No FA Cup glory for Portsmouth, but their oldest fan is still cheering
A Slice of Britain: John Jenkins, 90, joined the thousands of Pompey supporters yesterday to back the club he has helped for more than 50 years
Sunday 16 May 2010
The last time John Jenkins caught the train to see Portsmouth play in an FA Cup Final, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath had just hit the bookshops, Billie Holiday's controversial new song, "Strange Fruit", was shocking audiences and Hitler was eyeing Poland greedily and gearing up for for the Second World War.
"The ride was a little less smooth then: it was a steam train, so it was bumpety bump over the sleepers the whole way," he says. The journey to Wembley this time is much smoother, fortunately for John, who at 90 is arguably the club's longest-standing fan. "The excitement was unbelievable. I was 19 and I came up with my uncles. I can remember everything about it: the train was 7s6d return, I had banana sandwiches – my favourite – and we won 4-1 against Wolves. On the way back, everyone was so happy and jubilant; it was unforgettable."
This year the return journey was a little more sombre. In a season where the club has suffered relegation from the Premier League and debts so overwhelming that it went into administration and seemed likely to go under for ever, many fans are just relieved the team was allowed to play. The club's most optimistic fans were reluctant to predict a win. They were right.
As he left home yesterday morning, however, nothing could dampen John's mood. He kissed his wife, Penny, goodbye and sprang down the staircase from his flat, bubbling with excitement at the day ahead. "I put on my best Lynx aftershave specially," he joked, planting kisses on each of my cheeks.
His team's path to this final clash was made all the sweeter by the fact that their semi-final win was against Spurs, now managed by Harry Redknapp, who defected from Portsmouth just as things began to go wrong. "Beating Spurs was a great moment," says John, looking out at the coaches pulling out from Fratton Park, packed with fans.
It is a scene he has gazed upon countless times in his long life. But this time it is an exodus. Streams of people draped in flags head to cars, coaches and trains to get as close as possible to the match they thought would never happen.
The longest break in his support for the club – home and away – was during the war: he earned an MBE for his role in the Normandy landings. Once he got back to Portsmouth, he rearranged his life to fit around his team's matches: "I came out of the army in 1946 and I got a job driving buses. It was just so frustrating having to take people to Fratton Park on a Saturday that I changed jobs as soon as I could. I got a job working with cranes on the naval base and worked on the turnstiles at the ground on a Saturday. I've been working in some form for Pompey for more than 50 years now."
Retirement in 1984 gave him the chance to start volunteering at the ground, sweeping the stands and clearing up rubbish. As news spread of his encyclopedic knowledge of the club he was invited to be a host in the boardroom, where he still works, answering questions about his beloved club. "I love my job. I'd do it for nothing. My wife says I ought to make my bed at Fratton Park, but it wouldn't get through the turnstiles," he winks.
Two years ago when Portsmouth reached the final, beating Cardiff City 1-0, and winning the club's first major title in nearly six decades, the future had looked at least hopeful. Things are very different now.
"Money has spoilt the game," he says. Manager Avram Grant put it succinctly week: "When I heard last week the club's debt is £140m, I said to myself: 'Where are these millions? Where did they go?' This season I was a lawyer, a doctor, everything, but it has not been good."
It is left to a group of players led by David James to pay the wages of groundsmen, St John Ambulance team, masseur, kit man and laundry staff, who would otherwise have been left wageless and jobless.
Cynics suggest that, as overpriced players were the downfall of the club's finances, their gesture to support staff is the very least they can do.
John doesn't see it that way. "When the players got together to pay the ground staff, that showed real team spirit."
Even at the final whistle, after Didier Drogba's strike shattered his FA Cup dreams, and with the future of his club in tatters, John refused to lose faith. "I'm a bit sad, but you can't fault them on effort. The crowd were brilliant, they stuck right until the end cheering 'Play up Pompey', and nobody got up to leave their seats early. Now I'll just have to wait for them to get here next year."
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