No longer do selfish Pompey players go into hiding

Bethany Tiller, second left, her sister Charlotte (10) and father David with Pompey players Kyle Bennett, left, and Christian Burgess, far right

The arm bolted into the air during the organised scramble to designate the kicking off the evening’s proceedings.

The gentleman elected tossed the opening question in the direction of Luke McGee, all in the name of friendly fire.

‘I think some of the saves you have done have been magic,’ he uttered.

‘Are you related to Debbie McGee?’

The 40-strong contingent within the Warrior Bar crumpled with laughter, as did the footballing recipient, an outgoing and bubbly character.

Those present had gathered for last month’s meeting of the Pompey Supporters’ Club Central Branch.

The Blues first-team keeper had been recruited as the special guest, while close friend Jack Whatmough lingered at the back of the room supplying moral support.

These days, such an encounter is nothing out of the ordinary, as fan groups at Chichester, London, the Isle of Wight, the Northern Blues and, of course, Central Branch can testify.

Last season, 15 members of the squad who claimed the League Two title attended supporter functions, as did manager Paul Cook and chief executive Mark Catlin.

These represent boom times, a period when players fulfil supporter engagement duties and community responsibilities with a smile and respect.

During the Premier League years, when Fratton Park boasted FA Cup winners and its finest team for half a century, many stars on the pitch swerved such duties.

Excruciatingly for supporter groups and the highly-regarded Pompey in the Community, there was no willing – and neither were there consequences for those who refused. But no longer.

‘It is so, so different over the last five years,’ said Pompey fans’ liaison officer Johnny Moore.

‘It’s how a club should be and most clubs are now becoming more community-minded.

‘I just shudder thinking about what it was like when we won the FA Cup and getting those players along to supporter events.

‘Players are more grounded the further you come down the leagues. In the Premier League, it was always a battle.

‘Harry Redknapp didn’t want to upset players so they didn’t come along. I’m sure you could have got the likes of Sylvain Distin or Hermann to attend, but Harry didn’t make it a rule so it was a struggle.

‘Players in that era didn’t want to do it, they didn’t want to associate with fans.

‘Often you were told on the day they were no longer turning up so you had to cobble up a replacement. Normally not a player at all.

‘They earned too much money and were above themselves. Sol Campbell is the same class as myself and everyone else, but they have been spoilt by money.

‘Richard Hughes was a shining example in the Premier League, but in the end he got fed up and asked why nobody else did them.

‘Following a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough under Paul Hart, I reminded him he was doing the Central Branch on the Monday and he got angry. Pompey had conceded a last-minute equaliser and the team were ordered in for training next day.

‘Again he said “Why is it only me?”

‘On the Monday he apologised, but I understood his frustration and completely empathised. He attended the meeting that night and was, as always, a big success.

‘It would have been lovely for Sol Campbell, Sean Davis, Kanu, Niko Kranjcar, Glen Johnson, Pedro Mendes, Jermain Defoe or John Utaka to go along. But it never happened.’

Earlier this week, Curtis Main and Brandon Haunstrup were present at the Pompey Disabled Supporters Association’s Christmas dinner.

On Thursday night, Jamal Lowe, Matty Kennedy and Alan Knight attended Chichester Supporters’ Club’s monthly meeting.

Elsewhere on the same evening, Moore and Mark Catlin ventured to the Isle of Wight, despite needing to leave early to fulfil the club’s own Christmas party.

Last week it emerged that Kyle Bennett and Christian Burgess rallied the players to pay for Bethany Tiller to enjoy a dream trip to London to see The Lion King.

The 16-year-old from Denmead has incurable cancer – and the players also funded her family’s stay in a five-star hotel near Buckingham Palace.

Clare Martin has spent 17 years involved with the club and is currently director of community projects with Pompey in the Community.

She believes such a gesture from the players is indicative of their commitment to community causes.

She said: ‘Kyle comes along to our events and is just a big kid and gets involved, while Christian knows what to say, but I wouldn’t single any of the players out.

‘Do you know what, that generosity received newspaper coverage, but the players do things like that quietly all the time, and that’s the difference.

‘Nowadays you have the confidence that when we arrange events the players are going to be there, you know it’s going to happen. Whereas in the old days it was always a bit nail-biting.

‘For me, I would rather be told “No, you can’t have a player” than “Yes, you can have a player” and then they don’t show up.

‘It would happen enough to make it a challenge, let’s say. I have been in some horrendous situations.

‘That would never happen now, the guys are lovely. If they are asked to do it they’ll do it, they want to be there.

‘It helps having a couple of senior players like Christian do it, that role model, while younger lads such as Conor (Chaplin) and Ben (Close) have come through the ranks and are familiar with what we do.

‘It has been getting better over the last couple of seasons, to be honest.’

Thankfully no longer do Pompey players perform on the pitch – and then go hiding off it.

More from Sport