If you’d asked 1,000 Pompey fans last summer what their hopes were for the 2018-19 season, some would have said the League One title was in their sights, most would have said promotion or at least a play-off place and a good stab at going up.
And a fair few would have requested a nice run in the FA Cup.
It’s a fair bet that no one would have identified the Checkatrade Trophy as a competition that could make Blue dreams come true. But on Sunday it did.
The little old Football League Trophy, always the very poor relation of all the competitions Pompey enter during these League One and League Two days, has just lifted the 18-19 season out of the ordinary. It has given us an occasion that - even if it is eclipsed in May if Pompey can somehow gain automatic promotion or even secure a quick return to Wembley and another win under the arch - will live long in Pompey memories.
Let’s be honest, very few of us were bothered about the Checkatrade when Pompey won their group or came through their last-16 or last-eight ties. Maybe things changed a little when we reached the semi-finals but even then... well, had the Bury semi been at home, would you have gone? I wouldn’t have.
There’s something about Wembley, though, and when Pompey sold 30,000 tickets in one day for the final I was not surprised.
Those who have boycotted the competition ever since so-called ‘bigger’ clubs’ B teams, or under-23s, were allowed to take part now had a dilemma, but plenty continued their boycott and stayed away from Wembley. I salute their principles, but I was never going to miss this.
For me, this was a first chance to see Pompey at Wembley with a family member. I never did that with my dad or sister, who were my Pompey companions until their respective deaths in 1997 and 2006; while with my son, now 16, I’d seen England play at Wembley - and we’d even seen our hometown team Gosport play there. Now it was a chance for US to see OUR team at HQ - and who knows if we’ll ever get the chance again?
On the day itself, we were among plenty saying ‘it’ll be a fantastic day out, it doesn’t really matter if we win or lose’. Yeah right. We might have genuinely believed that on the way to North London but once inside, you just can’t stand there and not mind who wins. Football doesn’t work like that.
The occasion was everything it promised to be, and more. The atmosphere was never going to be mediocre with the two clubs having sold out their respective halves of Wembley. We were pleased to be there - privileged in fact. And all around you could see Pompey fans, families, many young supporters probably sampling the place for the first time, feeling the same.
The first half was like a number of first halves have been for the Blues this season - instantly forgettable. There was no passion, no energy, just a team content to let their opponents play all the football, seemingly unable to create anything worthwhile to turn around the one-way traffic. The best thing you could say about those opening 45 minutes was that we were only 1-0 down at the end of them.
Something had to change and it did. Pompey looked a different team after the restart, for which Kenny Jackett’s motivational abilities must take a lot of credit, and we were already on top before the introduction of Gareth Evans and Oli Hawkins lifted the team further. Even so, time was starting to run out before the unlikely forward figure of Nathan Thompson powered in the equaliser.
At that stage you felt Pompey could go on and win it without the need for extra time, but they couldn’t. On to the extra 30 and the tension built - until the blue end of Wembley erupted every bit as raucously as the other end of the stadium had when Kanu (twice), Freddie Piquionne and Kevin Prince-Boateng had netted on those various 2008 and 2010 visits. This time the hero was Jamal Lowe with a brilliant finish that surely guarantees him cult status for years to come, and even the possibility that fans will forgive him for revealing what to all intents and purposes was a bra beneath his royal blue jersey.
What a moment. But not THE moment. Not the winning goal. In a sequence that reminded me all too vividly of Highbury 1992, elation at a late Blues goal was cancelled out by despair at an even later one at the other end. For Ronnie Whelan, read Aiden McGeady, stealing in to level things up and break blue hearts.
Penalties, then. Would further bad memories of 1992, the year this Trophy final fixture should have been seen for the FA Cup final, ensue?
Weirdly, I didn’t find the shootout as nerve-racking as I felt I should. I have a superstition with penalties - it’s not that I don’t watch them, but that I stay in my seat even if that means I can’t see them being taken. I’ve always thought standing up for a penalty is tempting fate.
On this occasion, thanks to being on the end of a row, I could see the takers and the keepers, and somehow remained quite serene as all but one went in. I’m a big fan of sending your most dependable takers up first and was delighted to see Evans and Brett Pitman do the business to put the Black Cats under pressure, especially when Lee Cattermole saw his one brilliantly saved by Big Craig Mac.
Then up stepped Lee Brown, and I’m afraid I always worry about left-footed spot-kickers - I point to Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and John Beresford as exhibits A, B and C in backing up this argument, however unproven in science it may actually be. But Brown’s kick was emphatic, and so was Lowe’s - I wonder, did he have to resist the urge to do something fancy with his?
Fittingly it was left to Oli Hawkins - who some Pompey fans have still not taken to despite the brilliant contribution he has made to our season - to finish the job and start the party. The party sponsored by Checkatrade, that is.
It was a day to savour, a day when many young fans will have had their eyes well and truly opened to the wonder of Wembley and the power of Pompey. And that has to be a good thing for the Blues and their future, right?
Next season, if Pompey are still in League One, a new Football League Trophy campaign will begin and the vast majority of the 40,000 who were at Wembley will be nowhere to be seen as Pompey open up one or two stands for those who want to see an experimental side take on Southend, or Millwall’s under-21s. And we probably won’t get to the final next season, and no-one will be too worried if we don’t.
But that won’t change the fact that the 2018-19 Checkatrade Trophy gave us, against the odds, another entry on the growing list of ‘I was there’ days for Pompey fans.
For me, it will always be the first time I saw Pompey at Wembley with my son. I hope and believe it won’t be the last time. I hope we and the rest of the 40,000, and those who didn’t go, perhaps get to see our team in another FA Cup final one day, or maybe winning the League Cup, now the only domestic trophy we have not lifted.
But that’s for tomorrow - this wondrous Wembley day and all the scenes and memories it has created, that’s very much for today.