Weird, strange and surreal – just three of the adjectives offered by David James upon winning the FA Cup with Pompey in 2008.
As Sports Mail readers will come to learn in next weekend’s edition of our two-part Big Interview with James, they are three words that could equally be used to describe his ‘incredible’ four-year stay that saw him inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame earlier this year.
For now, though, today’s return to FA Cup action for Pompey with the visit of Macclesfield offers the perfect excuse to look back on the Blues’ epic 2008 triumph and their against-all-odds return to the final two years later in 2010.
And who better to describe the experience than a Fratton favourite who was at the forefront in both Cup campaigns.
Having failed in two prior appearances in English football’s showpiece event with Liverpool and Aston Villa respectively, James was able to bring an end to a 19-year wait to join a select band of players to have won both FA Youth Cup and FA Cup.
And that 1-0 Wembley win over Cardiff is the highlight of a distinguished career for the former England goalkeeper.
‘I’m a massive fan of the FA Cup and always have been,’ said James.
‘Having won the FA Youth Cup with Watford in 1989 I had always wanted to become part of that small group of players who had won both.
‘When we lost in 2000 with Aston Villa (to Chelsea 1-0 – James also lost by the same scoreline in 1996 with Liverpool to Manchester United) I sat at a table with Gareth Southgate and flippantly said to him we would do this again.
‘I was eventually right in that assumption!
‘Winning the FA Cup was a career highlight, no doubt.
‘But that was a weird, strange and surreal proposition for us.
‘We won the Cup but in the six games we played, we were the favourites in five of them.
‘The most important game with regards to competing was the game at Old Trafford (a quarter-final against a Manchester United side who went on to be crowned both Premier League and European champions).
‘That was the one game that we weren’t expected to win.
‘When Harry (Redknapp) read out the United line-up we knew that was their strongest team.
‘For a brief moment you are resigned to thinking you are not going to win because United were the best team in England at the time and you are playing them on their turf .
‘But that was a brief moment – just seconds in my head and certainly nothing audible.
‘And then you start to think to yourself it’s their best team, so it cant get any worse.’
With all and sundry expecting a routine win for a rampant United side possessing Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in their starting line-up, the Blues shook the footballing world with a stunning backs-to-the-wall 1-0 victory, with James excelling.
‘We went out there and were by far outplayed,’ said James.
‘We had a couple of goal-line clearances – I still remember Sylvain Distin blocking Michael Carrick’s shot on the line and trying to work out whether he even knew what he was doing!
‘It was one of those games where it goes on and you think you could have a replay.
‘To then get a penalty late on and for them to have a sending off to put Rio Ferdinand in goal – it was the game of the competition as far as I was concerned.’
That victory put Pompey into a first semi-final for 16 years and with upsets occuring throughout the competition, Redknapp’s side assumed the unlikely position of favourites in the last four.
A narrow 1-0 win over Championship side West Brom followed in the semi-final before the Blues completed the job in the final by the same scoreline against lower-league Cardiff City – in front of a record 89,874 Wembley crowd.
Kanu was the goal hero on both occasions and James was keen to soak up the remarkable achievement for all it was.
‘Looking back on that run, there wasn’t an easy game,’ said James.
‘In the third round against Ipswich (1-0) we were clinging on and we went behind against Plymouth in the fourth round (2-1).
The Preston North End game was 0-0 and they scored an own goal in the last minute (after James had saved a second-half penalty in the fifth-round tie).
‘The fact that it was unexpected and that it wasn’t easy at any level added to the overall feeling of joy when we won it.
‘When we won the final, I remember afterwards all the lads running around with the cup on the pitch afterwards at Wembley.
‘I quickly borrowed someone’s phone to find out where my family was and ran over to them.
‘I played the whole game thinking they were on the other side of the stadium – I didn’t know where they were sat but in the end I managed to find them!
‘Other than that, though, I was just enjoying watching everyone else enjoy themselves and soaking up the support from the fans, which was phenomenal.
‘The only cloud on the day was having to have a drugs test and literally missing out on all of the changing-room celebrations!
‘I walked into the changing room to see Champagne still dripping from the ceiling.
There was just Kev the kitman and one lad in the shower and I thought: “I’ve missed it all!”
‘But it was magical, it really was.’
Two years later and administration-hit Pompey were surprisingly back at Wembley for a semi-final showdown with a Spurs side now managed by former boss Redknapp.
Like in 2008 at Old Trafford, the Blues were written off but once again they provided a memorable upset as Avram Grant’s men struck twice in extra-time after playing out a goalless draw to book another final appearance.
James said: ‘The 2010 qualification for the final was vastly more impressive overall than 2008. Thinking back to the game against Coventry (third round) we scored a goal in the last minute to equalise and then played well in the win against Birmingham (quarter-final 2-0).
‘The semi-final was memorable – facing Harry again
‘It was shades of the Manchester United game in 2008 in that Tottenham were going to go through because they were better than us.
‘It was simply a case of “Well done to Portsmouth for reaching the semi-final”.
‘Again it was 0-0 and we get to extra time and then Mr Dindane does his stuff and that was it (Aruna Dindane was hauled down for a penalty converted by Kevin Prince-Boateng after Frederic Piquionne had earlier struck to open the scoring).
‘We had beaten the clear favourites once again.’
A final showdown with Chelsea was the prize as an already-relegated Pompey attempted to upset the Premier League champions on the biggest stage.
Having survived a first-half barrage Grant’s side were awarded a penalty which was missed by Prince Boateng before Didier Drogba struck at the other end to break Blues hearts.
James, who skippered the side, said: ‘As for the final itself there is so much frustration.
‘We would have won if Prince had scored, of course.
‘I saw the highlights of the game in the last few weeks.
‘I forgot how much we got battered but also we had two or three really good chances of our own at 0-0.
‘The sad thing was that we had gone through the administration situation and resigned ourselves (to relegation) too early which was more of a frustration to me than losing in a cup final.
‘That haunts me more than Prince Boateng missing that penalty.’
DAVID JAMES ON...
One thing I haven’t forgotten is the day after we won the FA Cup and went down to Southsea, that blew my mind.
Obviously there can’t be any official figures for the amount of people who were there but there were reports that it was nearly 200,000 people.
That is something I tell people about.
If you think about Man United or Man City, if 200,000 Mancunians went to see a trophy parade – as far as the city’s population goes, it is not that massive.
But when you think about literally the equivalent of Portsmouth’s population turned up that day to support the club and enjoy the moment of triumph it is just staggering.
That a 20,000 gate at Fratton Park is a tenth of the population is incredible, too.
...A ‘PURE’ FINAL WITH NO CARROT
We went to the FA Cup final in 2010 against Chelsea and knew we couldn’t qualify for Europe even if we won it.
We were actually playing a match purely for the sake of playing the match.
It was very surreal because it was pure.
I don’t want to belittle the cup but there was nothing else to it.
...WALL OF REGRET
We practised defending free-kicks and had a special way of setting up the wall – when we did it properly I never conceded.
For Drogba’s goal, Jamie O’Hara did not fulfil his responsibilities – I’m not laying blame, though, I still could have saved it.
But if Drogba doesn’t score, maybe we win the final in extra-time.