A Portsmouth final with benefits - but also a small tragedy
If the past year has reaffirmed one thing to us all, it’s just what fans mean to the game.
Football without supporters? Well, it’s not really football. It’s a fraud masquerading as the real thing, a knock-off bought from the lookie lookie man after one too many – and a bad one at that.
What we’ve been witnessing since March 10, 2020 is a pale imitation of the sport we all love, an attempt to satiate our hunger with an inferior spectacle and try to keep the wheels turning on the money machine.
Likewise, in the argument about what’s the biggest signifier of a football club and its calibre, you can only arrive at one answer.
History, honours, infrastructure and current standing all have their part to play, but it’s the supporters who are the truest indicator of a club and its worth; the one constant which forms the fabric of an outfit’s identity.
It’s all these factors which make it a crying shame the 2021 Papa John’s Trophy final will be played out in front of 90,000 empty seats at the home of football on March 13.
Pompey had grafted to seven positive results to secure their return and chance to retain a trophy which has had its detractors, certainly not least in these parts.
But what unfolded against Sunderland under the arch two years ago was an occasion which superseded this maligned competition.
A record-breaking 85,021 partisan supporters, the second highest attendance in Europe that weekend, were present to see a break-neck game with every twist and turn required in all of the best football narratives.
It was Pompey’s sixth visit to the new Wembley, a return which sits favourably in the league table of pilgrimages to the footballing Mecca for club sides, all of which provided memorable spectacles.
What took place in 2019 wasn’t the FA Cup or Community Shield, yet the drama cemented memories for a new generation of young fans and families.
And the fact there were fewer neutrals arguably saw record decibel levels reached, at least comparable to what had taken place previously.
Now more than 50,000 royal blue bloods will be denied a repeat visit, and a show of force beyond anything which has gone before in terms of Pompey numbers.
Even the best marketing brains will not be able to hide the reality that seriously devalues what is going to take place.
Yes, there is the chance to retain a trophy which has never been collected consecutively by the same side in the competition’s 38-year history.
Leaving any mark of that nature on Pompey’s honours board appeals.
And, yes, the chance for players to step out on Wembley’s turf is an opportunity none will underestimate.
For a squad which has 17 faces who weren’t present for the previous visit, an opportunity many of their peers will never receive lies in wait.
Facing Salford always felt like an occasion where Pompey’s potential gains are outweighed by the hit a defeat would deliver.
The stat is when Harry Redknapp’s men were lifting the FA Cup in 2008, their opponents were operating in the ninth tier of the game and winning promotion from the North West Counties League.
We’re getting in early with that one, because you can bet your commentating life you’ll be hearing that a lot more in the coming days.
Likewise, mentions of Manchester United’s Class of ‘92 will be climbing the Google Analytics boards, as the Nevilles, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes get the chance for a silverware return on investment along with Singapore magnate Peter Lim.
The gulf between the clubs is, of course, an illusion in on-the-pitch terms.
Salford have been well backed before having to fall in line with the salary cap this season, and the suspicion is that will now be the case once again after those financial constraints were binned.
But there’s potential benefits for Pompey’s season, too, and my isn’t that needed right now.
It’s not so much a spark as a forest fire required to get the league campaign going again.
So respect is required for a final many in the Blues dressing room felt would never, ever happen, and what it can achieve.
The reality, however, is that while Pompey’s 2008 record for the highest Wembley attendance remains, after the past year’s events it may now be joined by the lowest for a competitive fixture. And that is a small football tragedy.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
On Saturday, March 13 Pompey will finally get their day at Wembley.
To celebrate the Blues’ place in the rearranged 2020 EFL Trophy Final, The News has launched an offer that gets you 25% off all our Sports subscriptions.
You can choose your perfect Sports subscription here and use the discount code ROADTOWEMBLEY25 to get the latest news from Fratton Park for less. Offer runs until midnight on March 15.