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Nationwide Division One, 9/9/00
By Ian Grant

It's fascinating how the character of a place changes over time. For years, any visit to Fratton Park was guaranteed to provide only misery. My memories of the endless seasons when games at Portsmouth were guaranteed to end in either shambolic defeat or gruesome stalemate suggest that it was always dark, it was always raining and I always had a cold. Not strictly true, actually, but metaphorically accurate.

Some things haven't changed, of course. The journey from Brighton still involves stopping at stations called Warblington and Nutbourne, which you suspect have just been invented by Railtrack to claim additional government subsidy. The toilets continue to be abominable, the roofless away end continues to make it impossible to create any kind of atmosphere - it's difficult to join in if you can't actually hear what the supporters a few rows away are singing - and, while we've been down to the Second Division and up to the Premiership, Portsmouth continue to faff about in the First Division.

But the character isn't the same. What was once my third most hated ground in the country - you can guess the other two, I'd imagine - is rapidly slipping down the charts. Three points helps rather a lot, naturally, but there's more to it than that.

If both ends were covered, Fratton Park would be bloody fantastic. The noise and support generated by the home fans, virtually regardless of what's happening on the pitch, is absolutely tremendous...even if Mr Westwood's bugle playing seems to deteriorate further each year. For all our claims to fame last season, out-singing our Premiership hosts at every opportunity, any set of supporters that can do the same thing while their team languishes in the lower reaches of the First Division is surely worthy of enormous praise. When we make this kind of racket while losing heavily at home, then we can really pat ourselves on the back.

So it's just a shame that the stadium's architecture excludes the possibility of the visiting fans joining in the party. Because then you'd have an atmosphere that was worthy of the Premiership. The football would have some catching up to do, mind.

Our last visit was completely surreal, the newly-promoted Hornets getting thoroughly murdered for eighty minutes and somehow winning through a ludicrous own goal and a Jason Lee header. This one was rather different, if still bizarre.

It comes down to one thing, essentially. Much was made of our lack of luck last season, yet those complaints rather missed the point. Similarly, the "you make your own luck" cliché is only partly true. Luck is, by definition, out of your control (foolish superstitions notwithstanding, of course). It's capitalising on luck that makes the difference, pouncing upon the chances that get thrown your way. That's the difference here, that's what currently separates us from our opponents.

The key moments on Saturday all went in our favour. Some involved good fortune, particularly the two occasions when Portsmouth struck the woodwork in the first half. But, crucially, others saw us decisively seize the initiative. While we didn't always look like we were in control, we were absolutely ruthless when it mattered - people might remember the misses, particularly Helguson's, but they all came after the destination of the points had been determined. A winning performance, in every sense.

It didn't start out that way, though. Portsmouth took charge in the early stages, dominating the midfield and forcing our defence into action. The battle between Robert Page and Steve Claridge began virtually at kickoff and proved to be fascinating, if aggressive, stuff. Ultimately, if we didn't succeed in dictating the pattern of the game, then at least we did well in stopping the opposition once they reached our penalty area. That was vital - Portsmouth enjoyed a great deal of possession throughout the ninety minutes, yet struggled to create chances and, in pushing forward to force their way through, left themselves vulnerable on the break.

Although Lee Mills and Heidar Helguson both wasted half-chances, fourteen Pompey-dominated minutes passed before the game had its first noteworthy goalmouth action as Thogersen attempted to latch onto a through-ball from the impressive Rudonja and found Espen Baardsen in his way. It was fast and furious from then, however - a game that never seemed to settle down, that always promised a goal at either end.

So, within a couple of minutes, Hoult had pulled off a point blank save to keep out a Tommy Smith shot, after Allan Nielsen's long throw had skidded across the area towards the far post. The young striker didn't have the best of luck on Saturday, thwarted by saves when he tried for goal and by his colleagues' wayward finishing when he turned provider. Yet each member of the current forward line is playing their part and bringing their own unique contribution. Tommy Smith, Gifton Noel-Williams, Heidar Helguson, Tommy Mooney - you might have what it takes to deny one or two of them...but all four? With Allan Nielsen arriving in support?

Anyway, enough bragging...because we very nearly didn't have what it took to deny Portsmouth the opening goal. Not for the first time this season, the woodwork came to our assistance as Quashie broke and played in Rudonja on the left. His run inside ended with a fine, curled shot from the edge of the box - deserving of a goal, perhaps, but not getting one because it rebounded from the crossbar.

Portsmouth had the wind in their sails (sorry). While Helguson nearly made sliding contact with a rather curious attempt at a back header - memories of two seasons ago - Thogersen had a better chance at the other end, running onto Claridge's lay-off and shooting over from inside the area.

So there's no question that Nielsen's strike was against the run of play. Which makes a pleasant change from last season, when people were scoring against us whether the run of play was for us, against us or bloody sideways. Anyway, Portsmouth have no-one to blame, since there was nothing happening at all until their defenders spent so long fannying about that Nielsen was able to nip in and steal possession. He did the rest with great assurance, taking the ball in and slotting it past Hoult.

If that was a blow for the home side, then they didn't show it. The celebrations in the away end were almost instantly drowned out by renewed support from the other end, and they went on to have their best spell of the match. Once again, Baardsen was required to make few saves but he did well to deal with an awkward, bouncing shot from Quashie within a minute of the goal, pushing it away and finding Nigel Gibbs on hand to clear. Then Darren Ward made an absolutely outstanding tackle on Claridge, removing the ball from the striker's toe as he looked certain to make decisive contact.

Our second lucky moment really sealed it. Although Portsmouth made a bit of a mess of a free kick manoeuvre on the left, Page's clearance hit one of his own players and fell to Primus. He shot with the outside of his right foot and it crashed against the bar, rebounding to safety. That was the last Pompey opening of the half and we would, without question, have settled for a half-time lead. But...

The second goal sealed it. Not because a comeback was an impossibility, just because the act of attempting it left Portsmouth wide open at the back and made further Watford scoring a virtual certainty. And it was a cracking goal too, a long free kick nodded down by Helguson and Tommy Mooney punching an instant low drive through the area into the bottom corner. Really, Mooney has been completely transformed by the Cheltenham debacle. Then, as always when he's off-form, he looked cumbersome and laboured. Now, as always when he's right at it, he looks like he could shoulder-charge a tower block and then dribble the ball through the rubble. Fantastic.

While the Pompey fans jeered a thoroughly incompetent but definitely unbiased referee, we tried to get used to the fact that our woodwork had been struck twice and we were still leading two-nil. Could get to like this winning lark, I reckon.

The inevitable Portsmouth onslaught only played into our hands. They'd created chances towards the end of the first half but we dealt with them this time, waiting for possession to come our way and then hurtling forward with pace and precision. In the end, it was difficult to believe that we'd only scored three.

Suddenly, Helguson was at the centre of it all. According to most pundits, the main requirement of a striker is that he gets on the end of chances again and again, ignoring the misses and adding the goals to a growing tally. In which case, Helguson meets the requirement. That said, he should've had a hat-trick.

The first one was awkward, admittedly. A fine move involving Noel-Williams and, of course, Mooney concluded with a low cross. Though Helguson reached the ball ahead of the advancing keeper, he had no way of avoiding a collision and was perhaps unlucky not to find his courage rewarded as the ball cleared the bar.

The second one really wasn't awkward, however. One of those nicely rehearsed Cox-Smith free kicks saw the striker receive the ball and spin to the by-line, flicking in an inviting cross. With Hoult stranded and defenders bewildered, Helguson had an empty net to aim at from two yards...and somehow put his header wide. Not being able to see all of the goal from our vantage point, we celebrated for about thirty seconds before reality struck, much to the amusement of the nearby home fans.

Their amusement lasted no time at all. Hoult's weak goal-kick fell to Mooney, Noel-Williams played the ball on and there was Helguson, diving in to plant a header into the net. While Hoult received treatment and the teams waited to kick off, Smith and Helguson conversed on the halfway line. I'd imagine the opening line went something along the lines of "How in the name of sanity did you miss that - I laid it on a sodding plate for you!". They both laughed. It didn't matter - it wasn't going to affect the result, it wasn't going to be on "Match of the Day". Welcome back to the Nationwide, boys.

Even then, to their credit, the home fans didn't shut up or turn on their players, instead taunting us with a chant of "Three-nil and you still don't sing!". Their team briefly rallied with efforts from Quashie, Derry and Mills, then had a bizarre free kick for a backpass, shinned back to Baardsen from all of two yards, blocked by the defensive wall. It wasn't their day, they knew it, and it was only a matter of time before more chances came our way.

Helguson again, this time doing brilliantly to hold off two defenders as he ran through from the centre circle and doing less brilliantly to curl his shot against the post with only Hoult to beat. Still, if you're going to waste openings like that, then it might as well be when you're three goals up. Conceding goals is less painful in that situation too - when Quashie's long-range drive ended up in the top corner, courtesy of a deflection (?), the possibility of a revival was still remote.

Sure, we were a bit nervous. As always, we tended to defend a bit deep - the admirable "all hands on deck" mentality sometimes leaving us without an upfield outlet. But we looked secure, as if it would take another effort from distance to beat us. Pulis' decision to replace Rudonja with Bradbury added yet more physical presence to the Pompey forward line yet robbed them of much of their guile - we've not been out of the First Division so long that we've forgotten how to deal with an aerial bombardment. Gradually, the crossing deteriorated, the shots became more ambitious and we were able to relax a little. Bradbury and Claridge failed to hit the target with difficult chances inside the area, Cox intervened brilliantly to end one dangerous break, the final whistle got closer.

There was still time for one last shot against the woodwork, again from Helguson. Simple stuff this time - a Cox cross, a Mooney header at the far post, and the striker's attempt to hook the ball past Hoult hitting the outside of the post. If it really matters, the Pompey keeper could probably argue that he had it covered.

That was it, really. For the remaining minutes and lengthy injury time, we held firm. Indeed, by the end we'd grown confident enough to forget about safety and appeared happy to commit numbers forward in search of a fourth. Some defensive hesitation nearly let in Mills for a last minute consolation goal, but his shot on the turn was scraped a couple of yards wide. It wouldn't have made any difference, anyway.

So there it is. We were lucky on occasions, they were lucky on occasions. You play with the hand that you get dealt and you play with it as skilfully as you can. That's why we fully deserved a 3-1 win on Saturday.

It's too early to start looking to the Premiership again, and we must avoid the temptation. Results like this will get us there...but they can only be achieved by focussing on the here and now. Each game as it comes, blah blah blah.

You've read the report, now forget it. Blackburn tomorrow.