When Frederic Piquionne scored his second goal in three minutes against Birmingham City on Saturday, the explosion of joy from the massed ranks of Fratton Park must have warmed even the most cold-hearted football fan. For whatever the rights and wrongs of Portsmouth’s financial situation, the passionate support of their fans can never be bought and passed around in the undignified manner in which their beloved club has been.
This weekend’s success over Birmingham gives not only the fans but also the players a light at the end of the tunnel. In the most trying time of their professional career, each Portsmouth player has been a credit to the supporters and in an era where we never seem far from the latest prima donna footballer complaining about some trivial matter in the media, Portsmouth’s players have gone unpaid for months at a time and nary has a word of discontent been heard. These are the circumstances when it would be understandable for the squad to air their dirty laundry in public, but they have gracefully refrained.
Even in the centre of the maelstrom engulfing the South Coast side- first Paul Hart and now Avram Grant- they have managed to maintain a team to be proud of, full of energetic running and intelligent passing, despite having their soul ripped out during every transfer window since summer 2008. Their major on-field qualms come in defence, but any back line shorn of Sylvain Distin, Glen Johnson and a much-improved Younes Kaboul is going to suffer. Pompey’s current defensive quartet of Steve Finnan, Tal Ben-Haim, Hermann Hreidarsson and Nadir Belhadj contains enough quality and experience to keep their heads above water until the inevitable happens, but before then they will be rewarded for their dutiful service this season with at least one trip to Wembley.
Undoubtedly the star player of Portsmouth’s season has to be Jamie O’Hara, who could miss the FA Cup semi-final should his parent club Tottenham Hotspur overcome Fulham in a replay. The on-loan midfielder has risen to the challenge Portsmouth’s troubles have handed him, producing numerous first-rate displays and surely forcing his way into Harry Redknapp’s plans for next season. If the Spurs manager cannot find a place for the 23-year-old then there will likely be a string of Premier League bosses who can. With his tough tackling, clever passing and boundless enthusiasm complimented by impressive stamina, O’Hara has the makings of a complete top-flight midfielder. It certainly speaks volumes about his professionalism that he was willing to return to a relegation dogfight at Portsmouth in January, rather than sit on the bench for Champions League-chasing Spurs.
O’Hara could even be forgiven for quietly rooting for Fulham when they take on Spurs, as gracing the Wembley turf would allow him to put right his previous showing at the national stadium, when a missed penalty helped Manchester United win the shoot-out and with it the 2009 League Cup final. Returning to Wembley in the blue of Portsmouth would not only give O’Hara the chance to exorcise his demons but further add to a season that could be the making of the young man. When he returns to White Hart Lane he will find a midfield carefully balanced with the technique of Tom Huddlestone and the tenacity of Wilson Palacios, but O’Hara has more than enough of each quality to force his way into the side. Playing regularly for Portsmouth has seen O’Hara’s game develop tenfold to where he can justifiably expect to compete for places with the likes of Huddlestone and Palacios.
There is more than one young midfielder impressing during this troublesome time at Portsmouth, as the win over Birmingham was highlighted by an assured performance from Marc Wilson. Sitting in front of the back four, Wilson displayed the calm touch of a seasoned pro but is actually anything but, having made just 24 appearances for Pompey. It has not all been plain sailing for him this season, looking far from relaxed when stationed in the heart of defence against some of the world’s most fearsome strikers, but since moving further up-field he has provided valuable protection to his defensive colleagues. Piquionne may have caught the eye with two goals on Saturday and been rewarded with the man of the match award from ITV, but Wilson’s unruffled manner was more than deserving of praise.
Picking positives out of Portsmouth’s season is a near-impossible task but what good points there are come from O’Hara and, to a lesser extent Wilson. Both point the way forward for Portsmouth should the club come out of their money worries intact. O’Hara was a smart piece of transfer business and when current Crystal Palace manager Hart spotted a young, talented and hungry player itching for a chance to play regular football, he saw an opportunity which was too good to turn down. Portsmouth have been rewarded for Hart’s vision with the services of a player who would walk into most of the teams above the Premier League’s bottom side. Wilson meanwhile is a product of Portsmouth’s youth academy- joining in 2004 after a spell at Manchester United- and is the first player since Gary O’Neil to come through the Pompey set-up and into the Premier League.
As Portsmouth’s short-term future is decided in the courts their long-term health rests on developing more players like Wilson and giving frustrated youngsters like O’Hara an opportunity. Pompey’s plight is a harrowing tale of what happens when football clubs run out of control but all is not lost, at least on the field. Few arenas generate noise like Fratton Park, with the cramped conditions only exaggerating the ceaseless sound of the Pompey chimes. The fans’ tireless love for their club has never evaporated throughout a thoroughly depressing season and will now be rewarded with at least one trip to Wembley, the scene of their club’s greatest triumph. When the chimes ring out from that particular corner of North West London, there will be more than a few neutrals silently joining in.