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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 24/08/02, 3pm
Portsmouth
versus
Watford
 
A familiar story
By Matt Rowson

So it's all changed, basically. Run-of-the-mill First Division club, having sustained itself for years on the slim chance of promotion balanced against the outside-to-middling threat of relegation, suddenly has its traditional place in the run of things challenged. No longer to be an also-ran, this club is now setting out its stall to be one of the big boys, to force its way into the Premiership by the strength of its investment in the transfer market.

Stop me when this begins to sound familiar.

Actually, that's where the similarity ends, really. For while Pompey's situation may superficially resemble our own twelve months ago, and although the resultant heightening of expectations will prove just as much a problem if things go badly, there are some very marked distinctions between Pompey's situation and our own.

Firstly, given that Pompey are swimming very much against the tide in the current climate as far as investing in their team goes, there is no element of uncertainty about their future. Vialli's Watford plan involved promotion, certainly, and the laws of positive thinking seemed to prohibit contemplating an alternative, but you sort of assumed that with most of the earners on two year deals we'd made a calculated short-term gamble that would require investment for, at most, two years. Even if this were the case it was ultimately overtaken by events... in Pompey's case there is no such grey area. Milan Mandaric, it appears, would have thrown in the towel but for his mate Harry Redknapp's agreement to take over as manager; should the whole thing go belly up, one can only assume that Mandaric will withdraw his investment as threatened and Pompey really will be out in the cold. Success or bust.

On the other hand, and unlike the Watford of twelve months ago, Pompey are dealing in what has become very much a buyer's market. We've found to our cost that nobody wants to buy players at the moment (or at least not overpaid, underperforming and aging mercenaries, but I digress...); Pompey, having been given the green light to pursue this route, are presumably able to strike better deals than we were twelve months ago due to the excess supply in the labour market, put soullessly. One hopes so, for their sake.

The other key distinction between Pompey 2002 and Watford 2001 is that the management team at Fratton Park does not consist of an ex-player with a brief and very specific management record and another with a very ropey CV, but rather of two of the most experienced and reputed managers in the British game. Which gives them a fair shout in my book.

And if Portsmouth do gain promotion, one can only wonder at the domino effect that the removal of one of the cornerstones of modern civilisation, Pompey being in Division One, might provoke. Instability in the economy, almost certainly. Broad and spectacular climatic changes, more than likely. Revolution, anarchy. You never know...

The last time Portsmouth played outside the First Division Ronald Reagan was still US President, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit ?" was on at the cinema and Michael Jackson's "Bad" was top of the charts. I mean, some of you might not even have been born.

Pompey's starting line-up for their dramatic win at Crystal Palace at the weekend featured no fewer than eight faces recruited during or since the summer break, with more widely reputed to be on their way. Unlike Vialli's similarly unfamiliar Watford side of last season, this team appears to be gelling rather quickly.

In goal will be Shaka Hislop, one of several recruits from an old Redknapp stamping ground and now an experienced keeper, although he has looked a little shaky in his first few games. He sports the No.1 shirt which was briefly retired after the death of Aaron Flahavan a year ago. His deputy is the Japanese Yoshi Kawaguchi, whose patchy start to his Fratton Park career (including the 3-0 defeat at Vicarage Road last season) led to him losing his place both in Pompey's first team and as Japanese No.1 for the World Cup.

Right-back is probably a weak spot, with the highly rated Eddie Howe out for several weeks with an injury. Linvoy Primus is likely to fill in here. On the left, the attacking Matthew Taylor, who was recruited from Luton for what appears to be a bargain 400,000 in the summer. He has replaced Jamie Vincent, who may be on his way to Kenilworth Road to step into Taylor's old position. Youngster Lewis Buxton would be the most likely alternative.

In the centre, a solid looking partnership is being developed between another former Hammer, Aussie Hayden Foxe, and the experienced Arjan De Zeeuw, recruited from Wigan but with experience at this level from his time with Barnsley. Primus can also play in the centre; the other two senior centrebacks in the squad, Carl Tiler and Scott Hiley, are both listed and in the final year of their contracts.

In midfield, the figurehead role occupied by Robert Prosinecki last year appears to have been filled by Paul Merson, new team captain and capable of winning games at this or any level, despite a lack of match fitness. In the holding role, the departure of Shaun Derry (to Palace) led to the bringing in of Wolves' Carl Robinson. However Robinson failed a medical at Fratton, and has a three month contract to prove that his dodgy knee can hold out. Neil Barrett would be another option here.

Nigel Quashie has moved out to the left to cover the gap vacated by Courtney Pitt, who has a ligament problem, whilst on the right erstwhile fullback Jason Crowe appears to have created himself a niche by coming on and scoring twice to win the game at Selhurst. This would mean a fringe role for Kevin Harper, who is available for selection on Saturday for the first time this season, having been sent off in the corresponding tie in the last campaign.

Other midfield options include Richard Hughes, another summer recruit from Bournemouth who impressed in forty-five minutes at the weekend, and Gary O'Neil, although he was a fitness doubt before Palace and replaced at half time.

Up front, the unlikeliest pin-up of World Cup 98, Deon Burton, is back at Fratton and partnering young Frenchman Vincent Pericard, on-loan from Juventus. Pericard departed the fray early on Saturday to be replaced by Svetoslav Todorov, about whom the Pompey jury is still out. Mark Burchill, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, is back on the bench, but Lee Bradbury (knee) and Rory Allen (ankle) are both out - the latter having last played a competitive game in May 2000.

Watford have won their last three visits to Fratton Park. Chalking up four in a row on Saturday would be a great achievement, and represent an acceleration in the progress we've already witnessed under Ray Lewington. I'll be in Paris, but will have my fingers crossed. After all, the future stability of the planet, not to mention three good away points, might depend on the result.