‘It was wonderful to see the heart and soul of football on show at Wembley’ – SIMON CARTER
Nine years ago Pompey fans were ridiculing their Southampton counterparts for getting all worked up about winning the EFL Trophy. Sponsored by Johnstone’s Paint, the tournament was then widely derided as the ‘Paint Pot’ cup by Blues fans who were, lest we forget, en route to a second FA Cup final in three seasons.
Fast forward to last Sunday, though, and all of a sudden the trophy mattered when over 40,000 Pompey supporters erupted in joy when Oli Hawkins netted against Sunderland in the final of the very same tournament. Though the competition will be forever much maligned, Blues fans still produced as much noise as when Kanu netted against Cardiff 11 years ago.
Arguably, the noise which greeted Hawkins’ spot-kick - in a competition for third and fourth tier clubs - was greater than Kanu’s magical moment in 2008, for the sole reason there were a lot more Pompey fans in the stadium this time.
Yes, the Checkatrade Trophy is always bottom on the list of a club’s priorities at the start of a season. And yes, there are many fans who want their team to be knocked out at the group stage to avoid ‘needless’ extra fixtures clogging up a congested calendar.
And yes, Pompey no doubt wish they weren’t in the Checkatrade Trophy. And yes, no doubt they wish last Sunday’s final will be their last in the competition for a very long time.
But none of the negatives must detract from the almighty positive everyone with Pompey at heart can take from the triumph.
This is why.
In Nick Hornby’s seminal book ‘Fever Pitch’, he mentions a dismal Arsenal loss at Stamford Bridge... ‘These are the games, the 1-0 defeats at Chelsea on a miserable afternoon, that give meaning to the rest, and it is precisely because you have seen so many of them that there is real joy to be had from the others that come every six, seven, ten years.’
Putting to one side the fact that as an Arsenal fan Hornby has spent his entire life following a top flight club - and a fairly successful one, all told - his words ring true to all football fans.
There was ‘real joy’ for Pompey fans at Wembley last Sunday for two main reasons. Firstly, the fact they won a cup final at the national stadium - only the third time in history the club have ever achieved that (and you would now have to be in your 90s to remember the first one). Don’t say the Checkatrade doesn’t really count, because if that was the case over 40,000 Blues fans wouldn’t have been there.
The second reason, in a way, is more important than the first.
As a football supporter, you can only appreciate the highs by having experienced the lows. For Nick Hornby, that is Arsenal finishing mid-table in the top flight and going 18 years without being crowned champions of England. The heart bleeds for him.
For Pompey supporters, though, the lows are down there alongside a snake’s belly - culminating in one-time fears for the club’s future. But it is important to remember the lows; no, it is vital you remember the lows. As a result, the highs - when they come - are so much higher.
In that way, Portsmouth have something in common with their hated rivals from the other end of the M27.
In 2009, Markus Liebherr - a Swiss/German industrialist - saved Saints, then a third division club, from potential oblivion by emerging from the shadows as an unlikely saviour.
In his first season as owner Saints won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley. And thousands of fans raised on a diet of top flight football celebrated with as much gusto as those that cheered the goal netted by Paulsgrove lad Bobby Stokes in the 1976 FA Cup final. They celebrated wildly because they had known, by their standards, grim days.
Saints’ Wembley win was a sign that the club was in the process of putting its bad times behind them, and just over two years later they were back in the Premier League.
Can Pompey emulate that achievement, can the Blues use victory in a much-ridiculed competition as a springboard to further advances back up the football pyramid? Time will tell.
But let me tell you this - I was the sports editor of the Southampton paper for 16 years, and I know many Saints fans who said their League One days, their Wembley win, gave them far better memories than recent years of mediocre Premier League football did.
No Pompey fan, of course, wants to spend the rest of his or her days watching third division matches. But the point I’m making is that the lower division successes the Blues have had recently - the League 2 title, Wembley success - meant so much because of the heartache that was endured prior to achieving them.
The 2-0 defeats at Gillingham, the 2-0 wins at Shrewsbury, the 0-0 home draws with Barnsley. In time, and not that long a time either, the memories from those sort of games will fade.
All football fans want their club to be successful, to win titles and to win cups. But unless you follow some members of English football’s elite, those days - as Nick Hornby rightly stated - are rare.
Pompey, though, have now won more cup finals at the new Wembley than Liverpool and Tottenham. And they’ve won more league titles since 1990 than them as well! I write with tongue in cheek, obviously, but with a serious side too. Supporting your local football club should be a microcosm of all human emotion if it is to ever mean anything.
I have always said that you will not find ‘proper’ football supporters among the Johnny Come Latelys at the all-seater Premier League grounds. I have annoyed a few Saints fans with that comment.
Instead, you will find them in the lower divisions, for that is where the heartache is to be found. That is where the soul of football is to be found. And that is where some clubs can dream of a miraculous rise - a la Bournemouth - and others who have known happier days can give thanks that they are still alive, still fighting, and also dreaming.
Portsmouth FC belong in that latter category, for sure.
The soul of football was plainly on show last Sunday - the whole range of human emotions laid bare. It was wonderful to see.
Pompey have known far better days, and hopefully they will know far better days again. But the Checkatrade Trophy will always have a special place in the heart of fans.
It might not be a large place, granted, but it will be there nonetheless.
Unlike so many league games, the memories will not quickly fade. For some of those there, for those watching Pompey win at Wembley for the first time, they will never fade.