The rise and rise of one of Pompey’s own

Ben Close celebrates his maiden Fratton Park goal in the victory over AFC Wimbledon on Boxing Day. Picture: Joe Pepler
Ben Close celebrates his maiden Fratton Park goal in the victory over AFC Wimbledon on Boxing Day. Picture: Joe Pepler
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Ben Close wishes to set the record straight, time to dispel the myth.

‘It is often said I’m from Fratton but I’m not. I live in north Southsea – and when I was really young, we were in Eastney,’ insists the 21-year-old.

Ben Close, front row, second right, with Wimbledon Park Tigers under-sevens in 2003

Ben Close, front row, second right, with Wimbledon Park Tigers under-sevens in 2003

‘We live at the bottom end of Haslemere Road, which was within walking distance of Fratton Park when I was a first-year scholar.

‘We’d have breakfast at the ground and then get the bus to training.

‘I drive to games these days, which is a bit lazy considering you can’t really live much closer.

‘Mind you, I went to school at Priory, which may be classed as Fratton!’

Close is, unquestionably, one of Pompey’s own in all but song, it would seem.

When Buckland’s Marlon Pack recently threaded a pass for Joe Bryan to rifle home against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup, how the Bristol City fans celebrated.

‘He’s one of our own,’ chimed the home support in recognition of the locally-born left-back.

Such a fitting reception continues to elude Close who was among the Fratton faithful roaring on Pompey triumphs in the Division One title chase and then the 2008 FA Cup final.

Today represents his 50th Blues appearance, a feat increasingly rare for those born on Portsea Island.

The last recipient was Luke Nightingale, who reached the landmark in May 2001 during an infamous 4-2 home defeat to Crystal Palace.

The striker hailing from the areas of Somerstown and Southsea never played for Pompey again.

Close, however, has his sights on surpassing that tally for his club.

He added: ‘My dad is from Newcastle and was always trying to sway me to follow them – but I’m a Pompey fan.

‘I went to a lot of the games, with the 2002-03 season my first. I was there against Rotherham when we won 3-2 to take the Division One title.

‘My mum worked at the Study Centre and was able to sort out free tickets from Clare Martin for me to attend matches for a while.

‘I was with my dad and cousin at the 2008 FA Cup final, what a time to have my first visit to Wembley, then there was the FA Cup match at Southampton in February 2010.

‘I was in the away end to see us win 4-1. That was incredible, I’d never experienced anything like it. We got off the train and the police had us in a big square. I thought “Jesus, what am I doing here?”.

‘Unfortunately I missed out on AC Milan because we had Pompey training that night, instead I watched the second half on television. At least the previous day I managed to watch them train at Fratton Park.

‘On the day I signed for the Academy, Steve Martin, one of those in charge, arranged for us to have a tour of the stadium, a signed photo of Harry Redknapp and a message from a player of our choice.

‘Mine was Lomana Lualua, my favourite player at the time, and I received a signed photo and message in a frame. That was huge for me.

‘Years later, I liked central midfielders such as Jamie O’Hara, who I thought was a great player, and really admired Angelos Basinas, while David Norris was the fittest guy I’d ever seen, he could run for days.’

Close’s footballing education began at Wimbledon Park Tigers, whose home venue was Craneswater Junior School.

With his dad, Malcolm, as coach, he regularly locked horns with a Gosport Falcons side featuring future team-mate Jack Whatmough.

Yet he was overlooked by his home-town club and instead picked up by Paul Hardyman for the Advanced Training Centre.

From there he impressed sufficiently during a match against Pompey’s Academy to earn a six-week trial.

At the age of 11, Fratton Park was his home.

Close said: ‘I was a shy player, getting through games, doing okay, not being a stand-out performer or something special.

‘I was playing right-back for the first couple of years at Pompey, just plodding on but it wasn’t until the under-14s when I was back in midfield.

‘I had always wanted to return there, yet until the coach Ian White came along to make that happen, the club had seen me as a right-back.

‘The year I really stood out and got people noticing was with Alan McLoughlin in the under-16s. In terms of coaching, he has been the biggest influence of my career.

‘I remember a start-of-season Academy presentation at Fratton Park and Andy Awford announcing our under-16s coach – it was Macca.

‘I thought “Hope he’s good, I don’t know who he is, really”.

‘Slowly over the weeks and months it began to come out how good he was as a player.

‘Macca used to drop some slight hints, such as if someone scored a good goal he would say “That was me back in the day”.

‘I was always interested in our coaches. I always looked them up to find out what they had done and who they played for.

‘The hat-trick against Blackburn was one of the first things I saw – what a player.

‘I’m so grateful for what he did for me. He taught me how to affect games more and somehow brought the best out of me. Goal-scoring wise he also helped, I scored 11 that year.’

Close’s brother, Harry, is aged 13 and a promising midfielder at Moneyfields. He attends Priory School.

And big brother is still pinching himself over his Pompey progress.

Close added: ‘If anyone had said I was going to be the one who played 50 games for Pompey’s first-team then I wouldn’t have believed you.

‘Up until I was 16 I was always in the background, doing okay but not really setting the world on fire. Eventually I came through.

‘I’ve always had that backing from my mum and dad, they got me through the tougher days.’

So congratulations to the Southsea lad – one of Pompey’s own.