Football: Defeat fails to silence Pompey fans

Portsmouth 1 Leeds United 5
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The Independent Online
FOR A club trying to sell itself Portsmouth's 5-1 drubbing by Leeds United on Saturday would appear to be right down in the Gerald Ratner class of advertisement. Alan Ball used the words "woeful" and "awful" to describe his team's second-half performance, but Ratner's famously succinct description of his company's jewellery, "crap", would be equally appropriate.

But while the scoreline might scare off the sort of rich and kindly benefactor Pompey fans hope will rescue them from Martin Gregory's ownership, any putative investors actually present at Fratton Park should have formed a more positive view.

While the team were outclassed by a Leeds team rich in promise, the supporters were not. It was no surprise to hear the Pompey Chimes ringing out from the club's biggest crowd in just under five years at kick-off, nor after Luke Nightingale had put them ahead after eight minutes. But to hear them still being belted out eight minutes from the end, after Leeds had scored their fifth was remarkable.

Alan Ball, whose name was lustily and approvingly chanted long after his team had folded, described them as "fabulous" and David O'Leary, the Leeds boss, called them "a credit to the club".

Literally so. With the club's estimated pounds 4m-plus debt increasing by pounds 40,000 every week, the ground still in need of major refurbishment and most of the better players already sold, the supporters may be Portsmouth's only credit on the balance sheet.

They are, however, a very real asset. As Newcastle and Sunderland have shown, a large and dedicated supporter base can provide the financial and emotional drive to transform clubs. But first the foundations must be in place and all that passion will go to waste at Portsmouth unless it is matched in the boardroom.

Having fought off one winding-up order in midweek Portsmouth face another one, issued by the Inland Revenue, on 3 February. There are suggestions that Gregory may offload his 97 per cent stake in the club before then but Ball did not seem optimistic. Nor are the fans who held up banners calling for Gregory to sell. They fear Gregory is planning to build houses on Fratton Park - it is thought the clause preventing this happening until the club has been relocated lapses in July.

While Portsmouth's future is uncertain, Leeds' appears very bright. Even with eight leading players unavailable they looked a slick outfit, brimming with pace and movement. They lined up for kick off with seven players on the half-way line and maintained that commitment to attack throughout.

"It suits our style to go forward," said David Hopkin, who was an outstanding captain in midfield. "We have a lot of young attacking players with a lot of pace and a lot of talent. Everybody wants the ball, they are all comfortable with it."

O'Leary added: "I believe the players are enjoying it, this is an extension of what we do in training. Anyone who has seen us over the last few months would think: `This is a side which gives you a go'.

"They want to work for you. With the kids we are young together. They know deep down they are safe in my hands. I'm their friend and they come and see me, they trust me. They know I got in as a kid and think: `Maybe he knows what he's talking about'.

"It wasn't a gamble to play them. When I was the coach I kept asking George [Graham] to play them, once I became manager I was picking the team myself so I thought I'd pick them. They've not surprised me, I have been working with them for two years and knew their quality. But we have got to add a bit, a few quick fixes. I've spent hardly any money and I've had to flog them a bit too much. The difference between us and Manchester United when their crop came through is that they had real quality senior players and could bring people in and leave them out when they needed to."

Not that Leeds were all fresh from kindergarten, they finished with three teenagers but started with just one, Jonathon Woodgate, and had a vein of experience running through the side from Nigel Martyn and David Wetherall, to Gunnar Halle, Hopkins and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, all 26 or over.

Instead it was Portsmouth who had the youngest player on the pitch, Nightingale, who had been at school during the week. He put Pompey ahead, following good work by Jeff Peron and Steve Claridge, but it was to prove a brief glimpse of glory.

Two minutes later Leeds levelled with a bad goal to concede. No defender noticed Harte stealing up for a short corner routine, and none picked up Wetherall as he headed the subsequent cross in. Harte scored from a free-kick foolishly conceded by Sammy Igoe six minutes later and, though Pompey played some good football at this stage, with Claridge often involved, that was it.

The third goal, clinically finished by Harry Kewell, knocked the heart out of Portsmouth, who, said Ball angrily, "capitulated". Bruno Ribeiro added a cruel fourth after his shot was massively deflected off Adrian Whitbread and Clyde Wijnhard completed the rout with a classy fifth from Kewell's cross.

There could, and should, have been more with Hasselbaink notably profligate, but Portsmouth might also had had consolation as Martyn produced two exceptional saves to deny Michalis Vlachos and Claridge.

"I said to David O'Leary he's got a fabulous future," said Ball. "You can see the excitement, there's ability throughout the side and the kids are tremendous. It's all there for him."

One questioner asked: "Are you envious?" Ball, whose sponsored Mercedes was recently repossessed, replied: "I'm happy here, but it's a massive job at the moment."

Goals: Nightingale (8) 1-0; Wetherall (10) 1-1; Harte (16) 1-2; Kewell (50) 1-3; Ribeiro (70) 1-4; Wijnhard (82) 1-5.

Portsmouth (3-5-2): Knight; Waterman (Phillips, 55), Whitbread, Vlachos; Robinson, Igoe, McLaughlin, Peron, Simpson; Claridge, Nightingale (Thogerson, 70). Substitutes not used: Hillier, Flahavan (gk), Perrett.

Leeds United (4-3-2-1): Martyn; Harte, Wetherall, Woodgate, Granville (Jones, h-t); Halle (Knarvik, 82), Hopkins, Ribeiro; Korsten (Wijnhard, 62), Kewell; Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Wright, Robinson (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Bookings: Leeds: Hasselbaink, Ribeiro.

Man of the match: Hopkins.

Attendance: 18,864.