The Big Interview: Colin Sullivan

Colin Sullivan was one of only three ever-presents in Pompey's 1982-83 third division title-winning side
Colin Sullivan was one of only three ever-presents in Pompey's 1982-83 third division title-winning side
Seats are in high demand at Fratton Park. Picture: Joe Pepler

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The call from Pompey arrived just in time.

Colin Sullivan had been contemplating early retirement from football and a return to Cornwall when Frank Burrows rang the 30-year-old defender in February 1982.

I was thinking about calling it a day and returning back to Cornwall to retire. But I got the call out of the blue from Frank Burrows to come for a trial at Portsmouth

Colin Sullivan

On a weekly contract at Hereford and tired of the one-and-a-half-hour commute from former club Cardiff, the full-back was convinced by under-fire Blues boss Burrows not to turn his back on the game and instead come on trial at Fratton Park.

And although Burrows himself was sacked a month later, Sullivan stayed for a further two seasons – becoming one of the unsung heroes of the 1982-83 side that won the third division title.

The veteran was one of only three ever-presents – alongside Alan Knight and Alan Biley – in Bobby Campbell’s triumphant team.

An ankle injury eventually ended an unexpected stay on the south coast – but not before he had made 101 appearances.

And Sullivan is able to reflect on many happy memories from an eventful spell with the Blues.

He said: ‘I had been released from Cardiff and was actually on a weekly contract at Hereford.

‘I still lived near Cardiff and was travelling up to train and play.

‘I was thinking about calling it a day and returning to Cornwall to retire, though.

‘But I got the call out of the blue from Frank Burrows to come for a trial at Portsmouth.

‘I gave it a go and went down there and started training with the team – I’m glad I did!

‘Thankfully, I impressed and was given a contract.

‘When I arrived we were in the bottom six – my first game was away at Burnley and we lost but did alright, as it happened.

‘We had some good results under Frank, who was actually sacked after we had won a game.

‘He was unlucky because we had been on a good run at the time.

‘It was odd really. Frank brought me to the club but I had only played a few games before he was gone about a month later.

‘Bobby Campbell, who had come in as Frank’s assistant, took over.

‘I just carried on and hoped I would prove myself – thankfully that was what happened.’

Another new deal was earned by Sullivan as the Blues, who ended the season in mid-table, prepared for a promotion push.

That was after Campbell boldly announced to the media his newly-inherited side would win the title.

The outspoken manager was true to his word, though, after shaping the team in his own ambitious image.

One man to keep his place – and one of only three to play in all 46 games for the champions – was Sullivan, who still takes great pride in the season’s achievements on both a personal and collective level.

He said: ‘Bobby came out and said we would win the title.

‘And at that time, the mood in the camp was one of confidence.

‘He brought in two or three players of real quality.

‘Neil Webb and Alan Biley came in and complemented the attacking talent we already had in the likes of Billy Rafferty up front and Alan Rogers on the wing.

‘Training was basically all centred on attacking play. We didn’t do loads of training, either.

‘A lot of it was left to ourselves!

‘On a Friday, we would do our own thing and that was the way it was.

‘It suited the players – and obviously suited Bobby as well!

‘It’s only in the last few years , though, I have learned I was one of only three ever-presents that season.

‘That is one of the highlights, as well as being champions and doing as well as we did.’

Campbell’s entertainers topped the table by five points but it was not all smooth sailing as the Blues conspired to miss eight out of a record 17 penalties during the campaign.

And Sullivan joined a list, including Bobby Doyle, Biley, Webb, Trevor Ross and Steve Aizlewood, of players to fluff his lines from 12 yards, with Doyle off target on three separate occasions.

Sullivan said: ‘It got so far down the pecking order, even I got to take one – but then I missed as well!

‘A few of the penalties which were missed cost us points, so we should have ended up winning the title by an even greater margin.

‘I’m not sure if we ever lost any of those games through penalty misses.

‘But I do know after I missed against Wigan we ended up drawing 0-0.

‘I say miss – the goalkeeper saved it, so that’s not so bad – but bad enough!

‘I had taken two or three penalties before that but was not a regular penalty taker by any means.

‘Thankfully, Kevin Dillon joined part way through the season and we seemed to do a lot better with him taking them.’

Sullivan still savours the moment Pompey clinched the title on the final day of the season at his first club, Plymouth Argyle.

And he also recalls the thrill of securing promotion at Fratton Park a week earlier against Southend.

‘Things worked out very well for me – we actually clinched the title down at Plymouth on the final day,’ said Sullivan.

‘It was a great homecoming, me going back to play against the club where I had started my career.

‘That was a fantastic day.

‘And to be promoted in front of our fans at Fratton Park a week earlier was something I will never forget, either.

‘It was a fantastic atmosphere – what with everybody coming on to the pitch as they were able to do back then.

‘I remember eventually getting off the pitch and going up into the stands to the directors’ box to celebrate.

‘The fans were fantastic and to be able to celebrate with all of them was really special.’

The following season saw both Campbell and Sullivan end their stays at Fratton Park, however, with the defender disappointed at both outcomes.

‘I think everybody was disappointed when Bobby lost his job,’ he said.

‘It was a learning curve for everybody that season.

‘We were still scoring plenty of goals in division two but obviously we were letting them in at the other end.

‘Given time, I think Bobby would have sorted it out and brought some players in but he didn’t get given the chance to do so by the chairman, Mr Deacon.

‘I played through the last part of that season with an Achilles injury.

‘I rested it through the summer, thinking it would be okay but when I went back it was no better.

‘Eventually, after not playing at all, I had an operation in December.

‘I was getting back to fitness when Alan Ball decided he didn’t need me and allowed me to go to Swansea.

‘I was disappointed to leave because I was very happy at Portsmouth.

‘I still felt I could have done a job back in the first team but obviously Bally had other ideas.

‘For someone who was thinking about retiring two or three years before, I didn’t do too badly!

‘Actually, my last game for Pompey turned out to be at home against my final club Swansea and we won 5-0.

‘I went down to play for them the following season which was quite ironic, I suppose!

Still living on the south coast, Sullivan, now 64, runs his own garden maintenance business and is a regular at Fratton Park.

In 2013 he attended the 50th anniversary dinner of the Pompey Ex-Professionals club.