x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Pompey's unbreakable spirit

They have suffered administration and relegation yet their team unity remains intact, writes Richard Jolly.

The Portsmouth players have stuck together admirably throughout a season of adversity.
The Portsmouth players have stuck together admirably throughout a season of adversity.

Teams tend to assume an identity. As a general rule, the more successful the side, the stronger their characteristics. In the days when football was a less cosmopolitan game, it used to come from locality. Now it can be a shared ethos which provides the sense that past, present and future are linked by a group of players imbued with the ideas and desire to symbolise their club. It can be a consequence of careful planning, wonderful vision or perfect timing.

Then there is Portsmouth. The anomaly in so much they do, this is the team which will part for good after one afternoon at Wembley. Thrown together in a hurry, they will have to be disbanded as rapidly and unceremoniously. And yet they will go their separate ways with medals: silver, in all probability, but quite possibly gold. They are a team with a difference. The common denominator is only that these players, for various reasons, have been at Fratton Park in what has been the most unstable of seasons.

They have been there for administration and relegation, castigation and condemnation, frequent humiliation and occasional celebration. The club is headed for the Championship, but first they face the champions, Chelsea. Cup finals provide an opportunity to impress. For the Portsmouth players, a global television audience provides the biggest of shop windows. The fire sale will commence soon after the final whistle sounds.

While Avram Grant, their manager, has complained that Portsmouth will not be permitted to take up the cup finalists' place in next season's Europa League, the reality is that these players would not have represented them anyway. They will be dispersed, scattered across the country, if not the continent. Yet they have provided the reason for an admirably loyal set of supporters to back Portsmouth this season; not the four owners, nor Peter Storrie, the former chief executive, who, among the club's £138 million (Dh740.9m) debts, failed to pay money owed to local businesses and charities. The club has betrayed its followers, but the players have not.

They have emerged with credit only on the pitch. Under the astute stewardship of first Paul Hart and, more recently, Grant, results haven't always reflected their endeavours. But organisation and unity have been achieved when coherent thinking was an impossibility; an FA Cup run that was almost ended at Coventry City in subfreezing conditions back in January reaches its unlikely conclusion today.

Then they go their separate ways. Jamie O'Hara, who swept the board at the club's Player of the-Year awards, returns to his parent club, Tottenham Hotspur. Hassan Yebda and Frederic Piquionne are also on loan, but searching for new employers. Aruna Dindane, who urged Lens to remove a clause forcing Portsmouth to pay £4 million (Dh21.4m) for his services should he play another game, is bound for Panathinaikos, the Greek champions.

Eleven others are out of contract. Prominent among them are Kanu, whose goal won Pompey the FA Cup in 2008, and David James, the club's greatest goalkeeper who may captain the team on his farewell. For the defenders Steve Finnan and Ricardo Rocha, the decision for them is whether to accept vastly reduced terms to stay or seek pastures new. Meanwhile, the availability of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Nadir Belhadj and Marc Wilson should prompt offers from Premier League clubs. Should any be made for Tal Ben Haim, John Utaka and Pape Bouba Diop, Portsmouth will be compelled to accept: each is paid too much to figure in the new age of austerity at Fratton Park.

The achievement of Grant, the former Chelsea manager has been to persuade each that self-interest can be married with the common good, to make the desperation signings into a unit and to show a spirit that has reflected their supporters. There have been examples of ability, notably in the semi-final victory over Tottenham. There are grounds for Chelsea to be wary even though, even before the deduction, Portsmouth only mustered 28 points in the league. In their loaned forwards, Dindane and Piquionne, Pompey possess pace. Both are unpredictable and so, as a consequence, is the team.

Inconsistency and instability go hand in hand and, given Portsmouth's ever-changing side, variable results are unsurprising. But from a cast of the emerging and the declining, the unwanted and the unfancied, the overpaid and the over the hill, the bought and the borrowed, a team has been forged. And that is as remarkable as anything else in Portsmouth's surreal season. sports@thenational.ae