US Portsmouth assistant manager Fraser Quirke: ‘This seems bigger than when I played in an FA Vase quarter final’
There is not a single player in the US Portsmouth squad with first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to play in an FA Vase quarter-final tie, to stand two games - just 180 minutes - from Wembley.
The same cannot be said of the management team, though; manager Glenn Turnbull’s assistant, Fraser Quirke, knows exactly what it’s like.
Quirke was in the twilight of his playing career when he was part of the Gosport Borough squad that reached the Vase quarter finals in 2003/04. En route, Quirke came off the bench to score a late extra-time winner against Oadby in the last 32.
Drawn away to Bideford, Mick Marsh’s men were well beaten 3-0 in north Devon in a season where three Wessex League Premier clubs reached the last eight - eventual winners Winchester City and Andover the others.
Quirke admits he has no hard luck stories from Gosport’s defeat 17 years ago, and insists USP’s history-making odyssey feels a lot ‘bigger’ than Borough’s similar run
‘The great thing about the Vase is that it gives you opportunities to test yourself against teams at your level from different areas,’ said Quirke.
‘We had a decent Wessex side. Winchester were the top side, but we were top three.
‘But we had a senior side - I was in my late 30s - and I I felt we had just run our course at Bideford. I don’t look back and think we should have done better, I look back and think it was journey’s end.
‘Getting to the last eight of the Vase is brilliant, but looking at our squad I still feel they’ve got more in their locker, a bit more in their tank.
‘I’m definitely a lot more excited about our prospects. There’s a lot of excitement that surrounds US at the moment. This seems bigger - whether that’s a consequence of the times we live in with social media.
‘I don’t remember our (Gosport) run being as prominent as this. It does feel like the whole of Portsmouth and the surrounding area is behind us.’
One major factor missing from USP’s glorious run is the fact the last two rounds have taken place behind closed doors. Both this weekend’s quarter-final with Flackwell Heath and the semi-final will also take place in near empty grounds.
‘I remember we played our fifth round tie at home and there were hundreds and hundreds of people at Privett that day,’ said Quirke of Gosport’s run. ‘The place was in uproar when we scored.
‘The one thing we are missing is the fans. It would have been amazing to have had 500/600 this Saturday, but it’s out of our control.’
When I mention US could be watched by fans in the Vase final, Quirke said: ‘I know we can laugh about it, but we’re only two games away from Wembley - we’re within touching distance.
‘It’s still a dream, but it’s a little bit less of a dream now …
‘This is the best chance the team will have of getting to Wembley - and they’re only two games away from realising that dream.
‘People talk about our team spirit, our camaraderie, but you don’t get this far in the competition without having real talent. So they need to keep believing.’
Quirke, accurately, describes the Vase adventure as ‘an absolutely extraordinary run.
‘We’re only a step 6 side - a good one - and you keep on thinking we’ll come up against a really good step 5 club that will do a job on us.
‘But that’s not a relevant point anymore, now I don’t think we fear anyone from step 5.
‘We’re organised, we’re well disciplined, we’re full of quality. Hopefully we’ll keep marching on.’
Flackwell are the sixth higher division club USP have faced in seven rounds in 2020/21. If they get there, Long Eaton or Binfield in the semi will be the seventh.
‘We’ve always been the underdogs, and that suits us down to the ground,’ said Quirke.
‘Tavistock (fifth round, last weekend) had a high reputation, but we didn’t go there in fear of them.
‘If any neutral had seen the game they would have said we were the step 5 club and they the step 6 one. We were better than them all round.
‘It was a very open game and that probably worked in our favour. Tavistock wanted to play and that allowed us more space.
‘It was more of a battle against Christchurch (fourth round) - that was more long balls, more of a relentless barrage.
‘YouTube is an awesome source of research and we’ve looked at the 90 minutes of Flackwell’s win at Lancing. It looks like they like to play football as well, though more on the counter attack, so hopefully that will suit us.
‘We’ll pay them the respect they deserve, but I don’t think we’ve seen nothing to be overly fearful of.
‘I don’t think home advantage makes a massive difference. You do get that familiarity - you know the ground, the dressing room, you know what time you have to leave home.
‘When we went down to Tavistock the locals were saying they would have been expecting 1,000-1,500 if fans had been allowed in. You can imagine 1,500 very partisan Devonians getting stuck into you. Would that have had an effect on the players? Who knows. Perhaps it was in our favour.’
Turnbull, Quirke and coach Paul Barton took control of USP first team affairs in 2019. Quirke had known Turnbull since their sons - current USP players Cameron and Elliott - were together at Meon Milton under-6s. Quirke has known Barton even longer, they first met in The Navy in the mid-80s.
‘When Glenn and I came in we wanted to make it significantly more professional than it had been in the past,’ explained Quirke.
‘The ground’s good, the training facilities are second to none - the infrastructure was there.
‘We decided to bring in Paul, who is a UEFA A licence coach, and he’s made a massive difference.
‘It was a case of engaging with young players who had been at bigger clubs in the area but who didn’t feel they’d had a chance they deserved, and giving them a platform to play on.
‘Harry Birmingham and Tom Cain had been at Portchester, Frankie Paige had been at Blackfield & Langley, James Franklyn had been at Chichester, my lad (Cameron) had started at Portchester, Jack Chandler had been out of the game after leaving Portsmouth.
‘They were players who had something to prove
‘We wanted to create a professional environment, give the players A licenced coaching, good medical care, a decent pitch - that way we could get the best out of them individually.
‘I think we have got the best out of each and every one of them, and I’m sure there’s more we can get out of them.’