Portsmouth needed heroes at Wembley on Sunday and they were not in short supply. But the two most unlikeliest and superb heroes of the day were that of Ricardo Rocha and Aaron Mokoena – the two lion-hearted centre-backs that stood together as a brick wall against anything Tottenham Hotspur’s stunning array of attacking talent had to throw at them.
The last ditch tackling, bodies-on-the-line approach was something to behold, as two men, now in the winding down stage of their career, gave the performances of a lifetime for their downtrodden but spirited club. For Portsmouth fans it was two players in different guises to the ones they had been introduced to upon their arrivals. Mokoena started the campaign as former manager, Paul Hart’s captain, but his abject and frankly woeful performances in the anchor role of a midfield diamond saw him lose his place. The fans even booed the South African on numerous occasions after such an abysmal start and he has spent much of Avram Grant’s rein in the wilderness, making few cameo appearances. But last month saw a torrent of injuries besiege the Pompey squad and Mokoena was thrust back into the spotlight. Despite uninspiring performances in the defeats to Chelsea and Tottenham, ‘The Axe’ was partnered with Rocha for the visit of Blackburn, where he turned in his best performance in a Blues shirt to date, helping secure the team’s first clean sheet in the league for 15 games.
Rocha too got off to a bad start to his Pompey career. Very much a panic buy in January – purely to make numbers up – he started out with a 5-0 thrashing by Manchester United before consecutive sendings-off against Sunderland and Burnley, amidst laboured and lost displays. But after coming through those difficult opening few weeks, and seemingly gaining in match sharpness and fitness, the Portuguese defender has started to impress. His slow turn of pace and occasional lapses in concentration are still worrying traits but in Pompey’s current plight, he was as good as they could get and his Wembley showing will mean any earlier shortcomings go forgotten. His new-found partnership with Mokoena certainly will not leave any strikers shaking in his boots, but two clean sheets in as many games for a struggling side is testament to the duo. Both of reasonably small height – for defenders – coupled with their lack of pace should mean both are susceptible to exactly the kind of strikers they were faced with on Sunday. Peter Crouch had the beating of both in the air, while Jermain Defoe would have eased clear in a foot race. However, Defoe was marked out of the game while although Crouch won plenty of aerial challenges, it was the second balls from the flick-ons and what not which were defended so well.
There was plenty of irony to Rocha’s Man of the Match display too. The Spurs cast off was one of many facing their former club – from both sides – but while the likes of Defoe, Crouch and Niko Kranjcar had travelled to North London desperate for glories, Rocha’s two-and-a-half year spell at White Hart Lane saw his career in tatters as he attempted to find a route back to the top level via Belgian football. That too did not work out but the former Benfica man will be a folk hero on the south coast for many years to come after he upstaged the vilified former Pompey trio who he so merrily got the better of. Rocha’s story optimised the day, the situation and the result. Spurs were in no-man’s land when Pompey were lifting the FA Cup in 2008, but their fortunes now point towards European qualification and a bright future, while Pompey head towards the Championship clutching a burden of debt, watching their former players and manager ascend towards success with what they had just a short while ago. But this was one last laugh, a parting shot if you will, for Portsmouth Football Club to wave goodbye their former heroes, their former glories as they enter a less glamorous era.
For now, they bask in the most glorious of wins. Rocha and Mokoena’s displays were just two of countless outstanding performances. The endless list of walking wounded who clamoured off the treatment table to deliver a soldier-like display and give the fans a truly memorable win. Most of the squad on show on Sunday will not be around come next season, but this term will be forever etched in the minds. The banner that unfolded in the Portsmouth section at Wembley read: “You can break many things but you can’t break our spirit.” Never could truer words be spoken.