How times change. This time last year, Portsmouth were preparing for the start of the Premier League season. The hints were already out there, that something was desperately, horribly wrong at Fratton Park, but few would have managed to guess just how bad things would get. Being the first Premier League club to enter into administration brought them a nine point deduction which all but guaranteed their relegation from the Premier League in March (although, as things turned out, they would have been relegated even without this deduction), and the consolation of an extraordinary run to the FA Cup final was only a transitory diversion from the greater prize of the club’s ongoing existence.
The battle to keep the club alive was finally won last week, but the balloons from this particular party were starting to fall somewhat limp by late on Saturday afternoon, by which time some degree of the scale of the task facing new manager had been made clear by a fairly comprehensive 2-0 defeat in their opening match of the season in the Championship at the hands of Coventry City, during which the shortcomings in the squad brought out by the necessity of their administration were lain bare. Good support and good intentions can only get a football club so far, and the smell of dry rot still hung over Portsmouth on Saturday.
Stevenage Borough, meanwhile, won the Blue Square Premier against the expectations of most, upsetting the widely held opinion that last season’s fifth division would be a straight two-horse race between Luton Town and Oxford United. Oxford squeezed their way back into the Football League through the play-offs, but Luton remain a non-league club for another season, at least. Stevenage lopped the “Borough” off their name during the summer and they remain, on account of their manager, Graham Westley, difficult to love, but there can be little questioning the scale of their achievement. They have earnt their place in the Football League, and matches like this are part of their reward. They started off their league season with a home draw against Macclesfield Town on Saturday. It wasn’t a result that set the world alight, but a late equaliser to tie the match at 2-2 will have given them a degree of confidence ahead of this evening’s match.
The football season doesn’t begin with a bang any more. The start of the season is too staggered – Manchester United and Chelsea, after all, were playing a superannuated pre-season friendly yesterday, a full day after Stevenage and Portsmouth had completed their first league matches, and the almost over-saturated lush green pitch and bright red paintwork of Broadhall Way grant the surroundings the feeling of being somewhere between a friendly match and a cup tie. Stevenage start confidently, pushing the ball around as the Portsmouth midfield cedes control of the centre of the pitch to them. This Stevenage team isn’t, of course, a team of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers pushed into the harsh glare of the big time. They were a professional club last season too, after all.
We can see as much when David Nugent breaks through only to see his shot blocked by the Stevenage goalkeeper Chris Day. There were high hopes for Day, who was thirty-five a couple of weeks ago. A decade and a half ago while he was on the books of Tottenham Hotspur. He played five times for the England under-21 team before transferring to Crystal Palace, and went on to play for Watford, Queens Park Rangers, Lincoln City, Preston North End, Oldham Athletic and Millwall before pitching up at Millwall. All of his experience can’t save Stevenage from the resulting corner, though. The resulting corner, from the right hand side, is swung towards the near post. Nadir Ciftci drifts towards the ball and glances it tidly across the face of the goal and in with the Stevenage defence still in warm up mode.
Stevenage’s response is commendable and a demonstration in itself of their potential. They push straight back into an attacking position as if the Portsmouth goal simply hasn’t happened, and within ten minutes they are level when a twenty yard shot from Darren Murphy skids straight through a crowded defence and into the bottom corner. With the scores level, the match soon arrives at an agreeable rhythm, and the difference between the sides isn’t immediately noticeable. Stevenage push forward, but the clear opportunities to score seem evenly distributed between the two teams, with Joel Byrom shooting narrowly wide for Stevenage and Nadir Ciftci shooting over from twelve yards when he should really have scored after some nifty play on the left-hand side. With nine minutes to play of the half, though, Portsmouth retake the lead, and it’s slightly slack defending from Stevenage that is responsible when Michael Brown heads in a deep, looping cross from the right-hand side. It’s reasonably comfortable until half-time for Portsmouth, although Stevenage continue to press, and the match is far from over at half-time.
The sky has been darkening throughout the first half as dusk turns to night, and with the floodlights come the feeling that this is a cup tie. The exhortations of the crowd become more urgent and the managers become more animated with their instructions. Portsmouth, however, feel in control. It’s not a Premier League club playing a non-league club (Portsmouth are still allowing Stevenage a little too much possession and space for it to feel one-sided), but it does feel like a Championship club playing a League Two club, with the degree of comfort that this confers. The differences are subtle, but the visiting defence just feels that degree better organised and more composed. Stevenage find themselves in handy attacking positions before conceding possession or playing The Wrong Ball more than once, but they may only need to find The Right Ball once to haul themselves back into the match.
The Right Ball doesn’t come for Stevenage. Indeed, with Portsmouth soaking up their attacks with greater and greater confidence and pushing balls through on the break, it starts to feel as if they are at least as likely to extend their lead as lose it. With eight minutes to go, David Nugent is put through but extravagantly overhits his second touch, allowing Day to rush out and smother the ball. Ciftci shoots narrowly over, and John Utaka has a run to the byline but can’t squeeze the ball across the face of goal. It feels as though Portsmouth are actually starting to enjoy their football – a feeling that has been all too rare over the last twelve months of purgatory. As the clock ticks over ninety minutes Stevenage have what may turn out to be the most half-hearted appeal for a penalty of the season turned down, but it has been that sort of night for them. Portsmouth have won comfortably – certainly more comfortably than the scoreline would suggest.
The first few weeks of this season will be a steep learning curve for Stevenage FC but, on the evidence of this evening, they should be comfortable in League Two this season. They didn’t quite carry enough about them to seriously worry Portsmouth after the visitors retook the lead early in the second half, but in the somewhat more mundane surroundings of League Two there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to hold their own as they adjust to their new surroundings. They had, after all, been a Football Conference side for a long time. Portsmouth, meanwhile, might earn themselves some money from the next round of the competition, but this last few days (as the next few weeks will also be) have been about restoring something approaching a sense of normality to the club. The first win of the season should help this process to some extent, at least.