Tales From Pompey

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 24 March 2010.

They say that baseball is a game of inches. Well, getting to midweek Chelsea games is a game of seconds. I wanted to get away from work by 5pm at the absolute latest in order to reach Portsmouth by 7pm – maybe time for just one pint in the “Good Companion” outside Fratton Park. I sat in my car at 4.59pm and reached my seat in the away end at 7.46pm. Needless to say, there was not any time for pre-match festivities. Instead, I endured a stressful two-and-a-half hours fighting the traffic on the M4, A34, M3 and M27. Lord Parky had been on the ale all day and was therefore in an especially jovial mood. To be truthful, the time flew.

I was parked up at 7.25pm and it was no surprise that there was drizzle in the air – there always seems to be so in Portsmouth. It’s a shame we have never enjoyed an away game at Pompey at any other time than in the depths of winter and usually mid-week. A game in September would have been lovely. With Pompey’s demise, I wondered when our next visit would be. Let me just declare an interest here – I’ve developed a slight soft spot for Portsmouth of late. They’re a real old-fashioned club with a quintessential old-school stadium. It is rough around the edges, but it oozes character, wedged into the tight terraced streets of Fratton. Their fans are pretty passionate. I tip my hat to them. Some clubs you just naturally loathe…some clubs, not so.

Parky and myself joined the back of the line at the antiquated turnstiles. It was moving so slow I presumed that Michael Ballack was ahead of me. I note that a souvenir stall was selling pink and burgundy scarves, Pompey’s original colours, and I guessed this was a sad copy of United’s Green & Gold protest. I ascended the steps behind the terrace, underneath a twisted mess of roof supports and beams. Mike Oldfield’s “Portsmouth” was being played on the PA system – the home crowd were joining in with the clapping – and I saw the Chelsea players in white, preparing for the start. I must have just missed the kick-off. At least I made it. I sidled up alongside Alan and Gary, right next to the mesh between us and a small section of Pompey fans. Parky and Steve Azar, plus other friends, were dotted around amongst the 2,000 away contingent.

I was very happy that Petr was playing. Petr Cech for us, Bouncing Cheques for them.

Prior to departing from work, I was hardly enthused about this game – I knew it would be a toughie and that our form had dipped. I think the fans around me shared this view as I haven’t heard quite so much blatant moaning at a game for quite a while, especially in that meandering first period. We had tons of possession with little end product. It was a typically frustrating game, just as I had expected really. However, there were moments. After ten minutes, Frank let fly from well outside the box. I was right behind its flight and it swerved wickedly. James arched to his right and touched it over.

Great football.

I noted that Sturridge was playing deep, playing wide…not involved. Deco was quiet, too. The home fans in the Fratton End provided the first score update of the night…they chanted “1-0 to Fulham” and I approved. Of course, Portsmouth would meet the winners of the Spurs vs. Fulham cup replay taking place in North London. Rocha was laid out by an errant arm from Malouda and the home fans near me weren’t happy. They sang about the referee not being fit to do so. JT was getting the usual barracking too. We replied with chants about their perilous financial straits.

“Harry’s got your money.”

Riccy was injured, to be replaced by Alex. It was a rough old game, with tackles flying in. I noted the ball bobbling quite badly on a few instances. A lot of our play went down the left in front of the old Leitch Stand, but invariably all of this ended up with a miss-placed cross or a variety of shots from distance. I noted a few excellent cross-field balls from Jon Obi Mikel – most unlike him. Alan and myself chatted about this…his distribution is usually limited to square balls over ten yards. The frustration was increasing when a loose ball was completely missed by James as he raced out to clear. Drogba had the easiest chance of his Chelsea career. We celebrated, but it was difficult to shout too loudly when laughter was the first impulse.

Ho ho ho.

At half-time, Joe Cole warmed up right in front of me and I got my telephoto lens out to take a succession of shots of his close control, including one of that “reverse cross” that he likes. As we waited for the game to recommence, we noted a fan in the North Stand being led out on a stretcher. It looked serious. Fans and players alike were dropping like flies. Right – as at Blackburn on Sunday, we needed that second goal. We knew that one was not good enough. Joe continued to warm up alongside the side stand and we serenaded him

“We want you to stay, we want you to stay – Joey Cole – we want you to stay.”

Soon after, this morphed to –

“We want you to play, we want you to play – Joey Cole – we want you to play.”

We enjoyed a purple patch in the first twenty minutes or so of the second period. A sublime ball from Lampard, enjoying more space, was played to Florent Malouda in the inside left berth. I thought he had taken it too far, but as James came out, he drilled it high into the net, no more than ten yards away from me. It was a superb finish. The players raced over and I tried desperately to shout some yelps of support and take some snaps of the players at the same time. Never easy!

Joe came on for the increasingly absent Sturridge and he joined in the fray with his usual vigour. Frank was in his element and soon set up Joe with another perfectly-paced through ball right in front of us. A strong shot, but James did well to save. Just after, our third goal came after Malouda pounced on a James fumble of a Lampard effort. Three-nil and coasting. This was quite a stunning turnaround. More photos of the celebrations. This was good stuff. The Chelsea crowd got into the game.

I had to laugh when I noticed Didier Drogba and Herman Hreidarsson tussling inside the box, off the ball. They were pushing and pulling each other, then they realised the opportunity for a comic moment and appeared to be dancing – maybe a waltz – and smiling. I don’t think anyone else noticed it. It made me giggle.

The only downer was the news filtering through that Spurs were 2-1, then 3-1 up.

Van Aanholt, the youngster, came on for Zhirkov and there was a conversation amongst us about his “52” shirt number. Surely the highest ever. The bloke behind me thought it was too. He then asked me the old favourite –

“Who had shirt number 25 before Zola?”

With the home team fading fast, another superb ball from deep from Mikel found Drogba who advanced on the goal from an angle. This was Didi at his best, forcefully holding off a challenge and slamming into the net. There was a roar from the Chelsea fans, but Drogba ignored his usual celebratory posing and raced back to thank Mikel for the sublime through ball. Neither Alan nor myself could believe it – Mikel as a quarterback, anyone? Just after, a superb run and low cross from Malouda was skied over from just six yards by Drogba. How did he miss? Portsmouth’s chances were few, but a late header should have tested Cech more. It drifted, rather pathetically, past the post. Portsmouth’s support was quiet – not surprisingly – but the trademark drum and bell kept sounding throughout the game. The noise is usually louder at Fratton Park, so I don’t often hear these. There was a bit of banter between the sets of fans, but nothing serious.

A Frank Lampard header from close range after an initial parry gave us a 5-0 win and I, for one, could hardly believe it. David James, who hadn’t had the best of nights ( ! ), kicked the ball away in disgust and the referee decided to book him…presumably for some sort of “physical dissent” as it surely couldn’t have been for time-wasting. This seemed churlish in the extreme. The referee was poor all night and this crazy booking just about summed it up. So – we won 5-0. A fantastic result, but Portsmouth were very poor. We will have far greater challenges in our remaining games in 2009-2010. However, this equalled my highest ever away win, on a par with Wolves 2003 and ‘Boro 2008. My mate, Rick – from Frome, now residing a mere mile away from his beloved Pompey – had been watching from the North Stand, but had not been in touch since pre-match. I guess he was hurting.

In the last few minutes of the game, my ears registered a new song emanating from the rowdy fans to my right. It didn’t take long to work out that it was a few lines from a Bob Marley song. More and more Chelsea joined in as our brains deciphered it. It had been an easy night, so we needn’t get carried away, but the song provided a nice uplift…a positive vibe for once.

“Don’t worry – CLAP CLAP – about a thing…CLAP CLAP CLAP – ‘cus every little thing – CLAP CLAP – is gonna be alright.”

What a great song…incredibly slow, but everyone was joining in. Let’s see if it shows up against Villa on Saturday.

On leaving the ground, I glimpsed across at the deserted light blue seats in the North Stand, row after row, and it reminded me a little of Fenway Park, all roof supports, dark corners, row upon row of seats and little legroom. Good old Fratton Park. I wondered if Chelsea would ever be back…

I met up outside with Parky and spent £2.50 on the worst burger ever. We then decamped back to the pub to wait for the Chelsea traffic to subside. We agreed that Portsmouth is a quite unique city and its club has a strong character all of its own. We wished them well. As we set off for home at 10.30pm, the floodlights of Fratton Park still lit up the night sky. We were surprised – a club in their position should be saving energy, not wasting it.

It seemed like we were the last Chelsea fans to leave Portsmouth.

“Can somebody turn off those flippin’ lights?”

There was terrible weather on the drive home. I drove, Parky slept, I stopped for junk food refills, Parky slept. Eventually, he woke up and we pondered the chances of Chelsea and Pompey meeting for one last time this season.

Stranger things have happened.

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