When the Rocket Man launched Pompey’s Greatest Escape

Pedro Mendes scores against Manchester City
Pedro Mendes scores against Manchester City
Brett Pitman marked his Pompey return with two goals against Oldham Picture: Joe Pepler

Oldham 0 Pompey 2 – Neil Allen’s match report

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Harry Redknapp didn’t want to meet the media following that Aston Villa defeat.

It had been painful, there had been that banner, then an hour-long soul-searching session in the dressing room with his players.

He could have done without subsequently raking over the still gaping wounds at a time when clinging on to his Pompey job by his increasingly-bitten fingernails.

Mark Storey, The News’ then chief football writer, did at least manage to grab a word, with the Blues boss accommodating in carrying out his traditional local media duties.

When it came to facing the national press in the allocated room, it was a prospect Redknapp initially baulked at, before being tempted from the shadows of the wings on to the stage.

The criminally unmarked Milan Baros’ far-post finish had sealed a 1-0 Villa victory on that March 4, 2006, occasion – plunging the Blues deeper into relegation trouble.

Pompey run had been stretched to one point from a possible 24 – a desolate period which had coincided with the arrival of Sacha Gaydamak as joint-owner, following a £15m investment.

Then there was the banner, given its grand unveiling in the Villa Park North Stand away end that very match.

It demanded Redknapp’s dismissal.

Duly noted by the target of such ire, in years to come the Blues boss would occasionally reflect on the whereabouts of ‘those two idiots with the flag’. Perhaps it had hurt most that day.

The latest loss had left his side eight points adrift of a West Brom team safely residing one place above the Premier League relegation zone with 10 matches remaining.

There was one chance left. Perhaps to keep Pompey in the top flight, definitely to keep Redknapp in the Fratton Park hot seat he had returned to two months and 25 days earlier.

Manchester City were scheduled to visit on Saturday, March 11, 2006.

Enter marvellous Pedro Mendes with a contribution which has gone down in Blues folklore.

It was eight years ago this coming Tuesday when two howitzers from distance – the second a stoppage-time winner – changed Pompey’s course so dramatically.

And so the Great Escape was kick-started into life, leading to improbable survival with a match to spare, while also transforming Redknapp’s own career.

In the build-up, the Daily Mirror had run a back-page story centring on Redknapp being sacked if the City result would prove unsatisfactory to Gaydamak.

Under the byline of Neil McLeman, it had actually been penned by Alex Crook from local news agency M&Y, following a tip-off from an immaculate source within the club.

At the Thursday press conference, 48 hours before the fixture, Redknapp ferociously launched into the real perpetrator of the article, delivering the worst dressing down I have ever witnessed as a journalist.

Pompey’s boss refuted ‘garbage’ claims his job was on the line and, to his immense credit, Crook refused to back down amid the barrage.

It would be October 2009 when Redknapp admitted to me: ‘Sacha wanted me out, make no mistake.

‘When he came in I was on my way out, I know that – then we had that fantastic run over the last 10 games to stay up.

‘Sacha wanted his own man in. I know for a fact he wanted to get rid of me, but I kept us up and he couldn’t.’

Rumours of Redknapp’s impending demise at the time were entirely true.

In addition, Milan Mandaric had confided as much in several of the first-team players.

When the match came around, Redknapp made three changes.

Out went the injured Andy Griffin, Wayne Routledge and Svetoslav Todorov, and in came fit-again Benjani, Brian Priske and Andres D’Alessandro.

The inclusion of Benjani and D’Alessandro was designed to bring a greater attacking edge to a side with the lowest league goal tally in England and Scotland – right down to the Conference and Scottish division three.

Besides, the mercurial D’Alessandro had missed that Villa defeat following the birth of his daughter, Martina, at St Mary’s Hospital at 3am on match day.

Yet, before kick off, Pompey received a boost when relegation-rivals Birmingham and West Brom shared a 1-1 draw in a midday fixture.

So the scene was set in front of a 19,556 crowd for Dean Kiely, Priske, Andy O’Brien, Linvoy Primus, Matt Taylor, Gary O’Neil, Mendes, Sean Davis, D’Alessandro, Lomana Lualua and Benjani to take to the field.

On 60 minutes, D’Alessandro’s corner was headed as far as Mendes on the edge of the area, and he took one touch before unleashing a dipping volley past David James.

Then, seven minutes from the end, a corner from the right was headed first by Micah Richards and then Georgios Samaras, before Richard Dunne nodded home a leveller.

As the match headed into three minutes of stoppage time, something special occurred.

A corner from the left was cleared, Mendes surged forward to pick up the loose ball ahead of City substitute Bradley Wright-Phillips, and then crashed a shot into the top corner.

‘The survival is on, the Great Escape may well be on for Pompey,’ screamed Sam Matterface in that now famous commentary on The Quay.

Matterface, who now works for talkSPORT and will be at the World Cup with ITV, still rates it as the favourite moment in his career.

Mendes, who never gave interviews, despite possessing immaculate English, relented to speak to Match of the Day – but not the radio or written press.

There was barely any basking in the wondrous moment we had all witnessed by the great man himself.

Myself and Steve Bone were on duty for The News in the Fratton press box that day – a rarity in itself as we were strictly the occasional back-up team.

Bone, ever the romantic, still possesses the notepad in which he scribbled three different match report introductions for the Sports Mail.

By the time a Taylor penalty clinched a 2-1 victory at Wigan on April 29, Redknapp’s side had won six, drawn two and lost one of their last nine matches.

A remarkable haul of 20 points from a possible 27 had clinched safety – with West Brom and Birmingham joining Sunderland in relegation to the Championship.

Pompey and Redknapp – oh yes Harry Redknapp – owe it all to Pedro Miguel da Silva Mendes.