Ricardo Rocha: The adored Portsmouth hero who went from a career high at Wembley to being up close with two administrations

For many of a royal-blue persuasion, it’s a moment unsurpassed in the club’s modern history.

Friday, 22nd November 2019, 12:00 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd November 2019, 5:04 pm

Amid the glory of cup silverware, title wins, promotions and six unforgettable pilgrimages to the home of football it stands alone as a beacon of hope amid the darkness.

The 2010 FA Cup semi-final victory over Spurs was as unlikely as it was memorable for a football club on its knees.

Just 44 days after becoming the first top-flight outfit to enter administration, a proud outfit which had become a pawn in a sinister narrative it wanted no part in was staring into the footballing abyss.

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Ricardo Rocha challenges Peter Crouch as he beat Spurs with Pompey in 2010 at Wembley

But through the suffocating gloom threatening its 112-year existence, a synergy developed between its people and those who represented them on the pitch. And the result was a ray of light which pierced the sheet-black storm clouds enveloping Portsmouth Football Club.

No one gave Pompey a prayer against a powerful foe and a manager who turned his back on them as he sensed the impending doom, while the football world dismissed their chances as they were clamped in the chains of a financial meltdown.

It’s for that reason the afternoon of April 11, 2010 is unparalleled for many with the star and crescent embedded in their hearts. And the man whose heroics helped deliver an offering from the footballing gods couldn’t agree more.

Ricardo Rocha’s man-of-the-match performance helped gift wrap a present to the people he was to develop a special bond with across a three-year stay, one which remains unique for a Pompey player - or that of any other football club, for that matter.

Ricardo Rocha returned to Pompey last year

‘That game was the best thing we could give our fans,’ explained Rocha, taking up the narrative nine years on.

‘We’d got to a point the club could finish. So we were living day by day and stood together.

‘We didn’t know what was coming so we trained and played every day like it was our last.

‘We wanted to give everything until the end - and that’s what we did.

Ricardo Rocha

‘It was special because we all knew with the difficulties we were going down. But we stood together and said we’re going to fight for this.

‘So to get to the FA Cup final was unbelievable, especially for the fans.

‘It was a massive accomplishment for everybody.’

The sense of achievement was even more palpable for Rocha given he’d been jettisoned 10 months earlier by Harry Redknapp, after just 18 appearances in two-and-a-half years at White Hart Lane.

Ricardo Rocha celebrates at Crewe in 2013

No one gave Pompey a prayer and with some justification given their plight. With their relegation from the Premier League confirmed 24 hours earlier amid a nine-point deduction, they were viewed as ideal fodder by Spurs fans craving silverware and assuredly predicting a north London knees-up.

Avram Grant’s men had other ideas, however, on a day which one of the chief heroes regards as a career high amid 16 professional years in the game.

‘Everyone was saying we were going to be smashed against Spurs and the team they had at the time,’ Rocha remembered, as he fondly recounted the tale from Portugal.

‘We were very defensive in that game but we had to be like that to give our best.

‘We had fast players in our offensive line in Dindane, Utaka and Piquionne. So we had our strong points and we tried to play like that - and we got the win.

‘For me it was very special because I played against my former team and I was concentrated on giving my best and showing the supporters of Pompey, but also Tottenham, that I had the qualities for many reasons I didn’t succeed in showing to them.

‘So to be named the best player in the game was unbelievable.

‘It was me and (Aaron) Mokoena at the back, but it was everybody. We gave a great game.

‘It was one of the best moments of my career, for sure.

‘We were playing at Wembley which was special in front of 90,000 fans. The Pompey fans were going wild for getting the win as underdogs and no one expected it.

‘Then to get man of the match made it one of the top, top games of my career.’

It was the FA Cup run and relegation from the Premier League which marked the end of an era and changing of the guard at PO4, as the remaining stardust from a seven-year top-flight stay was wiped away from Pompey’s veneer.

It was to prove just the opening chapter, however, for a man who stayed put amid his side’s fall from grace, affording the former Portuguese international a unique vantage point as the only first-team player to be present as his club entered and exited two periods of administration.

The rogue’s gallery of false prophets is well documented. Jailed owners, fraudsters and those deemed ‘fit and proper’ by football’s authorities who oversaw Pompey’s demise.

‘We really thought with the Russias they were going to do well,’ Rocha said of Vladimir Antonov and Convers Sports Initiatives, who arrived in 2011.

‘They even came to America in pre-season and were involved with us.

‘We thought they would do all they can to sort the issues with the club and rebuild.

'Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and we went into administration again.

‘That was a difficult season when the players went to other clubs because of the financial chaos.

‘We couldn’t stay in the league (Championship) even though we tried to the last game.

‘A lot of people say we had the team to stay in the league but there were so many issues and problems.

‘It was difficult to focus on the games, but everyone tried to gave their best.

‘We thought the club was starting over and that happened. It was a big hit for us all.’

If Rocha felt the first period of administration would prepare him for what was to come next he, by his own admission, was very, very mistaken.

What was to unfold over the 14 months from February 2012 and April 2013 was to take Pompey to the very brink of liquidation as the people mobilised in unforgettable circumstances to save their club.

Rocha was among those players who gave up millions of pounds through compromise agreements and departed to pave the way for the community era, as the Pompey Supporters’ Trust emerged victorious at the High Court.

In as bleak a period as any in Pompey’s history, Guy Whittingham had the job of overseeing affairs on the pitch. Amid a record 23-game winless run he sent out an SOS to an old friend who could not ignore the distress signal.

‘The second administration was a much more difficult time,’ revealed Rocha.

‘It was impossible and more difficult in that administration than the Premier League.

‘I gave up a lot of money to help the club because I felt it was the right thing to do.

‘For me it wasn’t just to think about myself but the other people at the club. We had to think about them. They were going to lose their jobs and we were worried.‘Guy was training the team in League One and he asked me to come and help. Oh my god here we go again!

‘That year was very, very difficult. We didn’t have the conditions to train were and just trying our best.

‘The gym was filthy. Then we trained at football pitches for players who play on a Sunday.

‘When we won our first game at Crewe it was like we’d won the Cup! The feeling was magical.

‘People may think that sounds crazy but the feeling at the time was like that.

‘We couldn’t win for 23 games so to get that win relieved some of the pain for the fans.

‘It was a horrible season but we won that for everybody.

Next February will mark a decade since Rocha’s arrival and the first of his 97 Pompey appearances.

There are players who’ve chalked up more games, but few who are remembered as fondly as the man from Porto who showed unstinting loyalty as others turned away from a club fighting for its existence.

When reflecting on his standing, Rocha feels standing shoulder to shoulder with the people isn’t forgotten for a player perfectly in the mould of those he represented.

‘I think it’s a bit of everything,’ Rocha said, after pausing to reflect on the reasons for his popularity.

‘I always gave my best for the club, gave all I could and gave 100 per cent in every game.

‘All the players who go to Fratton know what they are going to get. They know if they give everything for the fans they will support you. The supporters are known for that and the support they give the team.

‘I think as well what the fans think is I understood the club. I felt the club and everything surrounding the club.

‘It wasn’t just me but my family. We felt so good living there.

‘My kids loved school and everything felt connected with me, the city and the fans.

‘That’s why I think we have that connection.