"When we go abroad, the stadia are modern and welcoming, the fans applaud you and people don't insult you." Thus spoke Carlo Ancelotti recently. After tonight's Uefa Cup tie at Portsmouth, however, the AC Milan coach may care to revise his opinion. With the Pompey chimes ringing, the seven-times European champions should be granted a loud reception. Fratton Park, however, could never be described as modern.
Instead Ancelotti and his garlanded group of players should expect to be transported back in time. With its cramped confines and intimidating atmosphere, Fratton Park is a venue traditionalists savour and businessmen, who dream of the corporate revenues modern stadia generate, abhor. It is an apt home for Portsmouth, a club steeped in history and a city with football in its DNA. As Mick Quinn, who was prolific in the Pompey attack two decades ago, said: "Just like Liverpool, Ports- mouth is a proud working-class city and a big sea port where people are passionate about football."
The comparison with Quinn's native city was not misplaced. Fratton Park can feel like a downsized Goodison Park. In footballing terms, Portsmouth is a northern working-class place that, by an accident of geography, is in the south. It faces out to the sea, rather than inland towards genteel Hampshire, perpetuating an identity as outsiders. As a club, Portsmouth are comparable to Everton, Sunderland or Sheffield United in the fervour of their support. A strength of character is required to flourish there as Alan Ball and Harry Redknapp, who both returned for a second spell at the helm, demonstrated.
Steve Claridge, a former player and manager, believed the World Cup winner understood the fanbase. "Ball spoke of the pride of the town," he said. "He knew that the Royal Navy set out from here to win the war. There was a great tradition and history to the place and he captured the spirit." Certain types of players have prospered at Portsmouth, and they can broadly be divided into two categories: hard men and maverick talents. As Quinn recalled: "The Portsmouth team I joined were the footballing equivalent of the Dirty Dozen, a bunch of reprobates who, because of their attitude or unruly behaviour, didn't fit in at other clubs. It was a rogues' gallery."
Men such as Kevin Dillon, Noel Blake and Mick Tait were in trouble with the FA, while Quinn's problems lay with the police. Yet while players who can mirror the abrasive attitude of the supporters have gained popularity, those who have provided an element of fantasy have also been cherished. Robert Prosinecki and Paul Merson were granted places in the club's greatest ever XI in a recent poll. The enigmatic Nigerian, Kanu, and the Croatian creator Niko Kranjcar continue their tradition, now they are under Tony Adams' guidance.
His appointment, following Redknapp's defection to Tottenham, was a popular one, perhaps because the former assistant manager is seen as one of their own at a club where some outsiders - notably Velimir Zajec and Alain Perrin - have floundered. Yet after Redknapp's exit from his "spiritual home", the personification of the club, for many, is John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, the antiquarian bookseller and tattooed fanatic who is forever ringing a bell in the stands. Whether his brand of support conforms to Ancelotti's expectations remains to be seen, but he is a reason why Pompey followers are rarely quiet.
They have had much to cheer. Their FA Cup victory in May was their first for 69 years; Redknapp also oversaw a highest league finish for half a century. The meeting with Milan is the culmination of three years of progress, but tonight's encounter at Fratton Park may be a one-off, and not just because Portsmouth hope for a larger, and more lucrative, ground. Over-achievement is a temporary phenomenon and the likelihood is that Portsmouth will regress. So this is a unique occasion, and not just because Ancelotti, Ronaldinho and co will experience an authentic old-fashioned atmosphere.