When Jim Smith arrived at Fratton Park in the summer of 1991, defender Warren Neill expected his Pompey days were numbered.
Unsurprising, really, given that a bitter falling out with his previous QPR boss had sealed an unwanted £110,000 move to the Blues only three years earlier.
And with former England winger Mark Chamberlain’s out-of-position selection in Neill’s preferred right-back slot confirmation of an ongoing conflict between the pair, the overlooked Londoner had mentally packed his bags and begun the search for a new club.
But an unlikely reconciliation between manager and player was to prove the start of a remarkable turnaround, to the extent that Smith put blind faith in Neill’s ability to deliver under the greatest pressure of all – an FA Cup semi-final penalty shootout.
Neill explained: ‘I was forced out of QPR – it wasn’t a club I wanted to leave.
‘It was a big personality clash with the manager – Jim Smith.
‘He was a hothead, as was I, and it just didn’t work at all.
‘I was told: “Leave now or you’ll never kick a ball again for this club”.
With no future at Loftus Road, highly-rated Neill, who had represented the Hoops in an FA Cup final defeat to Spurs as a teenager, was snapped up by Alan Ball as a replacement for the departing Kenny Swain.
Midway through the 1988-89 campaign – Pompey’s first back in the second division after their relegation from the top-flight – Ball was sacked, though, and replaced by Neill’s former QPR team-mate John Gregory
But a win ratio of just one in five ensured Gregory followed the way of predecessor Ball after a year in the Fratton Park hotseat.
That’s roughly the same tenure enjoyed by Frank Burrows in his second spell in charge of the Blues, before ‘Bald Eagle’ Smith swooped to take over the managerial reins ahead of then-caretaker Tony Barton.
Neill said: ‘It was a shame with Alan because we were top of the league for a while but we dropped down the table and he got sacked.
‘He had a new team and we were playing really good football but then it all changed.
‘I was friends with John because we had played together at QPR.
‘But it was his first job and it didn’t go great – he didn’t win many games and we had a very bad run.
‘Around that time there was a story that I got substituted and drove home during a game.
‘I honestly don’t remember that, but I’ve no doubt I probably did because I always spoke my mind!’
Gregory’s subsequent departure yielded the return of Burrows to the club and outspoken Neill’s place in the Blues first team.
But it wasn’t until Smith arrived at Fratton Park that the Blues, who had set themselves the challenge of being promoted back into English football’s top tier, began to do themselves justice on the pitch.
For Neill, though, that particular appointment came as bad news.
He explained: ‘It took a while for us to get back to challenging for promotion.
‘After Alan went we didnt maintain anything, we were always in the bottom half until Jim came.
‘But when he arrived I thought I was off.
‘The first few games he didn’t play me – he even put Mark Chamberlain at right back.
‘I thought: “Well, I’m definitely on my way out now”.
‘I don’t recall if results weren’t great or what happened, but Jim shocked me by putting me back in.
‘We spoke to each other – he mellowed and I changed and then we got on like a house on fire!
‘I hardly missed a game.’
For Neill, it was a reconciliation which lit the way for a bright future at the Blues, incidentally aided by his marshalling of a trio with a bright future in the game themselves.
He said: ‘We didn’t have lots of money but we had a good team.
‘All the signings that Bally, John and Frank made were good signings.
‘People like Guy Whittingham turned out to be one out of the blue for scoring goals.
‘And then you had the kids like Kit (Symons), Andy (Awford) and Shaggy (Darren Anderton).
‘Kit and Andy played alongside me and I had Shaggy in front.
‘They were all good lads who I looked out for and had time for.
‘They just wanted to learn and they had the club firmly at heart - it always helps any club to have homegrown players in the side not least because the crowd identifies with them.’
If the Fratton faithful’s interest in the 1991-92 season had been stirred by the inclusion of the youngsters, then the incredible FA Cup run which took the Blues all the way to the semi-finals firmly captured it.
Neill recalled: ‘The FA Cup run captured the imagination with the crowds coming in.
‘It was a great run and the belief really came in the quarter-final when we played Nottingham Forest at home.
‘They had all their big guns out – Roy Keane, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Teddy Sheringham but we deservedly beat them 1-0.
‘I remember thinking: “We’ve got a real chance now.”
‘The first semi-final game against Livepool at Highbury was great but heartbreaking at the same time because although we didn’t lose that we felt like we had because of their late goal.
‘That was one of the worst feelings I’ve had in football.’
Neill had set up Anderton to fire underdogs Pompey ahead in the second period of extra-time, before Ronnie Whelan forced a replay for Liverpool with just four minutes left on the clock.
That meant a rematch at Villa Park, but with the scores goalless after extra-time, it all came down to the dreaded penalty shootout.
Unlikely taker Neill was one of three Blues players to miss as the favourites won through in the cruellest of circumstances.
He said: ‘We trained at Villa’s training ground on AstroTurf because the weather wasn’t great.
‘The lads were all practicing penalties but I just went straight in not thinking I’d ever take one.
‘Shaggy was down to take one but when it came to it he didn’t want to take one in the end.
‘Jim just looked around at us and everyone was turning away.
‘He said to me: “Warro?”
‘So I said I’ll take one if I have to take one.
‘That was that.’
More heartache was to come for the Blues the following season as they missed out on promotion to the Premier League by virtue of the fact they had scored one goal less than West Ham.
The misery was compounded by play-off defeat to Leicester.
Neill added: ‘We missed out on promotion by one goal.
‘We went on a run of something like 12 games unbeaten and all of a sudden we were right up there.
‘With two games to go we had a bad day up at Sunderland as Guy Butters and Paul Walsh were sent off in the first half – that effectively cost us promotion.
‘Not only did we miss out on a point there but we missed them for the play-offs as well.’
A back injury first suffered in that 1992-93 campaign persisted, forcing Neill to hang up his boots ahead of his time, aged 32, the following season.
An impressive 243 games and four goals in a seven-year stay on the south coast ensured the popular defender left the Blues on far happier terms than he had first joined them.
A failed comeback at Watford two years later ended Neill’s playing career for good, before coaching spells at former club QPR under Gregory and at Luton alongside Mick Harford followed.
Now 51, Neill is working as a black cab driver in his native London.
WARREN NEILL ON:
Me, Gavin Maguire and Micky Fillery had all played together before at QPR, although we made the move down to Pompey at different times.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, it made sense that the three of us would all meet at the top the A3 by the M25 and go down in one car rather than go down in two or three cars.
We didn’t have our own training ground, though, so we’d be asking each other where are we training today?
We’d be here there and everywhere!
Thankfully, though, when it got towards the end of the 1992-93 season and we were chasing promotion to the Premier League, the club would put me up in hotel the day before a game to save the drive in from London.
...RUBBING SALT IN THE WOUNDS
The final day of the 1992-93 season we hosted Grimsby needing to equal West Ham’s result at Cambridge and score two more goals.
We won 2-1 but sadly they won 2-0.
Years later, though, I was coaching with Billy Bonds who was the Hammers manager that day and he told me that their crucial opener was so far offside it was ridiculous!
...TURNING OLD RIVALRIES INTO FRIENDSHIPS
Myself and Paul Walsh are the same age and played against each other as kids.
He’s from south London and I was from west London but we became good mates with one another.
He was more on the wavelength of what I was used to when he arrived at the club – he was a great player.