BOOK EXTRACT Untypical Pompey 2002-03

BOOK EXTRACT Untypical Pompey 2002-03

Read the author's note from MERSON IN BLUE



Regularly accompanied by an expletive between the first and second words, ‘Typical Pompey’ is an all too familiar phrase among the ranks of the Fratton Faithful. The expression relates to the club’s unfailing ability to self-implode, especially on those rare occasions when the odds are actually in their favour. Typical Pompey is the unhappy knack of wresting defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s dropping all three points at home against a side that hasn’t won away all season – or losing by a cricket score to the lowest-scoring team in the league. Typical Pompey is crashing out of the Cup to a struggling side from a lower division who haven’t won in ten or being run ragged by a former striker who until he lined up against us couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with the proverbial stringed musical instrument.

The 2001/02 season, the one before Paul Merson joined the club, was awash with Typical Pompey moments. After some encouraging early season performances helped the Blues reach the giddy heights of the play-off places, Graham Rix’s team completely forgot how to play football and plummeted down the table, losing six of seven league games in December. Typical Pompey. It was around this time that the Blues swapped their experienced and in-form keeper, the 6ft 4in Dave Beasant with the likeable Japanese goalie, Yoshi Kawaguchi. Typical Pompey. Rix’s side were even dumped out of the FA Cup in a catastrophic 4-1 reverse at home to Leyton Orient, a team languishing in the lower reaches of the league pyramid. Typical Pompey.

All of which makes the 2002-03 season all the more remarkable. Under Paul Merson’s captaincy, the Blues somehow eliminated the Typical Pompey moments. The team that Harry Redknapp hastily put together was made of sterner stuff. This was an Untypical Pompey side. They would travel up to far-flung, desolate northern outposts such as Turf Moor, Deepdale, Valley Parade, and Hillsborough, and come back with the points, grounds that in any previous season we’d return with nothing more than our tail stuck between our legs. When the team eventually had a blip in form over the Christmas period Redknapp’s men still managed to grind out draws rather than lose all the points to a sickening late winner (another of those common Typical Pompey traits).

Another deviation from the norm was that the class of 2002-03 played some wonderful, easy-on-the-eye football. The team was comfortable in possession and with Merson at the helm could pass other teams off the pitch if the mood took them. They were also capable of playing direct and were handy on the break. What’s more, in Svetoslav Todorov they had a high-calibre striker who rarely struggled to locate the back of the net. Without the ball Redknapp’s men were hard-working and terrier-like in their desire to get it back. What’s more, the gnarly bunch of seasoned defenders (De Zeeuw, Foxe, Festa, Primus) all knew how to defend and then some.

For these reasons, and many more, the mould-breaking 2002-03 season sits at the top of my Favourite Pompey Season Ever list. After chatting with other fans while researching this book it’s a choice that I’m far from alone in sharing. As much as anybody, and despite one spectacularly dodgy career decision later down the line, Harry Redknapp needs a great deal of thanking, as his recruitment choices, especially Paul Merson, were spot-on throughout the campaign.

And while gratitude is being handed out, Milan Mandaric must also lauded for staunchly backing his manager. The utterly dependable Steve Stone, for example, was a pretty useful permanent addition to the squad in December. The January transfer window in recent years has become a losing lottery ticket for Pompey fans hoping for a fresh infusion of talent at a pivotal time in the season, but that month in 2003 saw former England international Tim Sherwood come in and supply the hard-earned nous of a Premier League winning captain in the centre of our midfield. On top of that, the Nigerian whizz-kid Yakubu Ayebeni was persuaded to bring his rocket-fuelled boots to the sunny south coast to boost our already potent goal threat.

These inspired reinforcements put a spring back into the heels of Paul Merson, whose well-deserved wins, skill and zest for the game were fundamental in getting The Blues out of Division One and into the Premier League. It was a season was of free-flowing football, club unity, great goals and, ultimately, silverware. It was a season where the term ‘Typical Pompey’ was finally put to rest (albeit temporarily). The phrase has since returned into common usage on the terraces at Fratton Park with a fierce vengeance, but for the duration of these pages let’s take the time to celebrate the achievements of a great player and his role in an Untypical Pompey side during a season of boundless magic.

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