The day Pompey fans once thought would never arrive is almost here – SIMON CARTER
IT is the match that a decade ago no Pompey fan would have ever thought their club would take part in.
In the competition that is among the most ridiculed in English football history - no, sorry, English sporting history - and which thousands of the Blues faithful have always stayed well away from.
The competition that twice in a few weeks saw the lowest post-war Fratton Park attendance for a competitive game three years ago.
The competition where some clubs can be fined for not fielding their strongest teams, but other clubs have to play mainly inexperienced youngsters.
But on Sunday the Checkatrade Trophy final against Sunderland at Wembley will attract the largest amount of Blues fans at a game for over half a century - over 40,000 of them.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, the thought of Pompey competing for this silverware - formally known as the EFL Trophy - would have been laughable.
The silverware - for third and fourth division clubs - was always the preserve of the unfashionable. The Hartlepools, the Exeters, the Torquays, the Rochdales. And Southampton from 2009-2011.
Only 11 years ago Harry Redknapp was in the process of leading Pompey to the club’s second FA Cup final success.
Less memorably - but no less impressive - was the fact that Pompey finished eighth in the Premier League the same season.
Lest we forget, they finished above Manchester City and Tottenham.
As Sol Campbell thrust the FA Cup above his head on that glorious Wembley day, no Blues fan could have ever imagined that within six years Portsmouth Football Club would be 90th in the entire Football League.
Out of 92. Third from bottom of the fourth tier of English football.
From eighth top to third bottom in 70 incredible months. It wasn’t even a roller coaster ride, because coasters go up as well as down.
And from hard-to-describe FA Cup final ecstacy to the equally hard-to-describe misery of the EFL Trophy.
All lower-division football fans are familiar with the tournament, through a succession of unglamorous sponsors such as Freight Rover, Sherpa Vans, LDV Vans, Autoglass, Auto Windscreens and Johnstone’s Paints.
My favourite, though, was always when the competition rejoiced in the name of the Leyland Daf Trophy. For one reason only - it gave me the chance to attend an Exeter City game and sing ‘we’ll really have a laugh when we win the Leyland Daf’.
We never did, though. We’ve never even reached the final.
Unlike Portsmouth, so count yourself lucky Pompey fans!
The EFL Trophy has forever been much-maligned, never once remotely viewed as a sexy competition. Until the carrot of a Wembley final appears dangling on the horizon, that is.
There have been numerous attempts to ‘sex’ the EFL Trophy up - inviting top non league clubs and allowing Premier League academy sides, to name but two.
The last of those changes, in 2016, provoked huge outcry among lower division supporters and achieved, spectacularly so, what was considered almost impossible - making the competition even less attractive to die-hard fans.
How unattractive is the EFL Trophy? Very. Up to now, Pompey have played 21 ties in the competition (since 2013/14) with a total attendance of 51,847 (average 2,427 per game).
Compare that to this Sunday’s final, where Pompey will be cheered on by 40,200 of their own fans and Sunderland by virtually the same number.
Due to the fact play-off finals and FA Cup semi finals are played at the national stadium, it has never been easier to reach Wembley.
Up until 1985, a maximum of six teams could have that honour - the FA Cup final, the League Cup finalists and the Charity Shield contestants.
Now, 14 different clubs from the top four divisions could appear there in one season in seven games - the FA Cup final, the League Cup final, the three divisional play-off finals, the Community Shield and the EFL Trophy.
Pompey, of course, have been to the new Wembley five times - a hat-trick of appearances in 2008 and two more in 2010.
It would be foolish - an exercise in rank stupidity even - to compare FA Cup semi finals and finals to the Checkatrade Trophy final.
But the bottom line is that over 40,000 Pompey fans DO care about the Checkatrade Trophy now.
Almost certainly they will never care about it as much as they will this Sunday, but that is not the point.
The point is that a competition perennially ridiculed by lower division football fans will provide all those Pompey supporters with a day out at Wembley. It has always been the Holy Grail for football fans, and thankfully - as Sunday patently shows and despite the fact 14 clubs could get there in one season these days - it still is.
Hopefully it forever remain so. The day when football supporters fail to get excited about a Wembley final will be a sad one.
The Pompey faithful might not enjoy being referred to as ‘lower division football fans’ but at the moment that is what they are as they follow a third tier club.
Perhaps Sunday, though, will be a sign that brighter times lie ahead.
Pompey’s fall from grace was spectacularly quick, but they are not alone in that.
Wolves won the League Cup at Wembley in 1980, and eight years later were back at the stadium contesting the Sherpa Vans Trophy final as a fourth division club. They won that day too.
Southampton reached the 2003 FA Cup final, yet seven years later were lifting the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy silverware.
Both Wolves and Saints used those EFL Trophy wins as a springboard to bring the good times back.
Is there any reason, therefore, why Portsmouth Football Club cannot do the same?
And is there any reason why the oft-mocked Checkatrade Trophy could not forever hold a special place in the hearts of the Fratton faithful after this weekend?