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Twenty Six Minutes Of Bliss

Fratton Park, home of Portsmouth FC

It was the 24th of April 2005. A Sunday. I stagger off the first train back from London smelling of sweat, smoke and stale beer to find the platform lined with police. Fluorescent yellow is the colour, radios crackle and the tension in the air is palpable. I’m at Fratton Station, it’s derby day.

This fixture was always going to be vicious. The sides had met twice already with Southampton triumphing (and scoring all the goals) in a 2 – 1 at St Mary’s in November, before a hotly contested 90th minute penalty settled an FA Cup Fourth Round fixture for the Saints. But by April the extra tension, the scent of sulphur in the air, had a lot more to do with the man in the away dugout than the players on the pitch.

Redknapp had resigned from struggling Portsmouth in late 2004. Fourteen days later he was appointed at their equally struggling rivals Southampton. There are some things you just don’t do. And yet during the Fourth Round tie in February, there was Harry Redknapp in a Southampton jacket sitting on the Southampton bench. There was always going to be hell to pay at some point.

The worst thing is, Southampton got better. Not much better, winning one game more than Portsmouth between Christmas and April. He’d brought in his son Jamie from Tottenham in January, as well as experienced players like Henri Camara and Olivier Bernard. But they had started picking up draws and the points were stacking up. Peter Crouch had taken his chance as a starting striker and was scoring regularly. I may not like Redknapp, but he certainly knew how to get the best out of a side. For a while, anyway.

South Coast Derby Kits
They weren’t the only team with a new manager though. Redknapp’s replacement, former Yugoslavian international Velimir Zajec, won just two games after Christmas and was replaced by former Marseille manager Alain Perrin.

Rewind from the 24th though. It’s April 9th, 20015. Alain Perrin has been in the job for two days. Facing Alan Curbishley’s Charlton Athletic, well known for their end of season collapses, his side roared into a 2 – 0 lead inside twenty minutes. Sat in the North Stand at Fratton Park that day, I recall Pompey’s second to be an impossible 25 yard flicked header from the sweat-sheened head of veteran winger and ex-England international Steve Stone. No highlights exist, so just take my word on this one.

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Danny Murphy was playing for Charlton, having left Liverpool the summer before. As he walked over to retrieve the ball from the crowd a voice behind me bellowed, “You weren’t good enough for England Danny, you weren’t good enough for Liverpool either’. He probably, as most professionals do, ignored it. Or he didn’t, setting up Jonatan Johansson’s equaliser before scoring a peach of a free kick on the stroke of half time. Bugger.

In previous games that would have been it. Portsmouth’s central midfield pairing of Richard ‘Spoiler’ Hughes and Giannis Skopelitis were both grafters, disrupters and couldn’t be faulted for effort. Our technical strength came from our veteran wing pairing of Stone and an autumnally brilliant Patrik Berger. Up front were Yakubu and Lomana Lua Lua who were as breathtaking as they were infuriating. But, under Zajec we’d seemed to be unable to control a game and it looked like we were in for more of the same.

The second half was tense, so much so that the usually teeth rattlingly noisy Fratton Park crowd seemed subdued. On the hour mark Perrin introduced Diomansay ‘Joe’ Kamara for Skopelitis and we moved into a 4 – 3 – 3. This ignited the crowd, our new manager wanted the win and had an idea about how to do it. Twelve minutes later he introduced another striker and we played 4 – 2 – 4. The roar of appreciation from the crowd was threaded with the gnawing fear that this could go terribly wrong. Within ten minutes the fear was gone.

It’s quite something to see players shouting at their own supporters, lifting their arms and encouraging them to get louder and louder. Lomana Lua Lua won a corner and went utterly ballistic at the Fratton End, haring along the touchline with his arms pumping for us to turn it up. My friend, an Arsenal fan who’d never been to a match before, looked around as the stand started vibrating with the noise and yelled “Fucking hell” at me. I was thinking the same.

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Then we scored. Eighty-three minutes, Lua Lua making good on his encouragement of the crowd and sending a ball in for Joe Kamara to head home. Seven minutes left and we were still playing 4 – 2 – 4. Linvoy Primus came on to add some stability, but the noise didn’t stop as Yakubu joined in with inciting us to see them over the line. Ninety minutes and Lua Lua finished the game off. Four two.

That was fifteen days ago though and we hadn’t won a game since. It was April 24th, 2005.  There were more police on the streets of Portsmouth than at any previous derby. Away fans were being shipped in on coaches with a police escort, or walked from the station surrounded by officers. The atmosphere was ugly and the weather shifted, as it tends to on the South Coast, from the bright sunshine matching the coppers fluorescent uniforms to a sudden run-for-your-life downpour. You could almost feel sorry for the Southampton supporters in the uncovered away end. Almost.

Peter Crouch bottled it, limping out of the warm up with a hamstring problem that cleared up remarkably quickly after the game. As an ex-Portsmouth player, whose sale had funded our surge into the Premiership, he knew what was coming.

Four minutes. Antii Niemi, rushing out to edge of the area, upends a baggy shirted Lua Lua. Penalty. Yakubu clips it over the Saints keeper and runs to celebrate right in front of the visiting supporters. Matthew Taylor raises his fist towards them, to be met by an assortment of stony faces and rude gestures. One nil.

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Seventeen minutes. Former Portsmouth player Nigel Quashie, who moved to Southampton that January, fouls Steve Stone on the right wing. Berger’s sweet left foot swings a cross high, high but looping down and onto the head of our talismanic, gritty and underrated captain Arjan De Zeeuw. Two nil.

Twenty minutes. Things were looking grim for the disbelieving red and white crowd stood on the Milton Terrace. Hope appeared when Henri Camara lasered a shot into the far corner past Jamie Ashdown.

Then, suddenly, it was over. In five minutes Lomana Lua Lua ensured Portsmouth stayed in the Premier League for another season and put Harry Redknapp and Southampton on the bottom of the table.

If you’ve ever come across a Lua Lua highlights reel on Youtube (here, or here) you’ll see a player who looks unstoppable. He was, for about five minutes every other game. World class for five minutes is all you need sometimes.

Twenty two minutes. Antti Niemi rushing out to try and clear a Berger crossfield pass. It didn’t matter Lua Lua was flanked by two Southampton defenders, out came the Finnish keeper. In a second the striker had turned his back, allowed the ball to bounce and Niemi to fall to the floor, and then on the turn and falling backwards, curved the ball all of twenty yards into the empty net. He backflipped towards the home dug out as the old ground shook. Beautiful, beautiful.

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Twenty six minutes. The commentator’s cry “Southampton are all over the place”. Portsmouth were rampant, Steve Stone cutting the ball back as defenders completely lost track of it. One touch, one shot, second goal. From outside of the area the ball whipped around the static defenders, bounced off the post and went in. Limping, Lua Lua thumped the badge on his chest and was soon substituted. Job done.

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The rest of the game had chances, but little more than Richard Hughes clattering his former team mate Quashie really registered. Many away supporters didn’t get into the ground until half time, met by a scoreline that probably made them wish they hadn’t made it.

In the aftermath of the match it turned ugly outside; bottles, bricks and rocks raining down on supporters and police as the escorts wound their way back to coaches and trains. There were more arrests that day than any previous derby game. That’s nothing to be proud of.

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Southampton supporters say it was the game that relegated them, that broke them. They were relegated and then a year or two later, relegated again, before surging back into the Premier League. Portsmouth would catch fire, taking in two FA Cup finals (winning one) and drawing 2 – 2 at Fratton Park with a star studded A.C Milan side before fizzling out in a mess of owners, finance and relegation.

But even now, looking back, those twenty six minutes of bliss make it all worthwhile.

Official Premier League footage of the goals can be found here.

The much better Demolition Derby edit can be found here.

Categories: English/UK Football

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John Palethorpe

John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.

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