One of the greatest displays in Pompey’s history: 20 years on from Arsenal, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough ace’s Millwall aria

In his own inimitable way, the modern great summed up what had unfolded in succinct fashion after a display for the ages.
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‘I must have played okay to get a standing ovation here,’ smiled Paul Merson, after producing the best individual showing these Pompey-watching eyes have ever witnessed.

The man who plotted this club’s course to the Premier League was, of course, referring to an opus which has quite rightly gone down in legend - and took place at Millwall 20 years ago today.

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Millwall 0 Pompey 5: the day Merse painted his footballing masterpiece.

Twenty years, two long decades gone in a blink of an eye. Yet the memories remain as vivid today as they did back then, the Pompey captain’s limbs a willing servant to vision us mere mortals could never comprehend.

Every pass was a brush stroke, The Den a vast canvas for Merson to paint his work of art which is the prized asset in the gallery of greatest Blues performances.

The great tragedy, of course, was so few who bled royal blue were there to see it.

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Pompey fans were banned from travelling to south east London for the occasion, a consequence of off-field tensions every time they clashed with the Lions.

Paul Merson receives his Millwall standing ovation.
PICTURE;STEVE REID(031028-180)Paul Merson receives his Millwall standing ovation.
Paul Merson receives his Millwall standing ovation. PICTURE;STEVE REID(031028-180)

So supporters congregated back at Fratton Park for a beamback, while a few creatively found a way to procure tickets for the home end.

In the directors’ box, Pompey’s favourite boxing son Tony Oakey was the guest of his manager and staunch Millwall fan Frank Maloney.

What they witnessed unfold was an orchestrated annihilation of Mark McGhee’s side inside 45 minutes - with the skipper pulling every string.

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With Yakubu flexing his muscle following his arrival, the Nigerian had already registered one goal before a caressing touch with the outside of Merson's A-Line-wearing foot had freed Svetoslav Todorov. He teed up the Yak for his second in 25 minutes.

Paul Merson dispatches his penalty at Millwall 20 years ago.  Picture: Chris Young.Paul Merson dispatches his penalty at Millwall 20 years ago.  Picture: Chris Young.
Paul Merson dispatches his penalty at Millwall 20 years ago. Picture: Chris Young.

An architect’s role in Todorov’s finish followed after Tim Sherwood had made it 3-0, with a shell-shocked home crowd seeing their side drowned in wave after wave of gold-shirted attacks - all before the interval.

There was to be no let-up, however, with Millwall slaves to Merson’s range of passing from every conceivable angle.

His 72nd-minute penalty was converted after teeing up Yakubu, who was hauled down in the box.

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Then came the exit which saw all four sides of The Den rise in acclaim, something many gnarled followers of Millwall can't ever remember being afforded an opposing player.

This was to be an afternoon when the realisation dawned there was nothing or no one standing in the way of Harry Redknapp’s men lifting the Division One title, as they moved 11th points clear of third-placed Sheffield United with an irresistible swagger.

And to think they did so with their composer still battling the demons which made up the character of his flawed genius.

As Merson was conducting his symphony his manager was stood with £30,000 in cash stuffed down his tracksuit, which his leader had asked him to hold before he serviced a betting debt.

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It make his achievements that day in SE16, and across the 2002-03 season, all the more incredible.

Thankfully, the hall of famer’s drug and alcohol addictions were under control - a blessing to afford Merson clarity in his memories 20 years on.

It means he can recount perfectly the brilliance he holds as the high-watermark of a storied 21-year career - one of majesty we may never see again.