Rudyard Kipling's twin impostors, triumph and disaster, are often quoted in a sporting context. In an arena where hyperbole can dominate, most experience neither.In this, Portsmouth provide the exception. A club capable of veering between two extremes in as many days. Relegated from the Premier League by West Ham's win over Sunderland on Saturday, they reached the FA Cup final by overcoming Tottenham on Sunday.
Portsmouth are, in many ways, the story of the season. An indictment of the overspending and lax laws on ownership in English football, they provide a warning and a morality tale. Yet they also offer an example of football at its best: of a side rallying in adversity to produce an improbable result for a club where few of the players have a future; of wealthy footballers funding the continued employment of members of staff that the administrator had originally fired; of a team justifying the support fans have supplied in a season full of more downs than ups.
The Championship beckons for them. So do Chelsea, in the FA Cup final. Europe does not, however: they were not allowed to apply for the relevant licence from Uefa because they are in administration. That remains the crux of the issue: it brought the nine-point penalty that, according to Avram Grant, the manager, is the prime cause of demotion.Sunday's 2-0 win over Spurs contained a surfeit of sub plots: a goal from Kevin-Prince Boateng, rarely granted a chance in his time at White Hart Lane; a defence including another who made a negligible contribution for Spurs, Ricardo Rocha, halting the contingent of Pompey old boys, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Niko Kranjcar; and Portsmouth's revenge on Harry Redknapp, their most successful manager in half a century, but one who walked out on the club, twice.
The return to Wembley for the final on May 15 is significant as well as symbolic. David James has pinpointed Pompey's FA Cup win in 2008 as the beginning of the end for a club living beyond its means. It incurred charges to players and other clubs alike just as owner Alexandre Gaydamak's funds were drying up.Portsmouth had postponed payments until the future. Then the future arrived with a vengeance and, more relevantly, a phalanx of debt collectors. Owing £85 million (Dh481m), theirs has been a hand-to-mouth existence as the quest to find a fifth owner of the season has gone on.
Stripped of many of their greater assets on the pitch, the hastily-assembled side has emerged with huge credit. Losing teams invariably suggest their performances merit better results: in Portsmouth's case, it is probably true. Had they been able to retain the services of finishers such as Crouch and Defoe during a fire sale which lasted for 18 months, they might have avoided demotion, even with the nine-point penalty.
That is hypothetical. What is beyond doubt is that Grant has displayed his prowess. The Israeli is either among those who have often been paid late or he has not been paid at all. His seemingly downbeat demeanour has appeared well suited to the mood surrounding Fratton Park. But he has shown himself to be a talented tactician and produced a team with a spirit that more stable clubs can only envy.And in a year when "pay up Pompey" has been heard as often as "play up Pompey", it means that a harrowing season should end with the focus firmly on the football pitch. Amid the upheaval, Portsmouth could yet produce the most unlikely triumph of recent times.