The day a Pompey FA Cup hero sold himself

The Fratton faithful will today embrace the presence of a returning 2008 FA Cup hero '“ yet another member of that triumphant side still seeks football employment.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 30th January 2016, 8:30 am
Former Pompey forward John Utaka, centre, with Kanu, left, and Matt Taylor
Former Pompey forward John Utaka, centre, with Kanu, left, and Matt Taylor

Sylvain Distin is back at Pompey, this time in Bournemouth colours, pitched against the club he memorably helped to final victory in the famous, old competition.

Elsewhere, John Utaka is searching for work, desperate to prolong a career to have entered its twilight.

Forever the Wembley instigator of the Blues’ hoisting aloft the FA Cup for the first time in 69 years.

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Ultimately, he was publicly portrayed as having engineered his Fratton departure following 114 games and 13 goals, albeit by those groping for self-preservation.

For a player who was an unfulfilled talent at Pompey, the Nigerian’s exit was controversial, even becoming a subject of Frogmore Road protests.

Then chief executive David Lampitt claimed Utaka had ‘sold himself’ during the January 2011 transfer window after the erratic winger skipped away to Montpellier for an undisclosed fee.

These days he is 34 and has been condemned as a free agent since last summer, when a two-year spell with Turkish side Sivasspor ended.

Before Christmas it was reported by the French press he had linked up with Ligue 1 higher-flyers Angers for a trial to span several days. Tellingly, the outcome does not appear to have been publicly recorded.

Utaka won Ligue 1 in his time at Montpellier, yet last played competitively in May 2015 as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against Trabzonspor.

He was an enigmatic presence during three-and-a-half years at Fratton Park, largely struggling to convince supporters of a worth valued at £7m by Harry Redknapp.

For some, the circumstances of Utaka’s departure were infinitely more memorable than his Pompey contributions.

It was January 2011 when SOS Pompey scheduled a protest before the midweek visit of Burnley to demonstrate their unhappiness at the club’s lack of transparency.

Lampitt headed it off by offering to meet in person those left disaffected.

In the meantime, Steve Cotterill’s side would lose that Clarets encounter 2-1, Utaka netting in the process, before the squad flew out for warm-weather training in Gran Canaria.

The following day a group of supporters, among them Bob Beech and Vern Rickman, met Lampitt.

Soon he was attempting to placate them by categorically assuring no player would be sold in the January transfer window.

Except Beech and Rickman had prior knowledge Utaka had not travelled to the Canary Islands – they knew instead he was sealing a move.

It would be 48 hours later when Montpellier declared they had signed the Nigerian, prompting Beech to ring Lampitt.

According to Beech, he was informed nobody from the club knew about the switch, with the player going behind their backs to leave. Despite a transfer fee being involved.

‘Lampitt was like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, it was farcical,’ said Beech.

‘He kept up this charade that Utaka had arranged his own transfer without anybody from the selling club aware of it. Complete nonsense.

‘Did all the players turn up at Gatwick and then suddenly somebody ask “Where’s John got to?” and instead he had slipped through duty free and accidentally jumped on a plane to France?’

This was an era swimming in misinformation and Lampitt never again answered a call from Beech.

Still, life at Pompey had initially started impressively well for the recruit from Rennes.

Following a debut goal in a 2-2 draw at Derby in August 2007, Redknapp crowed to The News: ‘He’ll be a threat to teams for sure. You could see John’s got quick feet, plenty of skill and he can rip you to pieces. I know he will do well for us.’

A week later, Utaka marked his third Blues appearance with a breathtaking solo goal against Bolton, having picked up the ball in his own half.

‘That is absolutely brilliant,’ screamed the commentator in the Sky-televised match. ‘That’s what you pay the big money for.’

Yet rarely did the jet-heeled forward scale such heights again for the Blues.

In fairness, Utaka’s FA Cup final contribution should never be undervalued, irrespective of his overall disappointing stay.

On 37 minutes he drove in a low dangerous cross from the right which Cardiff City keeper Peter Enckelman failed to hold – and Kanu pounced.

Utaka’s maiden season in England was five goals in 36 appearances for an encouraging personal campaign.

However, in the Premier League years he never again was a regular.

Utaka was a likeable, softly-spoken and polite character, inseparable from Kanu – his a long-time international colleague.

On the eve of the FA Cup final, Redknapp took his squad to an Italian restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, where a karaoke was also in session. Utaka and Kanu sang Bob Marley & The Wailers’ No Woman, No Cry.

‘Utaka was good, Kanu was mixing it up, trying to turn it into a rap song, shouting things which nobody could understand,’ Hermann Hreidarsson revealed in Played Up Pompey.

Yet while Kanu would travel from London every day with a mattress in the back of his car should the urge to sleep on the journey catch him, Utaka preferred to live in Winchester.

The FA Cup final double act remained side-by-side until that fateful day of Utaka’s departure.

On February 5, 2011, SOS Pompey did stage the protest long planned – and Rickman unveiled an improvised song to the tune of London Bridge Is Falling Down.

‘John Utaka sold himself, sold himself, sold himself, John Utaka sold himself – someone’s lying.’