When Paul Merson joined Pompey in the summer of 2002, the Blues were a club seemingly stuck in limbo.
A decade spent in the second tier of English football – largely at the wrong end – the Fratton faithful’s thirst for Premier League promotion remained unquenched.
A 17th-place finish, coupled with a humiliating 4-1 defeat against third-division Leyton Orient in the FA Cup and the sale of prized asset Peter Crouch had left fans wondering whether their side would ever challenge again for a place among the game’s elite.
The harsh reality was that they were perhaps better served looking over their shoulders.
But newly-appointed boss Harry Redknapp, who had replaced Graham Rix in the Fratton Park hot seat at the tail end of the previous campaign, had other ideas and set about transforming his beleaguered squad.
The former Blues director of football had a wealth of experience as a manager following successful spells at both Bournemouth and West Ham and used his nous in the transfer market to attract a number of promising signings, including highly-rated Luton youngster Matty Taylor and tough-tackling Wigan defender Arjan de Zeeuw.
But it was the acquisition of 34-year-old former England midfielder Merson from Aston Villa that marked Pompey out as genuine promotion contenders.
The Blues’ marquee signing gave little credence to the idea that he was joining the champions elect, though, and despite an instant affinity with the Fratton fans, was soon questioning whether his move from the Midlands had been the right one after all.
‘I didn’t give them a chance,’ admitted Merson.
‘I remember our first game was (Nottingham) Forest at home, we won 2-0 and it was packed out.
‘I thought: “I’ve never played in front of anything like this before.”
‘The week later we played at Crystal Palace and they filled the whole away end.
‘We were 2-0 down at half-time and it could’ve been 10-0.
‘I remember thinking: “What have I done here? It’s going to be one of those seasons where we win at home every so often and get battered every week on the road.”
‘They (Pompey) were always near the bottom, so 17th the season before wasn’t a one-off.
‘I remember Harry coming in at half-time and it was “Off! Off! Off! Three at the back, two wing-backs – you (Merson) play in the hole.”
‘We went out and won 3-2 and Crowey (Jason Crowe) scored the winner.’
The half-time switch to wing-backs proved to be a tactical masterstroke and with the Blues rampant in a second-half annihilation of their hosts, Redknapp saw no reason to change his fluent 3-5-2 formation.
The manager and his side reaped the rewards of the attacking system as the Blues went on to score an incredible 97 goals in an enthralling title-winning season – retuning to the top flight after a 15-year absence.
For captain Merson – who netted 12 goals in the season, missing just one game through injury – the switch in formation proved pivotal as it allowed the Blues to not only win, but to win in style – something that marked the 2002-03 campaign out from past and future glories.
He reflected: ‘We played wing-backs and scored goals for fun.
‘I think if you ask a lot of the Pompey fans, that was probably the ultimate season.
‘For everything that went on from when they went up and how great they did in the Premier League and winning the FA Cup, I think fans who have been going for years would say that was the best season they ever had.
‘It was the winning, the football, the goals – everything was perfect.
‘We had good players and Harry was different class.
‘During the season he recruited Stoney (Steve Stone), (Tim) Sherwood and Yakubu – the team was just getting better and better.’
Redknapp’s half-time reshuffle at Selhurst Park also paved the way for Merson to perform in a free role behind prolific, 26-goal striker Svetoslav Todorov.
And it was the manager’s understanding of how to best utilise his talented playmaker that helped bring the former Arsenal man to the Blues in the first place.
Merson said: ‘Harry just let me go out and play.
‘When I signed, I said to Harry: “I’ve just got married and my twin daughters are in Birmingham – I’m not travelling or moving down at my age for a two-year contract. I’m settled in the Midlands.”
‘I remember him saying: “Don’t work Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays, as long as you turn it on for us on the Saturday.”
‘I played every single game, even when I was having injections in my ankle – I only missed the one at Nottingham Forest at Christmas.’
Merson would, however, be deprived of further match action when Pompey were beaten 4-1 by Manchester United in the FA Cup third round at the turn of the year.
But owing to his arrangement with boss Redknapp, the skipper, who had suffered with gambling, drug addiction and alcoholism in his career, was able to engineer some extra time away from his footballing duties with a tale that has entered Fratton folklore.
Future Pompey boss and former Gunners team-mate Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic in Liphook – inspired by Adams’ own recovery from alcoholism – provided the backdrop for Merson’s impromptu getaway.
He said: ‘We got beaten by
Man United and we were very unlucky.
‘Nigel Quashie missed a very good chance at 2-1 down.
‘I went to see Harry after a league game a few weeks later.
‘We didn’t have a game as the team we were due to play were still in the FA Cup, so I asked if there was any chance of me going to Tony’s treatment centre for the week because I’d been struggling a little bit with the gambling.
‘Harry agreed, so I went home and told the missus: “Pack your bags we are going to Barbados!”
We were walking along the beach one day, though, when a geezer came up to me and said: “Alright Merse?”
‘I said hello and he asked what I thought about the season.
‘I didn’t know at the time, but this was Harry’s best mate!
‘He went straight back to his villa and rung him up and said: “I’ve just been with one of your players.”
Harry said: “Have you, who was that? He said “Paul Merson.”
‘So Harry said: “Oh no, what’s the matter with you then Dave?”
‘He thought he was in treatment with me!
‘But when I came back, Harry never said anything.
‘Two years later he told me that story – I couldn’t talk highly enough of him.’
Merson and Redknapp’s close relationship also allowed the Blues’ skipper to make an amicable, if surprise departure from the club at the end of their triumphant season.
Having signed a two-year contract, many fans were expecting the inspirational playmaker to lead the side in their maiden Premier League campaign.
But Merson revealed family commitments and a realisation of what his body would allow him to do were the reasons for his Fratton exit.
Merson said: ‘I had a year left on my contract and it would’ve meant moving down or training every day and I wasn’t going to do it.
‘I wasn’t going to mug myself off. I wasn’t moving down and my travelling just would’ve been too much so I said that to Harry and he was alright, not a problem.
‘It was a shame but I knew my standard by then – I was getting on and it’s a lot easier to play in the Championship.’
Upon his departure from the Blues, fans’ favourite Merson returned to the Midlands to enjoy a spell at Walsall, with whom he was also appointed player-manager, before retiring from the professional game in 2006.
Now 46, Merson is a successful TV pundit, best known for his roles on Sky Sports’ ‘Soccer Saturday’ programme and his own ‘Fantasy Football Club’ show.