Ex-Oxford and Reading full-back Matt Robinson: I crossed the divide, not realising the rivalry - and Portsmouth fans never let me forget my Southampton stigma

Matt Robinson’s growing disillusionment with life as a bit-part Premier League performer drove him to seek regular football elsewhere.

Thursday, 11th November 2021, 6:00 pm
Matt Robinson made 77 appearances and scored once for Pompey following his February 1998 arrival. Picture: Chris Lobina/Allsport
Matt Robinson made 77 appearances and scored once for Pompey following his February 1998 arrival. Picture: Chris Lobina/Allsport

The 23-year-old’s preference was First Division bottom side Pompey, persuaded by former manager Alan Ball to become the second signing of his second Fratton Park spell.

The enthusiastic left-back had overlooked one crucial issue, however.

‘My first Pompey game was at Reading. You’re a little nervous playing for a different team and I was fully aware of my Southampton connection,’ he told The News.

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‘I was warming up on the Elm Park pitch before the game and heard this “Scummer, Scummer”. It seemed like the whole away end were chanting it – in my direction.

‘I was thinking “These are Pompey fans. Do I clap? Do I acknowledge them?”. Suddenly I got what the rivalry was all about.

‘So I gave them a clap, then a wave. And they cheered.

‘Overall, Pompey fans accepted me at Fratton Park and, at times, would chant for me – “One Pompey Scummer” – so there’s a little banter as well.

Matt Robinson pursues Fulham's Gus Uhlenbeek in a 1-0 Pompey defeat at Craven Cottage in November 1999. Picture: Stu Forster/Allsport

‘It was a nice way of them saying “We like you. A little bit”.’

Robinson crossed the divide in February 1998, yet, in the eyes of many of the Fratton faithful, the Southampton stigma was indelible.

A product of The Dell’s youth system, he progressed to total 17 first-team appearances under four different managers, with the vast majority of his outings arriving in the top flight.

It was Ball who had handed Robinson his Southampton debut, as a substitute in a 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday in December 1995.

Matt Robinson spent two-and-a-half seasons at Reading after leaving Fratton Park in January 2000. Picture: Peter Norton/Allsport

The pair would be reunited at fierce rivals Pompey, with the converted left winger snapped up for £35,000 to aid a desperate battle against relegation.

Robinson would go on to feature 77 times in almost two years for the Blues, scoring once, yet reminded daily of his former footballing association.

For the Manchester United fan born in Exeter and raised in Sherborne, Dorset, it was an eye-opening experience to south-coast hostility.

He added: ‘I totally respect that, coming from your biggest rivals, it’s always going to be a tough one and they’ll see you as a Southampton fan because you played for them.

Pompey full-back Matt Robinson faces fellow Division One side Wolves

‘I was affiliated with Southampton from the age of 11, originally training twice a week at their Bath Centre of Excellence because it was closer. Yet I wasn’t a fan.

‘Manchester United were my team, purely because of Bryan Robson. As a kid, you pick a team and stick with them.

‘My dad was more into rugby, I had no connections to Manchester whatsoever, but chose to support United and had the replica shirts, even though the side wasn’t particularly good in the 1980s.

‘As a player, you still look out for that team you supported as a kid. Even if you play for another side, you want the club you follow to do well and win.

‘When I was with Southampton and visited Old Trafford it was “Wow, this is Manchester United”. It was a big thing, definitely more of a special occasion playing there than anywhere else because it was where I had always wanted to play.

‘When it came to leaving Southampton, they had previously turned down bids from Burnley and Millwall, but the time was right to get regular football. I’ll be honest with you, I didn't really think about the significance of joining Pompey.

Following his Pompey days, Matt Robinson made 192 appearances and scored four times during four seasons at Oxford United. Picture: Henry Browne, Empics

‘The clubs were in different divisions, so didn’t meet in the league during my time at The Dell, although reserve and youth matches between the teams would be packed out with good atmospheres.

‘Despite not having grown up in the area, I was aware of the animosity, but didn’t actually understand just how big the rivalry was until I made that move. There was a proper hatred of Southampton from the Pompey side.

‘They never let me forget my Southampton links. I was a “Scummer” – and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me.

‘I always felt I probably had more to prove than most players, there was that little more pressure. When things weren't going so well, you knew I’d be first in line for a bit of pelting in front of the fans.

‘Don’t get me wrong, they were really good to me as well, I can’t complain about the supporters, they were so passionate. They wanted their team to do well and I can see that.

‘But you are a player, trying to do the best you can for that club, it was never about me supposedly supporting Southampton or trying to be bad for Pompey. I wanted to do well for the club, yet always knew there would be that stigma.

‘Let’s not forget, my time at Pompey was also up and down because of what was going on behind the scenes, which was not particularly great.

‘Players were coming and going, the club had no money. It was all doom and gloom at one stage, in administration, putting everyone up for sale, arriving at the training ground and being told you must take a pay cut and people were losing their jobs. Not nice.

‘When at Pompey, I was living in Hedge End, and Southampton fans would also give me the odd bit of abuse and stick. You’d be out and about and some idiot would come up to you, calling me a “Skate” or whatever. It’s part of the job, I guess.

‘Of course criticism gets to you and, when things weren’t going well at Pompey, it’s quite hurtful, but you never try to let it get to the point of affecting you.

‘You just have to battle through it.’

At the time of Robinson’s February 1998 arrival, Pompey were bottom of Division One, although, encouragingly, had beaten Stockport in an iconic match days earlier.

The left-back was granted an immediate start against Reading and helped the Blues to a 1-0 success, ending a run of seven consecutive away defeats.

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Ball’s men maintained their remarkable recovery to stay in survival contention right until the final match of the campaign.

Victory at Bradford would secure their Division One safety. Sure enough, two from John Durnin and Sammy Igoe’s strike earned a 3-1 triumph.

Robinson had been ever-present at left-back following his arrival, starting all 15 matches, including at Valley Parade, as Pompey pulled off a stunning late-season charge.

‘Bradford is one of my favourite memories in football. To win to avoid relegation was pretty special,’ said Robinson.

‘I can remember the day like it was yesterday. Amazing, what an occasion. Don’t get me wrong, though, you don’t want to play in those games!

‘It was really strange. When I arrived at Fratton Park, they told me the team had been struggling. I thought “Wow, how on earth can that be?”. The team spirit was really good, what a group.

‘It had a lot to do with Alan Ball, who hadn’t been there long, just four weeks, and the fans loved him. There were also some really good players in that dressing room.

‘Steve Claridge, Sammy Igoe, I knew Alan McLoughlin from Southampton, Martin Allen, John Durnin, Adie Whitbread, Andy Awford, that side should never have been in the position of a relegation battle.

‘I didn’t know what had gone on previously, yet coming into it blind helped me. My focus was on the future, not what had happened before I got there.

‘I was thrown in at the deep end, there you go, get on with it. It seemed to work for me.’

The following 1998-99 season began with Robinson hampered by injury and afflicted by a loss of form, not regaining his first-team spot until November 1998.

From that point, he started the final 29 fixtures of the season, often at right-back, demonstrating his versatility as the Blues finished a disappointing 19th.

The former Southampton man remained an automatic choice until January 2000, when sold to Reading by new boss Tony Pulis for a fee rising to £250,000 – and a hefty profit.

He added: ‘Bally was a great man. He was quite a simple manager and coach, didn’t overcomplicate anything, and I owed a lot to him.

‘He just wanted to play football, get it on the floor, pass it, but, most of all, it was the passion he showed. You didn't want to disappoint him – and were desperate to play for him.

‘Pulis replaced Bally and I started his opening two matches in charge, yet quickly realised I probably wasn’t going to be part of what he wanted.

‘It was about having a solid back four and, by my own admission, I wasn’t the greatest defender in the world! I preferred to go forward and enjoyed the attacking side of it more than defensive.

‘They were also looking to sell, so it was the right time. I have nothing against Tony Pulis.

‘I had been a regular and it was almost like: “Why should I leave a club where I’m playing regularly to join a club playing a league down?”.

‘Initially I didn’t want to leave, but eventually you realise what’s best for you. I was never instructed to leave, but it was made clear that, if I refused, I wouldn’t be playing often.

‘I didn’t want to be anywhere I wasn’t wanted. Besides, Reading had been watching me for a while and had previous approaches turned down, which was reassuring.

‘They were in a bad way at the time, third from bottom of Division Two, yet I could see what Alan Pardew was trying to do there. This was definitely a club on the up.

‘We won 12 of our last 20 league games and finished 10th. The following season we lost 3-2 to Walsall in the play-off final, then the year afterwards won automatic promotion behind Brighton.’

Later dislodged from Reading’s side by future England and Pompey left-back Nicky Shorey, Robinson departed the Madejski Stadium in the summer of 2002.

He then spent four seasons at Oxford United, totalling 192 appearances and four goals, before bidding farewell to the Football League in 2006 at the age of 31.

Entering the non-league scene, Robinson represented Forest Green, Salisbury, Totton and finally Swindon Supermarine, where, for a time, he was manager.

Following a stint as a coach at Chippenham Town, he left football in 2015 to focus on his new profession as a police officer for Dorset Constabulary, stationed in Bridport, but living back in his hometown of Sherborne.

Robinson said: ‘I was at Pompey when Milan Mandaric came in as owner, which were exciting times, and I’m so pleased they eventually won promotion to the Premier League.

‘They deserved to be in the top flight and, although I know it all went a bit Pete Tong after that, it was great for the fans to have had that experience.

‘I know people bang on about it, but I have never seen supporters like it. I have played in most divisions, in most stadiums around the country, and when the Pompey fans get behind you they are pretty mad.

‘Do you know what, they’re better than Southampton’s support. There were some great atmospheres at The Dell, don’t get me wrong, but for pure passion and the non-stop chanting and the bell, Pompey fans were unbelievable.

‘I think Southampton died when they left The Dell. All those modern stadiums look the same and there’s not much atmosphere going on there.

‘Then there’s Fratton Park. What a place and what a club.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Matt Robinson (far right) ended his playing career with non-league side Swindon Supermarine. Picture: Sally Ellis