It’s a question that many supporters of struggling teams have asked themselves over the years. Would you take a cup final appearance and relegation in the same season over years of relentless mediocrity? As a philosophical question, it taps into something fundamental about the psyche of the football supporter – sustainability versus living the dream, the nature of honour and romance set against the reality of the humdrum existence of the football supporter. Portsmouth supporters were prepared for the worst. West Ham United’s 1-0 win against Sunderland the day before had confirmed their relegation from the Premier League and, even though they had been preparing for this inevitability for a few weeks, nothing can fully quite prepare you for relegation.
Today, though, wasn’t about the reality of the gruesomeness of their situation. Today was a day for the suspension of reality. It was a day for the sheer, visceral pleasure of the win. It was Portsmouth’s day in the sun, and it couldn’t have come against much better opposition for them. Much was made of the coming together at Wembley Stadium of Harry Redknapp and Portsmouth, but there were many other sub-plots to this story, with the Tottenham Hotspur team that they were facing being, as it was, peppered with players that had played at Portsmouth under Redknapp. Was it time, perhaps, for a little revenge?
Again, the Wembley pitch wasn’t making things easier. It frequently feels as if teams look more sluggish at Wembley, and this afternoon was no exception. Spurs, who had slumped to a 3-1 defeat at Sunderland, appeared out of sorts again, even though they had the vast majority of the possession during the first half. Peter Crouch saw a close range header scrambled wide and Tom Huddlestone’s speculative curling shot from the edge of the penalty area looked tame but forced David James to a flick over the crossbar at full stretch. Both teams were going at full pelt, but the Portsmouth defence was well marshalled and clear chances were thin on the ground. At the other end, meanwhile, Frédéric Piquionne wass suddenly released but saw his shot blocked by Heurelho Gomes’ trailing leg.
The second half started with Spurs coming close again, with Jermain Defoe’s shot being outstandingly blocked by Ricardo Rocha. As the half wore on, though, Portsmouth’s confidence started to visibly grow. Piquionne had a clear header comfortably saved by Gomes, while at the other end, Peter Crouch failed to take advantage of the Portsmouth goalkeeper David James misjudging a cross and headed wide in front of an empty net. It was tit for tat football, often being played at a crazily frenetic pace and Spurs’ wayward crossing and shooting down was letting down their usually decent build-up play. Full-time came with the scores still goalless and the opponents for Chelsea in next month’s final no closer to being established.
In the opening stages of extra-time, Spurs continued to push forward in search of a goal but Wilson Palacios seemed to be displaying the frustration of his entire team with a couple of long range shots that were more likely to trouble the crowd behind the goal than David James. Nine minutes into the second half, though, Portsmouth broke the deadlock and, somewhat predictably, the pitch had its part to play in the goal. A mis-placed cross should have been easy enough to tidy up for Michael Dawson, but he lost his footing and Piquionne surely couldn’t believe his luck as he rolled the ball in to give Portsmouth the leader.
The sense that it simply was not going to be Spurs’ day reached its full momentum with three minutes to play of the first period when they had what looked like a perfectly good goal disallowed. Gareth Bale, one of the few Tottenham players to deserve better than to lose this match, crossed from the left, David James fumbled under a challenge from Niko Kranjčar and Peter Crouch turned the ball in. The referee pulled play up for the challenge on James, but the replay confirmed that it was James that ran into Kranjčar. It was a poor decision, and it proved to be the one that changed the course of the game once and for all.
Spurs pushed forward again in an increasingly desperate attempt to haul themselves back into the game, but they were starting to commit too many players forward and, with five minutes left to play, they paid the price for this. Dindane managed to wriggle free in the penalty area and Wilson Palacios, although he managed to get his foot on the ball, only succeeded in bundling the Portsmouth player over. Kevin-Prince Boateng, in front of his own supporters, drove the ball low into the corner of the net to send Portsmouth back to Wembley on the 15th of May.
It was, then a weekend of mixed emotions for Portsmouth supporters. The twin polar opposites of a cup final appearance and relegation from the Premier League happened barely twenty-four hours apart, but this was not a match for thinking about the future. This was a match for Portsmouth supporters to take in the improbable to the point of incredible achievement of making an FA Cup Final in the face of odds that were something approaching insurmountable, in view of the chaos that has descended upon the club like a noxious fog this season. It was also a triumph for Avram Grant, who was so harshly cast aside after taking Chelsea to within a penalty kick of winning the Champions League two years ago.
Spurs, meanwhile, are facing the possible collapse of their season. Prior to their match at Sunderland last weekend, they seemed well-positioned for a “double” of sorts in sneaking that fourth Champions League spot and an FA Cup Final appearance. They now have to pick themselves up from their slough of despond with consecutive matches against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. Quite how they do this – and, with Manchester City winning 5-1 against Birmingham City this afternoon, they’re going to need points from these matches in order to keep any realistic chance of snatching the fourth Champions League place – is anybody’s guess.
Today, however, was not really about Tottenham Hotspur. Today was about Portsmouth, and those supporters that have had a season that long since turned into a farce. They may not be able, in the way that Newcastle United have this season, bounce back into the Premier League at the first opportunity, but they do at least now have the opportunity to end their season with a bang. Their players may well have all manner of clauses relating to bonuses that the club cannot pay them, but it seems implausible that they would not suspend these in order to have a crack at beating Chelsea in the final and causing what would surely be the biggest FA Cup Final upset of recent years. The supporters, if no-one else, deserve that much at the very least.