‘There’s no pressure on us – this is a free hit’ – US Portsmouth boss Tom Grice ahead of the club’s debut season at Wessex Premier level
For a few heady weeks in late April and early May, the sort of weeks which rarely arrive for clubs in the 10th tier of the English pyramid, they were the talk of Hampshire non-league football.
Coming within a few penalties of a sensational Wembley appearance in the FA Vase, as well as reaching a first-ever Wessex League Cup final, the profile of United Services Portsmouth FC had never been higher; arguably, it might never be as high again.
It was a highly emotional time. There was the joy of Vase wins against Christchurch, Tavistock and Flackwell Heath - the fourth, fifth and sixth higher division clubs US had dumped out of the tournament - followed by an agonising shoot-out loss to Binfield, another higher tier outfit, after US had been within 10 minutes of winning in normal time.
Then there was the joy of a remarkable Wessex Cup semi-final, when US - down to 10 men - came from 1-3 down with two minutes to go against Bemerton to force their third penalty shoot-out in five weeks. After progressing to the final, there they were well beaten 3-1 by Hamworthy United - an anti-climatic ending to a time, an extended Warholian 15 minutes of fame, that deserves to live long in the memory of all those involved.
In amongst the Vase and Wessex Cup dramas, came the news that US had been promoted to the Wessex top flight for the first time since they entered the league in 2004. Invited to apply for promotion as part of the FA’s restructure of the lower end of the non-league pyramid, no-one could say it was not deserved - US boasted the best points-per-game record of any Wessex 1 club over two pandemic-scarred campaigns.
It would, of course, have been fascinating to see how last season’s US squad would have fared in the upcoming 2021/22 Wessex Premier campaign. But that was never going to be an option - and everyone knew it even before US resumed their Vase campaign on April 17 after lockdown had ended.
A few weeks earlier, US boss Glenn Turnbull had accepted an invitation to replace Dave Carter at Moneyfields. And with Carter plundering his former club for players to take to AFC Portchester, so it was obvious where Turnbull would look to build a replacement squad.
Following the Wessex Cup final loss, the Victory Stadium exodus began - following Turnbull across Portsea Island to Dover Road were goalkeeper Tom Price, defenders Tom Cain, Harry Birmingham, Liam Kyle, Sonny Harnett-Balkwill and Elliott Turnbull, midfielders James Franklyn, Callum Glen, Jordan Pile and Harry Bedford, and strikers Dec Seiden and Tyler Moret.
Harry Sargeant could have been signing No 13, but chose to join Baffins instead.
A handful of players have remained loyal, though, led by skipper Tom Jeffes who was appointed assistant boss when Tom Grice took over the manager’s role in late May.
Others who have stayed are Andy Todd, John Cass, Josh Hazell, Frankie Paige, Dan Sibley, George Root, Cam Quirke and Brodie Spencer - some of whom played only bit-part roles in 2020/21.
The likes of keeper Damien Kelsall and striker Luke Richards, reserve regulars last term, have been promoted to the first team squad.
New signings include ex-Portchester midfielder Ryan Smart, ex-Baffins defender Connor Saunders, keeper Lewis Broughton and one-time Totton, Moneyfields and Portchester centre half Jack Barker.
So, in short, Grice is overseeing a new era at a club who in April and May revelled in the ‘you’re just a bus stop near Gunwharf’ accusation wittily sang at them by some Portchester fans.
‘Being realistic, there’s no pressure on us at all,’ declared Grice.
‘Bob (Brady, secretary) has been clear about this - it’s a free hit for us.
‘You can’t ignore the fact that we lost around 60 per cent of the squad, so it was always going to be a rebuilding season.
‘It’s all about staying in this league. If we could finish mid-table, I’d be ecstatic - and i think we can do that.
‘We’ve brought in some quality, and the players already here are very good. Jack Chandler, I’m ecstatic he’s stayed - there’s not many better players in his position in the (Wessex Premier) league. He’s looking the fittest I’ve seen in a long time.
‘We have guys with a point to prove. They will tell you they didn’t get their chances last season, but now they will get their opportunities and they’re going to have to take them.
‘I’m happy with the players I have, but we could do with a bit more strength in depth. It’s a long season and players are not going be able to play every game - that’s a fact of life.
‘We’re not going to sign anyone for the sake of it, we’ve got to get the balance right.’
Grice concedes US could be a ‘bit light’ up front. The highly-experienced Todd - a former Wessex title winner with Petersfield - is only available until October when he relocates to Plymouth due to his Naval commitments.
Elsewhere, US have Sibley (four starts last season), Root (three) and Spencer (two) who can play up front, along with the untried Richards.
‘It’s hard to get out-and-out strikers at this level as they cost a lot of money,’ said Grice. ‘And we haven’t got the spending power of other clubs.’
Another possible strike option is Jeffes, who used to be a striker prior to Turnbull converting him into a centre half.
Grice knows that a club who were used to winning ‘nearly every week’ in Wessex 1 won’t have such a comfortable ride in the Premier Division.
But he can’t wait for the 12 PO postcode derbies - especially the ones against Moneyfields.
‘When you mention the Moneyfields games I’ve got a smile on my face,’ he laughed.
‘I’ve got some very good friends who have gone there, so they are games I’m looking forward to. There could be fireworks!
‘I think the only team in the league, from a Portsmouth perspective, who won’t have any pressure on them is us.
‘Horndean will be thinking this could be their year, Fareham have been doing well - Pete (Stiles) has got them performing - and Portchester have a fantastic squad.
‘But I’m tipping Hamworthy to win it - when we played them (in the Wessex Cup final) they were by far and away the best side I’ve seen for a long time.’
Hammers boss Tim Sills has added to that squad this summer by signing three players who were instrumental in Christchurch boasting the best PPG record across two seasons in the Wessex Premier - defenders Billy Walker and Harvey Wright and striker Max Wilcock.
‘We were used to winning nearly every week (in Wessex 1) but there will be no gimmees this season,’ Grice added. ‘Teams are well organised, they’re fit, and they don’t carry anyone.’
US start the season with Tuesday’s trip to Alton, who came up with them from Wessex 1 this summer. Under Turnbull, US only lost seven league games in 38 matches over two seasons – two of them at Alton.