The magic of the FA Cup.
It’s a phrase synonymous with football’s oldest and most prestigious competition, which has a habit of conjuring up unexpected heroes and cliches in equal measure.
For Chris Burns, though, Pompey’s 1992 run was the stuff of which fairytales are made – minus, of course, the obligatory storybook happy ending. Ahem.
Two epic semi-final clashes with English footballing heavyweights Liverpool produced an agonising penalty-shootout defeat, with the Blues unable to capitalise on opportunities in both clashes to seal an unlikely Wembley trip.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be, as the second-division underdogs exited with an overwhelming sense of pride from the city’s passionate support, who flocked to both Highbury and Villa Park in hope of a famous giantkilling.
The very fact that midfielder Burns was there to play his part in proceedings remains a part of Fratton folklore in itself, though.
A year before he stood on the brink of a cup final appearance with his new club, Burns had been working as a bricklayer and playing part-time in non-league.
He said: ‘I was a bricklayer playing for Cheltenham in the Conference when a guy called Allan Gough, who was a friend of Frank Burrows (then-Pompey boss) recommended me to go for a trial there.
‘Allan played at Swindon with Frank and used to watch a lot of the Cheltenham games.’
Having been granted an unexpected opportunity to impress, 23-year-old Burns’ hopes of playing professional football hung in the balance when Burrows was sacked and Tony Barton put in caretaker charge.
Far from putting up walls, though, Barton allowed the trial to go ahead and within a week brickie Burns had accepted an offer to play for the Blues – and hang up the trowel and jointer.
He said: ‘After three days Tony Barton decided to give me a contract, so I was quite flattered really.
‘I desperately wanted to become a professional footballer but didn’t expect for it to happen in that way.
‘I have just got to thank Frank really for giving me that chance.
‘But when I signed for Pompey I was on less money than when I was bricklaying!’
Having signed for £25,000 in March 1991, it was left to rookie Burns to earn his place in the ambitious second-division side.
That proved easier said than done as he failed to make a first-team breakthrough by the season’s end, instead turning out for the reserves.
At the start of the following season, though, Jim Smith had been appointed permanent manager at Fratton Park.
And with the Bald Eagle’s arrival came a surprise debut for Burns, as the new Blues boss took something of a gamble in his first game at the helm.
Smith named a bold starting eleven comprising a mixture of youth and inexperience in the 1991-92 season opener at title-favourites Blackburn Rovers.
Burns and youngsters Andy Awford, Kit Symons and Darren Anderton all excelled as the hungry visitors were denied a famous win by a last-minute Rovers leveller.
That set the tone for a memorable Blues season that Burns was to be a mainstay in – playing 57 of the side’s 58 fixtures and netting nine goals.
He said: ‘They (Blackburn) were the favourites to win the league that year and we went up there with a fair few players that nobody had heard of.
‘Me and Andy Awford said to each other that if we could get through the first 10 games and still be in the side, that’d be great.
‘It turned out that the only game I missed was through illness at Exeter in the FA Cup third round.’
For Pompey, that New Year’s trip to St James Park was the start of a remarkable run in the competition.
Burns said: ‘I remember sitting in the stands with the flu and watching Warren Aspinall get the winner for us at Exeter (2-1).
‘We then drew Leyton Orient, who were going quite well at the time – they’d beaten Oldham but we saw them off at home (2-0).
‘Next up was Middlesbrough who we drew with at home (1-1) and then went up there and won the replay in a great game (4-2).
‘That put us into the quarter-finals when we were drawn against Nottingham Forest.
‘At that point I have to admit all the lads thought it was the end of it for us!
‘Forest had a great side at the time but I think they underestimated us on the day and we deserved to win the game (1-0).
‘Then obviously you get to the semi-finals and start believing it could be your year.
‘But we got given the hardest possible draw in Liverpool.
‘You’ve got Norwich and Sunderland in the other semi-final but that was the way it was.’
The underdogs, though, could draw confidence and inspiration from the fact that all of their cup victims had worn red.
And the Blues looked to have nicked it against all the odds in the first clash at Highbury as Anderton netted late in extra-time only for Ronnie Whelan to equalise at the death.
A goalless replay at Villa Park earned dogged Pompey a penalty shootout for the privilege of a fairytale final against fellow second-division side Sunderland.
It wasn’t to be, although Burns believed the Blues should’ve sealed their progress earlier in the game when Alan Mcloughlin hit the crossbar.
He joked: ‘It was easier to score than miss!
‘Macca had been banging goals in all over the place and if he’d just miskicked it, it would’ve gone in.
‘At the end of the day it went to penalties and when you are up against a team of internationals I think you’re struggling a little bit.’
For Burns, though, the overriding feeling was of pride not disappointment.
He said: ‘They were good times – you relish those moments.
‘It would’ve been lovely to have got to the final, of course, but obviously it wasn’t meant to be.
‘I never thought I would be a part of an FA Cup semi-final team but you always have to dream.’
For Burns, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the sport, that remarkable 1991-92 season was to offer another chance to fulfil a childhood fantasy.
He said: ‘As a boy I always dreamed of playing for Man United.
‘But I did the second best thing by playing for Pompey at Old Trafford in the Rumbelows Cup as it was – I lived out a half-dream!’
The Blues lost that game 3-1 and were to experience another hard-luck story the following season, as Smith’s side missed out on promotion to the top-flight by virtue of one solitary goal.
Burns said: ‘It went right to the last game – we beat Grimsby 2-1 and I think West Ham won 2-0 - if they hadn’t have won the game - we would’ve gone up.
‘I remember Jim Smith mistakenly saying that Cambridge (West Ham’s opponents) had equalised with five minutes to go.
‘I thought: Oh my God we are in the Premier League.
‘The play-offs we were just a bit flat because we’d missed out on automatic promotion (Pompey lost out to Leicester City).’
Burns lost his place in the side early into the next season and went out on loan at Bournemouth and Swansea before leaving the Blues for first-team football at Northampton.
He said: ‘I could’ve stayed for longer – I was offered a new contract but at the time the lad they bought (BjorneKristensen) I didn’t think was as good as I was.
‘Really, I should’ve signed the contract, stayed and had another two years because I’m sure I would’ve probably got myself back in the side – I’m too thick-headed and stubborn for my own good.’
Burns, who left the Blues having made 107 appearances and scored 11 goals in a four-year stay, finished his playing career in the Valencian Preferente for Spanish part-timers UD Horadada in 2009.
Having celebrated his 47th birthday on Sunday, the former Cheltenham Academy coach has returned to bricklaying and is the boss of Gloucestershire Northern Senior League side Brockworth Albion.
CHRIS BURNS ON...
...HIS RETURN TO THE BUILDING SITE
Having successfully completed a trial at Pompey while working as a bricklayer in March 1991 – Chris Burns has since returned to the building site upon his retirement from football.
I enjoy it (bricklaying) – even in the summer when I played for Pompey I’d return to the building site.
We’d get eight weeks off, of which I used to go on my holidays for two and then for the next six weeks I would muck in with my mates and help out here or there.
I always kept my hand in and now I work for myself and the business is going really well.
Obviously it would’ve been nice to earn some big money in football but it simply wasn’t around in those days.
...ANDY AWFORD’S MANAGERIAL CREDENTIALS
Andy was only 19 or 20 at the time but when I played with him I could see he was very knowledgeable about the game.
It’s good to see how well he is getting on now as Pompey boss.
A club of Pompey’s size deserves to be in the Championship with their history – and hopefully Andy can lead them there.
...BLUES BEING VICTIMS OF THEIR OWN SUCCESS
The 1992 FA Cup run killed the team because obviously Darren (Anderton) went to Spurs and a couple of the other lads who played their part went to other clubs as well.
We did well that season with a relatively young and inexperienced side and I think everyone recognised there were some good players in our team at the time.