The Big Interview: David Unsworth

David Unsworth made 19 Pompey appearances, scoring two goals for the Blues in the 2004-05 Premier League season - both from the penalty spot
David Unsworth made 19 Pompey appearances, scoring two goals for the Blues in the 2004-05 Premier League season - both from the penalty spot
Scott Giles  Photography by Habibur Rahman

Genius who studied in Havant is off to Oxford University with five A and A*s under his belt

  • Spot-kick specialist David Unsworth lost his Pompey place after boss Harry Redknapp quit Fratton Park
1
Have your say

Out of the blue.

It’s a phrase which rather aptly describes David Unsworth’s eventful, if short-lived south-coast stay.

You look at that team and for a new Premier League team to have all of the players we had in a Pompey shirt, it was just fantastic

David Unsworth

With contract negotiations at Everton stalling in the summer of 2004, the Toffees hero left the blue half of Merseyside to arrive on the south coast – following an unexpected call from his former West Ham boss Harry Redknapp.

But when ’Arry himself shocked the Fratton faithful by quitting his post in November, an untimely injury niggle meant that Unsworth lost his place in the side under new man at the helm, Velimir Zajec.

Halfway through his first season at the club, luckless Unsworth had found himself out of both the Blues’ line-up and the manager’s plans.

In the twilight of an impressive career, the former England international defender’s desire for regular football saw him agree a loan move to Championship side Ipswich Town.

And, unthinkably, come the season’s end a bittersweet Fratton stay was over two years ahead of its time, following a permanent switch to Sheffield United.

It’s a far cry from how it all began for Unsworth, who settled quickly into his new south-coast surroundings, becoming an instant hit with the Fratton fans – not least for his penalty prowess.

He said: ‘I turned 30, came to the end of my contract and was negotiating with Everton, who had offered me a one-year deal.

‘Then I received a phone call from Harry out of the blue asking what the situation was.

‘He offered me a couple more years, so it was a no-brainer to come down and play under Harry again, who I had enjoyed a great season playing for at West Ham.

‘The team (Pompey) had stayed up in the Premier League in its first season and played some wonderful football along the way.

‘Everyone was so impressed by Portsmouth, its fans and the atmosphere that they generated.

‘I went and spoke to Harry, had a look around the area and fell in love with the place straightaway and signed on the dotted line.

‘Myself and the family were delighted at the opportunity and moved down straightaway.’

nsworth didn’t waste any time introducing himself to the Fratton faithful, netting an emphatic debut equaliser from the penalty spot in the season’s curtain raiser with Birmingham – a 1-1 draw.

He said: ‘It’s something I’ve always done – take the penalties, so that was never an issue.

‘It was a boiling hot day if I remember rightly and Robbie Savage scored their free-kick.

‘It was a tight game but great to start and great to score also.’

The following fixture ended in a 2-1 defeat at Charlton, with unfortunate Unsworth’s late own goal – a mistake by goalkeeper Shaka Hislop – prolonging the Blues’ search for a first top-flight victory of the campaign.

Successive wins arrived in the following two home games at Fratton Park, although the narrow loss at The Valley did produce a memorable moment for the travelling fans, thanks to Patrik Berger’s stunning 40-yard volley – with a little help from Unsworth.

He joked: ‘Patrik scored the goal of the season, but it’s all because of my little five-yard pass into him!

‘That’s the best assist I ever made.

‘It was great to play with Patrik, he was such a talented player.

‘And it was a real coup for Harry to sign the likes of Patrik, Yakubu, (Lomana) Lua Lua and Steve Stone – a former England international.

‘You look at that team and for a new Premier League team to have all of the players we had in a Pompey shirt, it was just fantastic.

‘I thought we had a terrific team with the makings of a top-10 finish – we had some great victories at Fratton Park.’

None greater, though, than the 2-0 triumph over a star-studded Manchester United side in October 2004, with Unsworth again on the scoresheet with the opener from the penalty spot.

He said: ‘I was always confident with the penalties – we did our homework and I knew that he (United goalkeeper Roy Carroll) was going to dive to one side, so I went straight down the middle.

‘It’s always nice to see it go in, though, and I caught it quite well.

‘We played really well that day.

‘We were solid – (Cristiano) Ronaldo played, Wayne (Rooney) played and we limited them to very few chances.

‘All the big players for us played well and the fans were up for it.

‘The typical Fratton Park atmosphere was there.’

One month later, though, the vociferous Blues fans were stunned into silence by the shock news of Redknapp’s resignation.

It was a feeling shared by the players, as Unsworth & Co were left to come to terms with the sudden departure of a popular character, who felt undermined by the recruitment of a director of football in Velimir Zajec.

The Croat promptly took over the first-team reigns.

Unsworth reflected: ‘It came out of the blue and we were all shocked, wondering who this guy was who was coming in because none of us had heard of him.

‘Unfortunately, he took over the team and we started losing games and plummeting down the league.

‘It just proves how important it is to have the right manager at the right time.

‘It was very sad to see Harry go.

‘The group dynamic changed –Jim Smith (Redknapp’s assistant) left as well, who was just as influential.’

On the pitch, though, mainstay Unsworth still had a job to do.

But an injury early into Zajec’s reign in a 3-2 win over West Brom sidelined the tenacious defender, whose three-week absence proved long enough for him to fall out of the boss’ favour.

After that, he made two more first-team appearances before sealing a February loan move to Ipswich when it was clear he was no longer part of the Blues’ plans.

He said: ‘Zajec came in and in one of his first games I got injured in the first half.

‘I tore my hamstring and spent the next three weeks with the fitness coach John McKeown trying to get back to full fitness.

‘But that was it, I never got my place back in his team.

‘And if you’re not playing on a Saturday afternoon at three o’clock, then something is wrong.’

For frustrated Unsworth, the chance to reunite with former Everton boss Joe Royle at Ipswich on loan proved too good to ignore.

New Blues management – in the form of Alain Perrin – was in charge come the season’s end as Pompey’s promising start turned into a battle against the drop.

But with Unsworth out of the picture and his first-team spot relinquished, a move away from Fratton Park in the shape of Sheffield United spelt the end of a whirlwind 19-game stay.

The memories and friendships remain, though, for a man now entrusted with bringing through the latest batch of talented youngsters at Goodison Park as Everton’s under-21s manager.

Unsworth said: ‘The team spirit and camaraderie among the senior players was terrific.

‘There was myself, Steve Stone Shaka Hislop, Arjan de Zeeuw and Dejan Stefanovic.

‘We were all around the same age and all had two or three kids – all of whom were girls – and they all went to West Hill Park School.

‘And although we weren’t there for very long, I have to say myself and my family had a terrific time down there – it’s a wonderful club.

‘Portsmouth is a lovely part of the world, full of great people and unbelievable fans and it saddens me to see them in the bottom tier.’

DAVID UNSWORTH ON...

...HIS ENGLAND EXPERIENCE

David Unsworth was capped once by England at senior level, in a 2–1 victory against Japan at Wembley in June 1995.

To say I have played for England is great.

I was 21 when I played for England and had just won the FA Cup with Everton, so it was all a bit of a whirlwind summer.

I was captain of the England under-21s at the time as well.

It was a great experience and something I would never change.

It is something that will always be there for me to look back on.

It was always more important for me to be playing on Saturday, though.

Anything extra to that was always a bonus.

...A PRIVILEGED POSIITION

I am now Everton’s under-21s manager and have a great job at a wonderful football club.

I’m in a really privileged position to be responsible for developing young players.

We have got some terrific young talent in the academy here and hopefully these boys will come through the ranks and become Everton regulars one day, like I was.

...A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

I was down at Fratton Park only last month when Pompey played Plymouth.

We have a player – Gethin Jones – who was on loan at Plymouth playing for them.

Myself and my daughter made the day of it and visited our old house, had lunch at Port Solent and I also bumped into big Kev the kitman – it was great to see him.