Michael Appleton: Portsmouth v Southampton is football's most intense rivalry - and gave me with one of my favourite moments
The south-coast derby arrived five matches into the reign of Michael Appleton.
The Manchester native was swiftly educated, today ranking it as the most intense rivalry he has ever encountered.
It’s a regard elevated above traditional contests in Merseyside, the Black County, Manchester and the locking of horns between Oxford United and Swindon.
Appleton’s reverence towards the sporadic occasions of Pompey meeting Southampton is understandable.
During a Fratton Park reign falling narrowly short of a year, he oversaw two south-coast derbies from the Blues’ dugout.
Considering the circumstances, both Championship fixtures during the 2011-12 campaign ended in draws considerably more appreciated by those of Pompey persuasion.
Appleton’s side, entrenched in administration, forced to loan out players to grab quick cash and deducted 10 points, were relegated.
As for Southampton, Nigel Adkins’ impressive team finished behind Reading to claim a return to the Premier League – yet that term failed to beat the struggling Blues on both occasions.
The fierce rivals haven’t met since a 2-2 St Mary’s draw in April 2012 – now they are scheduled for a September 24 date in the Carabao Cup.
And, such is the strength of Appleton’s south-coast memories, that David Norris contribution rates among the favourite moments of his managerial and coaching career.
The 43-year-old told The News: ‘That St Mary’s game is definitely up there among the best three or four matches of my managerial and coaching career. The emotions were just ridiculous.
‘As a manager, I literally lost it for a good 20 seconds, all my rationale and thought process disappeared. I have watched a couple of videos of that moment since, it still makes hair stand up on the back of my neck.
‘My first south-coast derby was actually five games into my Pompey reign and it was certainly an eye opener, I can tell you.
‘I didn’t realise at the time how competitive or how strong the rivalry was. I’ve tried to explain to people that, when Southampton played at Pompey, they weren’t allowed into the city unless on an official coach. Their response is “No way, get lost”! Where else does that happen?
‘I would possibly say this fixture is more intense than the Merseyside derby and the Manchester derby. I have got to say, the rivalry is probably as strong as any derby I’ve either been involved in as a player, coach or fan.
‘I played for West Brom against Wolves, but it wasn’t the same, while Oxford against Swindon is a little bit naughty. This is above those.
‘The Merseyside one has a bit of respect and they call it a friendly derby, you get Everton and Liverpool fans in one family. I would be very, very surprised if families have one Southampton fan and one from Portsmouth!
‘As a manager, I think sometimes you have to be really careful when you celebrate because football has a funny way of smacking you right back in the face.
‘The reality, though, is when you score in the 94th minute you can celebrate as much as you want because the opposition isn’t going to go up the other end and score! What happened at St Mary’s has to be up there in terms of emotions in my football career.
‘You watch the ball drop and you’re hoping – then you see it hit the back of the net and it’s 2-2.
‘I think I did a Jose Mourinho, I was down the side of the pitch, I must have gone about 30 yards and was getting absolute dogs abuse from their fans.
‘I had been sprinting down the touchline, all our staff were on the pitch, while the players were heading towards the end where our fans were located.
‘I’ll always remember, the linesman came up to me to have a word about the behaviour of Kelvin Etuhu and said “Your sub will have to be booked for ungentlemanly conduct”. I asked why, can’t we celebrate a goal?
‘He replied: “You can, but not like that”. I looked over and Etuhu was actually in the stands with the fans, so I couldn’t really argue. I had already substituted him off – and he then got booked!
‘It was just an amazing feeling. Even though it was only a point, the draw felt like a win, and, no doubt about it, it definitely felt like a loss to Southampton considering how the game had gone.
‘They were big, big favourites to win the match and win it comfortably – and we managed to do something special.’
Appleton was appointed Pompey boss in November 2011, the replacement for Steve Cotterill.
Cotterill had walked out of the troubled club for Nottingham Forest and, following a laboured 28-day recruitment process, West Brom’s assistant boss was installed by chief executive David Lampitt.
Taking over a team 16th in the Championship, Appleton’s start was an encouraging one, earning seven points from his opening four matches.
Then Southampton visited Fratton Park – and it took an 84th-minute headed leveller from Emsworth youngster Joel Ward to grab a 1-1 draw.
Appleton added: ‘We played a Southampton side that, at the time, were massive, massive favourites for the league.
‘You can probably reel off five or six of them that went on to be internationals or top Premier League players. We were not only coming up against a good side, but also our biggest rivals – we had to be as competitive as we could.
‘In the first game, there wasn’t a lot that happened, it was chalk and cheese between that and the one at St Mary’s, it was very scrappy. I would have liked to have seen a little more football played by both teams on the day.
‘Regardless of everything that happened that season, those group of players never gave up, there was a culture we were trying to create on the back of such difficult circumstances – and Joel Ward typified that.
‘He still plays the game at Palace as he did aged 17 or 18 at Pompey. It was as if every match could be his last and I have a hell of a lot of respect for him.
‘He went through a period where he scored some important goals, including that late equaliser against Southampton.
‘I played him in midfield a few times because of his energy and competitiveness. A couple of times I popped in to see his mum and dad after games, they were very grateful with the way he was being treated.
‘When he left for Palace, it was a situation which couldn’t be handled any differently. We needed to improve our finances, but it was also a good opportunity for him to progress his career.
‘I remember speaking to him and Jason Pearce, some of the younger lads in the team, and telling them they needed to now stand up and be counted because they were going to be really, really important in my early reign at Pompey.
‘Joel’s professionalism and the way he conducted himself was as good as anything I have worked with.’
By the time the Blues headed to St Mary’s for the reverse fixture in April 2012, they were languishing in 23rd, following a 10-point deduction as a consequence of entering administration.
Of those who played in the previous derby, Hayden Mullins, Stephen Henderson, Liam Lawrence and Eric Huseklepp were no longer available, instructed to depart to earn financially-stricken Pompey loan fees.
Many anticipated a hiding – instead a Fratton folk hero was born in David Norris.
Appleton said: ‘We were entering the lion’s den, going to our biggest rivals, the best team in the league, it’s hard to deny that or say anything different.
‘I just felt we needed to wind them up a bit and get under their skin, so we stayed on the coach outside St Mary’s for quite a long time and the stewards and police were trying to get us off!
‘We were actually watching a DVD of goals from Pompey’s past and present players and teams scoring against Southampton. It was quite powerful to be fair, the lads were rocking from the moment they got into the dressing room.
‘Mind you, it really got the back up of some of the supporters outside, waiting for us to get off so they could give us abuse, but we weren’t budging, which was quite funny.
‘Then we entered the match – and Southampton grabbed an 89th-minute goal through Billy Sharp to give them a 2-1 lead.
‘Those emotions were bad enough, it was a goal, then no goal, and then a goal, there was a bit of delay, some confusion. They thought they had a winner – but we had the strength to come back.
‘Chuck was definitely one to come up with something special, he nearly scored a couple of screamers before that and did that type of stuff in training quite often. The surprising thing was he produced it with his left foot, rather than his natural right.
‘In those sort of games you are asking who wants to be the hero? Who is going to step up? We were 2-1 down in stoppage time, you just hope for one chance.
‘That was David Norris.’