The FA clash between Southampton and Portsmouth is a tale of two clubs, one seemingly recovering after hitting rock bottom and the other staring into the abyss.
A match made in mayhem
It is a tale of two clubs, one seemingly recovering after hitting rock bottom and the other staring into the abyss. It is a story of two FA Cup runs, one culminating in defeat at Cardiff in 2003, the other ending in victory at Wembley in 2008. It is the contrast between two owners, one pumping money into his team and the other trying to sell a club he acquired recently and reluctantly.
It is the comparison 24 hours provided this week between revived optimism and deepening pessimism. On Tuesday, Southampton, in front of the competition's record crowd, clinched a place in the final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, On Wednesday, Portsmouth faced a winding-up order at the High Court. Another beckons. In the meantime, Hampshire's local rivalry is renewed in the FA Cup. Today pits Saints against Pompey. League One versus Premier League comes with the complications neighbourly squabbles offer, with the intensity a gate of more 30,000 promises and with the suggestion that Saints, though 33 places lower, may be the favourites.
Southampton and Portsmouth have been two ports in a storm of late. The Saints have confronted financial meltdown, going into administration and being docked points for both last season and this. Now, with their Swiss owner Markus Liebherr investing £3 million (Dh 17.3m) in players this year, Southampton are in a position of uncharacteristic wealth. Portsmouth, according to HM Revenue & Customs, are insolvent. Their fourth owner of the campaign, Balram Chainrai, took over only because his predecessor, Ali al Faraj, was unable to pay his debts.
Compared to the search for salvation, the hopes for a lifeline in their Premier League relegation battle and the hunt for a fifth owner in seven months, the quest for a quarter-final place is comparatively insignificant. But as Matt Le Tissier, arguably Southampton's greatest player, said: "It's no secret that there's no love between the two neighbours. Most of the fans restrict it to heated banter but, for a small minority, it is pure hatred."
For them it is Scummers against Skates, the unflattering nicknames the quarrelling supporters have applied to one another. It is an indication of the incendiary nature of such affairs that England's World Cup referee, Howard Webb, will officiate today. "Since I have moved here, all the talk is of getting them in the draw," said the Saints' 23-goal top scorer Rickie Lambert. "That is when I first realised how much the fans really do hate each other and how big the rivalry is."
Le Tissier provided his own twist on it, wearing a Portsmouth kit in the testimonial for the former Pompey favourite Steve Claridge at Fratton Park, before scoring and peeling it off to reveal a Southampton shirt with '7 Scummer' on the back. "I wasn't worried about it backfiring because I reckoned very few of them can read," he said later. More seriously, his side have unfinished business. Southampton's plummet towards relegation in 2005 was hastened by a 4-1 thrashing at Fratton Park.
It was during Harry Redknapp's brief spell at St Mary's, sandwiching his two stints at Portsmouth. It was, five years ago, their last meeting. Such is the high turnover of players at both clubs over a tumultuous time that none of the Saints side and only two from Pompey remain. "A lot of the squad have never been played in this match before," said John Utaka. "Everyone wants to be involved." The Nigerian provided the greatest moment in the last half a century for Portsmouth, setting up Kanu's winner in the 2008 final.
For both south coast clubs, FA Cup success preceded a dramatic fall. In 2003, Southampton appeared the model of a well-run club with a gleaming new ground. Five years later, Portsmouth married bold recruitment with the traditional support of a historic club to win a first trophy in 58 years. It later became apparent that they were spending way beyond their means while Southampton's seeming prosperity was based upon continued top-flight football. For both, events spiralled out of control alarmingly quickly.
But once the fury of a derby subsides, it should become clear again that there are worse things than elimination from the competition. Or, indeed, than losing to the other. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org