as a sporting collision of markedly different cultural worlds – us and them. Portsmouth, with what a friend jokingly refers to as ‘the people’s republic of Milton’, an imaginary island within a real one, is replete with historical grudges perceived over status accorded Pompey by Southampton-based media. Then, and this is far more likely, its navy port pitted against commercial port, the former on the slide since the war, the latter burgeoning from the 1950s. Throw in a chippy mistrust of anyone who may have been on a yacht and is called Giles and you have the perfect storm.

Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and no, Portsmouth-born Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was about Paris and London and written before football was codified and all that. Still, it’s a neat coincidence and the author’s birthplace is not a matter of dispute.

No-one seems to have a definitive handle on where football relations really began to sour, though. Some say the ‘scummers’ (Pompey’s nickname for ‘the team down the road’) moniker is derived from a 1930s dockers’ strike, the Southampton Company Union Men (SCUM, for people struggling to add two and two) returning to work before their blue brothers. Others suggest the rivalry really began in earnest when the teams’ fortunes started to diverge: Pompey’s slump to the basement, squared with Southampton’s FA Cup final success in 1976, albeit thanks to a solitary goal from the late Portsmouth born-and-bred Bobby Stokes.

While the sides share proximity on a map, they are currently in different orbits. As I write this, our current owner Roman Antonov is due in court on charges of fraud and money laundering. Only a fool would compare the clubs’ respective youth operations, though Andy Awford is doing his damnedest to rectify that, having twice taken bragging rights at junior level this season. Small beer admittedly, given a recent Southampton harvest that includes Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, and most disconcertingly of all, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Portsmouth-born, Pompey fan and son of former England winger and Pompey player Mark.

It’s a record that has been stuck in the same groove since the 1960s. Less than a decade after Matt Busby’s testament to youth with his vibrant Manchester United side, often plucked from the neighbouring Salford streets, 200 miles south Pompey boss George Smith could be found dismantling the club’s youth policy, claiming that there was nothing around Portsmouth but fish (in the spirit of equality, Pompey fans are known as ‘Skates’, owing to suggested sexual proclivities of sailors on long hauls at sea with their catch. Whatever).

Michael Appleton is a son of Salford himself. And as is the unwritten rule with any Alex Ferguson alumnus, however fleeting, hopes are high that he will have had some Govan shipyard magic dust rubbed into his pores. Good times for a change, as the bard of Salford, Morrissey, opined. 

The cut of his jib has been admired already. He might be a ringer for Voldemort  (even Ferguson can’t match that), but he clearly possesses a keen sense of humour – and the gallows variety is a must, given our well-publicised, if never satisfactorily explained travails since FA Cup glory in 2008, which now feels like the lifetime ago that it more or less was.

Apparently, we have enough money to last out until April. Administration is knocking at the door again. It’s round more often than the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to be truthful. There is always the thought that these may well be the end times, as supporting Pompey these days is rather like living with a manageable medical complaint.

If reality bites the hand of salvation here, Portsmouth fans will be crossing everything that it won’t be too hard. Spare us that at least.

El Clasicoast: The Southampton view