Ertl still riding the Pompey roller coaster

Johnny Ertl made 88 appearances in a three-season stay at Pompey, scoring two goals for the Blues    Picture: Joe Pepler
Johnny Ertl made 88 appearances in a three-season stay at Pompey, scoring two goals for the Blues Picture: Joe Pepler
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Johnny Ertl buckled himself in to the Pompey rollercoaster ride three-and-a-half years ago and despite his summer retirement, has no plans to get off.

The lows of an awful start, bruising boos and failure to steer the Blues back to where they belong, remain and they hurt.

But to the resilient Austrian, they are afterthoughts.

Ertl instead cherishes the highs of being named skipper, lifting the player-of-the-season trophy and discovering a football club that has become a second family.

And the 33-year-old is now motivated to deliver his greatest Pompey work, off the field of play.

It’s a legacy that makes him unique among those to have worn the star and crescent.

Ertl not only loves the club, he is now helping to run it in his elected role on the Pompey Supporters’ Trust (PST) board.

It is a remarkable story that began with an early triumph over adversity – an own goal on his September 2012 home debut against Oldham in League One.

Ertl said: ‘I had an awful start. I arrived three days before the game and Michael Appleton told me I was playing centre-back.

‘I was far from match-fit. I trained hard for myself but didn’t have a proper pre-season under my belt.

‘I scored an own goal, we lost 1-0 and I got substituted.

‘I went back home and said to my wife: “This is the absolute most rubbish start I have ever experienced. What will the supporters think of my performance?”

‘I vowed to roll my sleeves up because I wanted to show people I really was better than that.’

Thankfully, better days were around the corner for Ertl, who was named skipper of struggling Pompey in the new year.

With the club in administration and players signing one-month deals, it took a certain character to lead an unsettled dressing room – a quality new caretaker boss Guy Whittingham identified in the former Austria international.

Ertl said: ‘It was the proudest moment in my football career.

‘Guy said to me he saw it as a long-term thing, I was so happy.

‘I made it clear from the first moment I was not going to leave.

‘I had other offers and could have left easily but I kept my word.

‘I took the risk, I signed in total 13 contracts with the club.

‘I had cruciate ligament injuries before, so you can imagine if I was out for a couple of months, nobody would ask about me anymore.

‘I wanted to help Pompey in the difficult times. I saw the potential in the club and the fan base.’

A club-record 23-game winless run tested the mettle of all at the soon-to-be-relegated Blues.

But it was in the lowest moments the true Pompey spirit shone through, as demonstrated at Crewe in the win that stopped the rot.

He said: ‘The support we got in all of those games was incredible.

‘How many people travelled up to Hartlepool for a 0-0 draw on a Tuesday night?

‘The Crewe game was absolutely crazy and it showed when we won how happy everybody was.

‘That and the following games when we had such a good run was the rebirth of Pompey.

‘Although we had a 10-point deduction and went down to League Two, there was hope again.’

The season’s biggest victory duly arrived in the High Court, with the PST’s takeover met with a collective sigh of relief before the tears of joy flowed.

Ertl said: ‘A huge part of where we are now is because of the Trust and those people working so hard behind the scenes, voluntarily.

‘They helped keep Pompey alive, they all did an incredible job.’

The good news didn’t stop there for Ertl, who ended a testing first term as player of the season.

He said: ‘I was really grateful to receive this award.

‘I went back home and in a quiet moment I read through all of the names that were engraved.

‘Then on the bottom line I saw “Johnny Ertl” – it felt great.’

The feel-good factor around the club was to be the Blues’ undoing, though, as expectations of an immediate promotion proved overly optimistic and ill-founded.

Ertl, sent off in a shock opening-day 4-1 defeat to Oxford, said: ‘Perspective changed, we had to win every game.

‘It was a really difficult task because we changed so many players – at the start of the season I had my blue-tinted glasses on.

‘We should have communicated better with the fans and said: “Rome was not built in a day”.

‘There was a snowball effect, under Guy – we played attractive football and scored a lot of goals but at the back we were very open.

‘We were a big fish in a small pond and the pressure told on us – particularly at home.’

That pressure culminated in a low personal moment for Ertl, who bore the brunt of the fans’ frustrations when he was booed coming on as a substitute against Exeter in November 2013.

He said: ‘When you are the captain and in a leading position you need to have a thick skin.

‘I was aware of the boos and everything when I was subbed on – it was against Exeter at home.

‘I drove back home and called my wife, I asked her if she heard it?

I said: “They booed me”. I know it was just a minority and it caused a few interesting comments on social media as the fan base were a little split.

‘The situation was borne out of frustration and continued with Richie Barker in charge – we felt we could do much better.’

Cut out by Barker, Ertl was pleased to see Andy Awford given the caretaker reins after a slump in results threatened the Blues’ Football League safety.

‘They were some dark moments for the club, to be fair,’ said Ertl.

‘I was so happy when Awfs took over, he knew the place inside out.

‘He said to me: “Johnny, I want you to be captain for our game at Newport I need a Johnny Ertl”.

‘We needed a win desperately and we got one. From that moment on we knew we could do it as a team – it was the start of a fantastic ending to the season.

‘I was in and out of the team the next season and it was a really difficult time for me personally because my dad was in a coma.

‘Awfs let me go back to Austria but then I was playing catch-up.

‘Come February, everything was sorted back home which was the best news of the season for me.’

The arrival of Paul Cook to the club this summer spelled the end of Ertl’s playing days at Fratton Park following two failed attemps at promotion but 88 games and two goals later there are no hard feelings, just great memories.

He said: ‘I had a great, honest chat with Paul Cook at the start of the season and we decided the best thing was to go separate ways.

‘I respected him, football is just about opinion.

‘At 32, I had to make a decision whether to carry on playing or explore a different interest and I was always fascinated with what went on behind the scenes.

‘And I just had this desire to help the club, not only that but to work alongside the people who saved it and find out how they did that.

‘I stood for election to the PST board and it is great to now be the spokesman and help to spread the word as to what is achievable when you are a community club.

‘But we are also looking ahead, what are we going to do with a future investment model and how can we increase membership?

‘It has also been great to have the chance to look behind the scenes at Pompey and get a better picture of football in general because one day I want to be a director of sport or CEO at a club.

‘I also wanted to find out what was required to work within an academy and I was able to assist our under-16s coach Scott Green for a couple of months, which was great for my development.’

ERTL ON...

...INTERNATIONAL HONOURS

I played seven games for Austria. It is great to sing your national anthem.

I played in the sell-out first game in a new stadium in Innsbruck, between the mountains.

We beat our neighbours Switzerland 2-1 just before Euro 2008, which we hosted.

We also won against the Ivory Coast – I played against Didier Drogba which was great.

...EGGSTRAORDINARY EASTWOOD

Simon Eastwood, the goalkeeper, was like a little baby in the club house.

Eastie didn’t even know how to cook a boiled egg – we had to show him that!

I made a number of friends in my time at Pompey but I would not pick anybody out because there were so many good characters who I got on well with.

...THE INFLUX OF PLAYERS

I wanted every single player to be made to feel like they were at home.

When you are comfortable you perform to your best.

I would always approach new players and got so many contact numbers.

At the bottom of my mobile phone contacts list I would put the player’s name and ‘Portsmouth FC’.

Just recently I was thinking of a player we signed on loan from Swansea, a goalkeeper.

I forgot his name so I typed into my mobile phone ‘Portsmouth FC’.

It was absolutely crazy how many numbers came up!

For networking, it was a great time.

But for actually being successful on the pitch it was a really challenging one.