In football terms it was the musical equivalent of asking Jedward to support Adele on a world tour for nine months. For one glorious season, though, Croatian great Robert Prosinecki was clearly intent on sampling life on the other side.
Having survived relegation from the old Division One on the final day of the previous season – a 3-0 win against Barnsley in front of 13,000 largely disillusioned fans providing last-ditch salvation – Fratton Park was hardly the obvious location for a player who just three years previously had been wowing a global audience at the World Cup.
A gift to the fans
Admittedly, at the age of 32, the chain-smoking midfielder wasn’t at his absolute peak when Milan Mandaric unveiled him as his "present to the Portsmouth fans" – but the club’s long-suffering followers didn’t give a flying one.
After all, this was a player who had turned out for BarcelonaandReal Madrid in the not-too-distant past. Compared to the likes of Nigel Quashie and Stefani Miglioranzi – the latter Brazilian in name only – who were providing the ammunition for a largely impotent strike force the previous season, Pompey were most definitely trading up.
“I was surprised when we got him,” laughs then-Pompey boss Graham Rix, who had taken over the role from caretaker Steve Claridge in February 2001. “He wasn’t really someone I had factored into my plans.”
He wasn’t alone. Pompey’s unremarkable squad had expected to turn up at pre-season training with nothing more exciting than a tour to the West Country to occupy their minds. Instead they arrived at their south coast base to be greeted by a media storm as a result of Mandaric’s coup.
“Any move like this creates a degree of cynicism,” former Pompey defender and Prosinecki team-mate Linvoy Primus tells FFT. “A few people were probably thinking, ‘how long is this going to last?’ but we got our answer as soon as the season kicked off.
“Pompey fans wouldn’t accept a player who didn’t put in the work but he did. As soon as he started playing you could see that he was serious, that this wasn’t some kind of holiday for him.”
Off to a flyer
It wasn’t a picnic for the incredulous defenders he came up against either – and, for a time at least, it looked as though this rather strange love affair would have the most romantic of endings.
“We started fantastically,” says Rix. “We lost our first home game (against Bradford) but then won four out of five and were on fire. I remember we played Barnsley at Oakwell at the end of September and he was absolutely sensational. I took him off with five minutes to go so he could get the reception he deserved from the fans and he was furious – he just wanted to play every minute of every game.”
Prosinecki had adulation flying at him from all angles as he teased defenders and tormented goalkeepers with his precision delivery from set-pieces – much to the delight of a young Peter Crouch who would score 19 goals that season, most of them emanating from Prosinecki’s bewitching feet.
His antics against Rotherham at Millmoor in mid-October raised that love a notch or two, with a shimmy sending a Millers’ defender to the floor before Prosinecki waited for him to get back to his feet to beat him again.
It wasn’t just the supporters who were enjoying having a bona fide great perform for them on a far less grand stage than his talents deserved – even some of Pompey opponents were relishing the chance to rub shoulders with him.
“We were in the tunnel getting ready to come out against Nottingham Forest when Marlon Harewood went over to him,” says Primus. “He just shook his head and said ‘mate, you’re an absolute legend’. I think that pretty much summed it up.”
The issue for Prosinecki, and also Portsmouth, was that one man might win you a couple of games single-handedly in a season but there’s only so much he can do over the course of 46 matches – a point that Pompey’s 4-4 draw against Barnsley at Fratton Park in early February made blindingly obvious.
“It was like he was playing them on his own,” says Primus. “He scored a hat-trick and we were 4-2 up with about 10 minutes to go. Then I got sent off – I can’t remember what happened, but I’m sure it was harsh – and Barnsley ended up drawing the game 4-4.”
Apocryphal stories abound of Prosinecki storming out of Fratton Park just minutes after the final whistle dressed in full mud-stained kit with steam coming out of his Slavic ears. But if Prosinecki was pissed off at that particular collapse, it was Mandaric who was left fizzing by another season of underachievement.
Predictably, it was Rix who paid the price, being relieved of his duties at the end of March. Unlike other managers, though, Rix wasn’t left cursing the undue influence of the club’s biggest name.
“I could have absolutely no complaints about Robbie that season,” says Rix, now the boss of Wessex League Premier Division side AFC Portchester.
“Fair enough he probably wasn’t the best trainer I’ve ever worked with but on a Saturday afternoon he was first class. He wasn’t someone who did a huge amount of running but I had youngsters like Gary O’Neil and Neil Barrett who did that for him. I basically gave him a free reign and told him to go and create chances, which he definitely did.”
No Hollywood ending
Promotion chasers up until Christmas, Pompey’s season was derailed by the decision to buy another high-profile foreigner in the form of Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, a Japanese goalkeeper who isn’t remembered anywhere near as fondly as his Croatian colleague.
Originally usurping Dave Beasant between the sticks, the calamitous keeper – who later became Japan captain and won 166 caps – shipped 25 goals in his first 13 matches during a dismal run which saw Pompey’s promotion hopes go up in smoke. Short of donning the gloves himself, there was little that Prosinecki could do.
“He was probably frustrated at times that season but he remains the model professional,” says Primus. “His English probably wasn’t the best but he was a really, really humble guy and great with the younger players. Most of them couldn’t believe they were playing alongside him but he never talked about everything he had achieved. He was as interested in them as they were in him.”
For the record, Pompey finished that season in 17th place, but for those fans who witnessed Prosinecki at close quarters that was in many ways irrelevant. It was a brief stay – but one long enough for the Croatian to etch himself into Pompey folklore.
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