Kev McCormack: Lighting Robert Prosinecki's cigarettes and Harry Redknapp's golf partner - My 20 years at Portsmouth

Robert Prosinecki relished a half-time smoke.

Saturday, 24th August 2019, 10:00 am
Kev McCormack, celebrating 20 years as Pompey kitman, relaxes at home with memorabilia accrued over the years. Picture: Malcolm Wells (190821-3830)
Kev McCormack, celebrating 20 years as Pompey kitman, relaxes at home with memorabilia accrued over the years. Picture: Malcolm Wells (190821-3830)

Marlboro Red was the distinctive cigarette of choice following 45 minutes of match action, often consumed while sheltering in the laundry room or a dressing-room toilet cubicle.

A habit tolerated by the Pompey hierarchy, the pay-off for retaining the talismanic talents of the ex-Barcelona and Real Madrid star.

The Croatian genius illuminated Fratton Park - and it was the ever-loyal Kev McCormack who lit up his smokes.

Pedro Mendes celebrates with Kev McCormack following Pompey's 2008 FA Cup final triumph. Picture: Steve Reid (082214-705)

For two decades, the Blues kitman has faithfully occupied the corner of players and managers, fulfilling such extracurricular whims as a three-storey ladder climb to move Peter Crouch’s new sofa, serving as Steve Claridge's match-day driver and partnering Harry Redknapp at golf.

Yet McCormack should not be defined by his work for others, an outstanding sportsman in his own right, the 52-year-old is regarded as among Wales' greatest amateur boxers.

A former sparring partner of future world champions Joe Calzaghe and David Haye, he represented his country in three Commonwealth Games, fulfilling flag-bearing duties in Victoria, Canada, in 1994.

Now McCormack is celebrating 20 years at Fratton Park.

Kev McCormack celebrates with the Checkatrade Trophy following Pompey's Wembley victory in March 2019. Picture: Joe Pepler

The ex-Royal Marine said: 'My wife says I love that club more than I love her. I reply: "I love Southampton more than I love you". Only joking!

'When I took over the role, I asked Gordon Neave: "Are you going to give me a handover?".

'He replied: "Son, here are the keys. I’ll give you a bit of advice, you’ll swear 10 times more - and be more aggressive and more tired all the time". I thought I had developed Tourette's in the first week!

'He also told me: "You'll fall in love with this place". I told him I wouldn't, but you do. You do.

Members of Pompey's 2002-03 League One title-winning side, Linvoy Primus and Richard Hughes, reminisce with Kev McCormack. Picture: Keith Woodland.

'Having been a sportsman myself and then coming to Fratton Park, I am privileged, you fall in love with the place.

'I love that adrenaline rush, I love a match day, being around the players. That buzz they get, I get, because that’s why I went into boxing.

'If I can help out in anyway, that's what I do, I don't want anything for it. Generally players come to the club and want to be made to feel welcome - the sooner they settle the better they feel.

'We had Robert Prosinecki, one of the best players I've ever seen, and I loved listening to him.

Avram Grant's 2010 FA Cup runners-up medal, handed over to Kev McCormack. Picture: Malcolm Wells (190821-6693)

'To think we had him when his legs had gone, but he was still a genius, an absolute genius, and funny.

'The first time he came in he said "Kev, fire, fire". I said "What? Where?". He actually wanted a light for his fag!

'Every game I’d have a Marlboro Red lit for him, at half-time and the end of the match. He would smoke in my room or the dressing-room toilets.

'On away trips, before the game, he would have a smoke and order either a double espresso or triple espresso, while telling me stories about Real Madrid and Barcelona.

'Rob once gave me a Rolex watch to look after. I asked "What’s this, Rob?" - and he replied it was worth £85,000 and Barcelona had given it to him as a present!

'I remember Peter Crouch bought this rather expensive settee, a huge three seater, and asked me to give him a hand lifting it into his Port Solent flat.

Kev McCormack with the Wales vest he wore to box at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Malcolm Wells (190821-6750)

'I recognised the problem straight away, it wasn’t possible to get it onto the third floor.

'There was a spiral staircase and it wasn’t going to get in a lift, I should know, I’m a bricklayer by trade and did all the lifts when all that housing was being built.

'Crouchie replied: "I’ve spent a fortune on this, about £2-3,000, I can’t take it back". So I told him to get me a ladder.

'I put the settee on my head, tied around my waist with ropes, and climbed up, with Crouchie, Courtney Pitt and Shaun Derry holding the ladder while I scaled it. After reaching the top I threw it through the open french doors and onto the balcony.

'I think it’s still there now, nobody would be able to get that out!

'We had Paul Merson for a season, he liked a gamble and was a good lad.

'Back in those days they had to wash their own training kit, so Merse promised me £10,000 if I did his and we got promoted. As we were all in awe of him, I went "Yeah, whatever". We won the Division One title that year - and he was as good as his word.

'When Crouchie first joined he told me he didn’t have a washing machine and asked me to do it for £15 a week. Recently on his podcast he claimed it was £60 a week - was it hell! I never got it all the time anyway, footballers are tight!

'They know I'm an angry bear, but I'll do anything for them.'

McCormack, who hails from Cwmbran, South Wales, moved to Portsmouth at the age of 18 to work as a bricklayer.

He was involved in the construction of Port Solent, before joining the Royal Marines, later involved in putting Pompey's players through their paces in the HMS Nelson gym.

Following a stint as match-day security at the Chimes Bar, McCormack was recruited by manager Alan Ball to replace the legendary Gordon Neave as kitman.

The Scot had been associated with Pompey for more than half a century, his commitments ranging from player, coach and trainer to physio and kitman.

In May 1999, to mark Neave's impending retirement, he was granted a testimonial, with Pompey's clash with West Ham attracting a crowd of 4,285.

For the 1999-2000 campaign, there was a new face in Ball's dressing room - and McCormack still remains.

He added: 'I've got on with 99.9 per cent of managers - I'm not telling you who I didn't get on with!

'I loved Bally. In those days, tea cups were in the dressing room and used to fly when he was about, if the cap came off and hit the floor you knew.

'He was such a lovely man, so passionate about Pompey, so passionate about football, you could listen to him for hours.

'I still miss Bally to this day and went to his funeral at Winchester Cathedral in 2007. It was invite only, a who's who of football, and I sat next to Harry Redknapp.

'Steve Claridge was barking mad and, as manager, hated travelling on the team bus, so I would drive his Mercedes to and from matches.

'A lovely fella, he would always bring his own pillow and quilt to the hotel on away games.

'Harry (Redknapp) has a heart of gold, he would do anything for you. I watched him in I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here - that was Harry, a genuine person.

'He never liked losing, the worst I have seen, it would ruin his weekend. You could tell, he was very quiet on the coach on the way home.

'Harry loves his golf, it would be me and him against Kev Bond and Jim Smith and we'd play £5 out, £5 back, £5 for the match.

'He would say to me: "Make sure you get that onto the green" and I would be shaking like a leaf. You might as well be playing for £1m, he didn’t want to lose to those two!

'We keep in touch, I get a text from him and Sandra every Christmas - and also New Year.

'As for Avram Grant, he gave me his 2010 FA Cup final medal and said "Thank you for everything you do for us, you are one of the best kitmen I have ever worked with". It was lovely of him.'

McCormack's long-term Fratton Park sidekick is boot man Barry Harris.

Yet beyond the laundry room, the 52-year-old was formerly a super heavyweight boxer of international repute.

He won bronze at the 1993 European Amateur Boxing Championships in Bursa, Turkey, while claimed three British ABA titles.

In addition, his haul of 10 Welsh titles remains a national record - and he represented his country in the 1986, 1990 and 1994 Commonwealth Games.

He added: 'This job has kept me in sport, I know the lads take the mickey because I am overweight and bald, but I was a half-decent boxer, I did some decent things.

'I won the British ABA title, people don’t realise winning one is hard enough, but I earned it three times.

'I'll always be a boxer, it never leaves you. For instance, after winning the 2008 FA Cup, I was chasing Sylvain Distin around on the Wembley pitch. I would love to see the footage!

'During celebrations, he gave me a kidney punch when I wasn’t expecting it, I was passing blood for a couple of days afterwards.

'All season we were having a bit of banter, fighting, and I suppose sometimes I don’t know my own strength, I bruised him or something.

'He got his own back on me moments after winning the FA Cup and, as an ex-boxer, you lose the plot. I chased after him for five minutes and was breathing out my backside!

'I later told him: "If I had caught you, I would have killed you". He replied: "I know, that’s why I ran faster!". I did like Sylvain, one of the best.

'I’ve spent most of my life in this city, I came down aged 18 and I’m 52 now. You fall in love with it - and these are the best fans I have seen in my life.

'I met my wife, Sarah, down here and had two beautiful children - Kimberley and Oliver. This place has been fantastic to me.

'I am a big bear, an ex-boxer, but a big softy, I would do anything for anybody, I'm loyal.

'There's two things in life - a dog and a cat. I am a dog, as loyal as you like. Loyal to this football club, its managers and players.

'That's just what I am.'

Kitman Kev McCormack demonstrates his boxing skills to Pompey's squad during the 2018 pre-season