The honesty and integrity of Pompey’s favourite sons

Alan Biley
Alan Biley
Stuart O'Keefe battles Osman Sow for the ball. Picture: Joe Pepler

O’Keefe: Pompey have finally clicked

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In the Hawaiian-themed Tiki Lounge basement, Alan Biley placed his coffee cup on the table and leant forwards.

There was moisture in his eyes, the merest of traces yet the presence unmistakable, while his confident voice began to falter.

‘Pompey was a three-year box in time and if I could possibly open that box again and recover moments, a day even, then I would die happy,’ uttered Biley.

‘They were ultra-special days, week after week I couldn’t wait to play. I fell in love with the club and it has never gone away.

‘Put all those memories together over that three-year period and it starts to knit this wonderful picture of so many exceptional times, highs and one-offs.

‘Pompey was – and still is – my club.’

These were not platitudes glibly rolled out in an industry drowning in sickly insincerity and badge-kissing double-crossing.

The modern-day footballer at the highest level professes his undying love for his current employer, while hammering a WhatsApp message to his agent demanding a new suitor.

Retired for 26 years, Biley’s confession in Ollie Vee’s Vintage Emporium situated at the heart of his Leighton Buzzard hometown was not designed to mine PR gold.

It was genuine.

Biley was the final recruit for my book Played Up Pompey. A bout of pneumonia had delayed his entrance but his presence among the 24 players interviewed was essential.

Certainly one of the first names on the team sheet when it came to selecting favourite sons of the Fratton faithful to interview.

That February 2015 meeting over several cups of ‘Alan’ – for the cafe had christened that particular coffee tipple after their best customer – was nothing unusual.

It epitomised the remarkable honesty and candour displayed by all the ex-Pompey players I encountered in collating a book which officially launches on Friday, October 2.

Biley is reassuringly real within a profession inhabited by smoke and mirrors – and thankfully he wasn’t alone.

No spin, no agendas, no forked tongue, just Fratton favourites speaking from the heart, many supplying stories the supporters have never before been privy to.

These days Mick Kennedy lives in Ennis, in the Republic of Ireland, seemingly oblivious to the affection Pompey fans still retain for the grandfather of tough-tackling midfielders.

Despite catching him momentarily off-guard as he settled down to watch Manchester City face Aston Villa on Sky, his rat-a-tat-tat delivery of anecdotes down the phone was a joy.

He recanted how he once found a Czechoslovakia opponent’s tooth lodged in his elbow while representing the Republic of Ireland in what proved to be his final-ever international appearance.

Then Kennedy got serious.

‘Over the years I have been told of the Pompey fans’ affection for me but I never thought for one minute I did anything different, I just thought I was Joe Soap, I really did,’ he said.

‘I never got carried away with it, I had a couple of decent games against Glenn Hoddle and the like so you think you have shown up well.

‘In my career I ended up playing more than 550 games so can’t have been that bad, it’s just I never thought I was that good, simply part of the team.

‘I would class Kevin O’Callaghan and Vince Hilaire as top quality. I used to enjoy playing with them, it was great for me, just give them the ball and watch them do the magic.’

In the case of Sylvain Distin, we met at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground in Halewood in October 2014.

The classy defender existed in the golden years during Pompey’s Premier League existence before financial issues tugged at the loose threads to spark the unravelling.

Most comforting about the encounter was discovering his genuine affection – and on-going interest – towards club he departed in August 2009.

He said: ‘We lost 4-1 that day at the Emirates Stadium and I was the last to leave the field. In the space of three months everybody had gone, everybody, I was one of the final ones and it was weird.

‘I sometimes still think about Pompey. There are always reminders on television, or you look for a player you knew you played with and realise there is absolutely no-one left.

‘There are occasions when you sit down and think about your past and what you achieved and the question comes up of “What if?” What if we kept those players and carried on what we started?

‘But we will never know.’

Few Pompey managers escape criticism from their former players in the book, Billy Wilson particularly brutal in his assessment of Ian St John.

As for Arjan De Zeeuw, the anger stirs upon the very mention of Alain Perrin, the culprit behind an August 2005 separation.

‘When he took over I walked across and introduced myself and from the first moment we shook hands he backed away a little bit and I thought “I am not sure about this guy”, he said.

‘Sometimes you shake somebody’s hand and look them in the eye and think “okay” – but not with him.

‘The worst thing you can do as a manager is not tell the truth, the best thing you can do is say “I’m not playing you today because I think the other guy is better” or whatever.

‘It is hard to take as a player, you want to know where you stand. But it became impossible with Perrin, he was so two-faced.’

The duplicitous nature of the beautiful game summed up wonderfully by De Zeeuw during an unmasking.

Yet through their own words in Played Up Pompey, the sincerity shines through, the affection for the Fratton Park days evident.

And it was a pleasure listening.