There are a couple of clubs for whom 2007/08 could turn out to to be the perfect season. For supporters of, say, Hull City, promotion to the Premier League coupled with a failure on the part of Leeds United to get back into League One could be regarded as everything that their supporters have ever dreamed of. If there is one club, however, that is looking at having a once in a lifetime, best ever season, it’s Portsmouth, whose supporters could be celebrating an unprecedented double, come the end of May – winning the FA Cup for the first time in almost seventy years, coupled with their bitter rivals Southampton being relegated from the Championship. The prospect of European football coming to Fratton Park for the first time whilst Southampton have to spend at least one season playing against the likes of Cheltenham Town and Peterborough United must cause a small bead of drool to form in the corner of their mouths.
Portsmouth’s involvement in this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals adds to the “retro” air hanging over this year’s competition. Although they have managed to establish themselves as a Premier League club that looks capable of booking a European place on league position alone under what has turned out to be the surprisingly astute managership of Harry Redknapp, their cup record over the last fifty years or so has been pretty terrible. Their only FA Cup win came in 1939, and led to one of them becoming one of those standard pub quiz answers – the football programme was halted at the outbreak of war, meaning that Portsmouth would hold onto the Cup for seven years, until Derby County beat Charlton Athletic in the 1946 final. They had been promoted into the First Division in 1927, and had made two previous FA Cup Finals, losing to Bolton Wanderers in 1927 and to Manchester City in 1934. On the pitch, the 1938/39 season had been a disappointing one – they finished the season in seventeenth place in the twenty-two club First Division table, four points above the relegation places. Their FA Cup run provided a welcome distraction. The draw seemed to favour them, as they saw off Lincoln City of Division Three North, followed by West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United of Division Two. In the quarter-finals, over 44,000 saw them surprise mid-table Preston North End, before they beat fellow First Division strugglers Huddersfield Town 2-1 at Highbury in the semi-finals.
To say that they were expected to lose the final would be something of an understatement. Their opponents, Wolverhampton Wanderers, had finished the season as runners-up in the First Division, and they had powered their way to Wembley, beating Bradford Park Avenue, Leicester City, Liverpool and the eventual league champions Everton, before beating that season’s surprise package, Grimsby Town, 5-0 in the other semi-final at Old Trafford. They’d scored nineteen goals in their five FA Cup matches prior to the final. Under the managership of the influential Major Frank Buckley, and captained by the twenty-three year old Stan Cullis (who would go on to manage the great Wolves team of the 1950s), it seemed like a formality that they would end their season with victory at Wembley. As has happened so often in the FA Cup final, though, Portsmouth failed to read the script, and manager Jack Tinn (who famously ascribed his team’s success to his “lucky spats” – fabric shoe covers, in case you were wondering) went on to cause a surprise every bit as big as the more famous (and more recent) FA Cup Final surprises.
The match was played, of course, at Wembley on the 29th April. Portsmouth took the lead after half an hour, when Bert Barlow (who had signed for Portsmouth from Wolves earlier in the season) with a cross-cum-shot. Wolves, who were famed for their youth, had frozen on the big day and Portsmouth doubled their lead just before half-time when Jimmy McAlinden crossed the ball over the stranded Wolves goalkeeper Alec Scott for Scottish striker John Anderson to score from close range. Two-nil up at half-time, Portsmouth could have been forgiven for taking their foot off the pedal, but any chances of a second half revival were quashed a minute in, when Scott fumbled a shot and had to stretch his arm out and put his hand on the ball on the goal line to stop the ball from going in. It was only momentary respite for the unfortunate Wolves goalkeeper, though, as winger Cliff Parker ran in and kicked the ball away from under his hand to make it 3-0. There was a glimmer of hope for Wolves when Dicky Dorsett pulled a goal back for Wolves from close range eight minutes later, but the match ended as a contest after 71 minutes when Fred Worrall crossed for Parker to head in his second goal of the match. It finished 4-1 to Portsmouth.
Jack Tinn retired as manager in 1947 and was replaced by Bob Jackson, but he was credited with building the Portsmouth team that won the First Division championship in 1949 and 1950. Although they managed to finish in third place in 1955, the team fell into a decline and were relegated in 1959, and it took until 1987 for them to get back into the top division under the managership of Alan Ball (having sunk as low as the Fourth Division in 1978), but with financial problems hampering their progress, they were relegated after just one season. In recent times, their best FA Cup run came in 1992, when they beat Nottingham Forest on the way to a famous semi-final against Liverpool. Having drawn the first match, it looked as if they were on their way to a massive surprise when Darren Anderton put them ahead in extra-time. However, Ronnie Whelan levelled things up with a couple of minutes left to play, and Liverpool won the subsequent penalty shoot-out. It has taken Portsmouth sixteen years to get this far in the FA Cup again, and the sense of expectation in the town is palpable. News reports earlier this week showed people that had queued all night at Fratton Park to get their hands on the last few tickets for tomorrow’s match, and there seems to be a growing belief that this will be their year. The media might not care too much for the FA Cup now that the famous names have been knocked out, but it would be foolhardy to suggest to a Portsmouth fan that it doesn’t matter any more.