By Matt Rowson
The parallel histories of football and human aviation are more closely entwined than Denis Bergkamp would have you believe. From the moment when the Wright brothers (Jermaine and Nicky) first conceived the notion of hitting a high ball into the area, separating the two has been nigh on impossible - the likes of Ross Jenkins and Garry Thompson being particular exponents of the art of levitation in the penalty box.
West Brom fans have immortalised their adulation for German turbo engines with their "Boeing, Boeing" chant; in Greece, the national obsession with aimless little passing triangles saw some British advocates of the long-ball game arrested this year for making the mistake of gazing skyward at an airport in Athens, and Mark Bosnich now faces the charges associated with pushing the boundaries of human flight.
As far as unaided flight is concerned, Douglas Adams advised in the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy books that the trick to flying is to fall over but forget to hit the ground. Portsmouth appear to be trusting in this advice, as the distraction of next Saturday's FA Cup tie with Manchester United seems to have been putting Pompey off their stride... the win at Forest was their first in the five games since the draw (and almost buggered this already tenuous line of discussion, but I've started so I'll finish...).
Pompey's success this season has been built on a wholesale restructuring of the side over the summer, when Harry Redknapp and Jim Smith undertook what appeared to be Milan Mandaric's last fling. The side that turns out on New Year's Day will bear little resemblance to that which Redknapp named for our last away game of last season, with only three of that sixteen likely to feature. However, whilst Redknapp has had the unique ability to spend money in a buyer's market, it's very possible to spend such money badly... we don't have to look very far for evidence of that.
There's an inherent danger in Pompey flying too high though - Icarus would have warned them. Pompey do not have the infrastructure to support a Premiership side and are currently totally dependent on their chairman's benevolence... a rocky set of foundations.
Shaka Hislop (who was plain old "Neil" when he faced us with Reading in 1992 before he got all Premiership) will be in goal for Pompey, with Japanese marketing investment Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi on the bench. One-time deputy Chris Tardif has been on loan along the coast at Bournemouth.
Pompey will play three at the back, likely to be the solid Arjan de Zeeuw, who has top-flight experience with Barnsley, ball-playing Australian Hayden Foxe, one of several of Redknapp's former charges at Upton Park, and dreadlocked Linvoy Primus, strong and a general tidier-up when things go awry. Gianluca Festa is making better-than-expected progress from knee ligament damage and may come in for de Zeeuw if fit, but Eddie Howe and Carl Tiler are both out and with Lewis Buxton on loan at Exeter Pompey are short of obvious cover.
Steve Stone, recently recruited from Villa where he made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of GT, looks destined for the right wingback slot in the longer term, but he's missed out on the last two games through tight hamstrings. Kevin Harper and Jason Crowe would be the attacking or defensive choices to replace him respectively - Crowe had a fine game against Palace, and appeared to be unlucky to be dropped at Forest. On the left, Matthew Taylor has been a revelation since his arrival from Luton with pace, goals, and a steady supply line key in Pompey's armoury leading to rumours with a January move to the Premiership. There's not much cover on the left though... with Courtney Pitt apparently out of favour, Kevin Harper has filled in on his weaker side when required.
In the middle, captain Paul Merson missed his first game of the season at Forest... he was kicked off the park at Hillsborough in November and has struggled for fitness and form since. His ankle problem was the reason for his being rested at the City Ground and, with half-an-eye on Old Trafford, he is likely to miss out on Wednesday also. Not that Pompey haven't got their priorities sorted or anything.
Nineteen year old Gary O'Neil is, however, a quality replacement. He will probably feature alongside stand-in captain Nigel Quashie, inconsistent in recent weeks, and Ivory Coast midfielder Lassina Diabaté. Diabaté has been booked in precisely half of his games for Pompey so far, which should suggest something about his role. Former Wolves man Carl Robinson is likely to be on the bench, whilst young Scotsman Richard Hughes also comes into consideration having played in a couple of reserve team games after injury. Neil Barrett, the Graham Rix favourite who looks like something out of a mid-eighties boy band, hasn't featured this season.
Up front, recent games have seen Bulgarian Svetoslav Todorov, looking more prolific and confident than earlier in his career in this country, alongside Deon Burton, a scorer against us during his last game for Derby less than a month ago. Burton has neither scored nor clicked since his return to Fratton; burly Cameroonian Vincent Pericard, on-loan from Juventus, would be an alternative. He's been on the bench for a couple of games as he regains fitness following injury. Mark Burchill, once a Watford target, is apparently available for transfer although some supporters appear to feel that he's been under-utilised. Lee Bradbury, whose elbows very much symbolised old, mid-table Pompey, has joined the bruisers at Hillsborough on loan whilst Rowan Vine and Luke Nightingale are spending similar spells at Brentford and Swindon respectively. Meanwhile, one-time million-pound signing Rory Allen provided some light relief for onlookers by handing in his notice and buggering off to Australia to watch the cricket.
A win against Pompey would see us flying into 2003, but we're going to need to reach the heights of our last appearance on Sky - Coventry - if we're to record our first New Year's Day victory since 1977 (!). That was against a South Coast club too, mind, and the best thing about our own summer revolution is that we no longer go into any game expecting defeat - three points winging their way to us on Wednesday may be more than just a flight of fancy.