An ordinary game, an extraordinary story. The refusal of Portsmouth's manager, player and fans to buckle, despite the mismanagement and ownership farce which has brought the club to its knees, is to be applauded. Bottom of the league and in administration but also looking forward to a Wembley FA Cup semi-final. That is unless they are wound up first. The Football Association has joined the Premier League in praying the club hangs on.
The £1m income and raised profile which accompanies this victory will help, yet there is something disquieting about a club which won fielding players they could not afford, now reaching Wembley due to starring performances from players they do not own – man of the match Jamie O'Hara is on loan from Tottenham, two-goal match-winner Frédéric Piquionne is on loan from Lyon. The FA, unlike the Premier League, has no sanction for clubs who go into administration. The question is, ought they be allowed to compete?
Most fans will argue a points deduction is punishment enough, many will argue it is too much as Avram Grant did again on Saturday. The Portsmouth manager said: "They have to make a penalty against people who did wrong, but not against other people, those who give their heart to the team, the fans, me even – who didn't get paid sometimes. Some need to be punished, but to take the easy solution is not right."
Yet while it is true the fans did not sanction the over-spending which put Portsmouth into this position they did enjoy the rewards. The fans of West Bromwich Albion, a club which lives within its means, were denied a final two years ago when beaten by a Portsmouth team we now know was constructed on the never-never. Birmingham, another fiscally prudent club in recent years, missed out on this season's semi-final largely due to the efforts of O'Hara and Piquionne. Plus, linesman Adam Watts' inability to see from 30 yards that Liam Ridgewell's header had crossed the line with 10 minutes remaining and a grandstand finish in prospect. Watts was a victim as well, of Fifa's daft intransigence regarding video technology, a stand they ironically reaffirmed in Zurich shortly before Ridgewell's 'goal'.
"I knew straight away it was a goal," said Ridgewell. "It bounced behind the line, hit David James and then bounced back. I couldn't believe it when the linesman didn't put his flag up. It could have made the difference."
Instead Piquionne's ninth and 10th goals of the campaign proved decisive. It was welcome reward for a player who arrived in England with his confidence shattered after a £4.5m move to Lyons went badly wrong last season – he scored two goals and was pilloried. The 31-year-old said: "I want to show everyone in France that I am not finished. I am trying to play well here and I want to stay in England."
Who with is anyone's guess, but it is unlikely to be Portsmouth. There were only three survivors from the XI which lifted the Cup in 2008 and this team will be broken up at the season's end. At least, said Hermann Hreidarsson, they will have places to go to. The defender admitted: "Footballers are lucky. Even if things go tits up we get another club. But the club belongs to the fans and to the real people of the club who have been working here for years. It's so sad people will be losing their jobs. All we can hope is the administrator will be nice on Monday."
The outpouring of joy and relief at the final whistle reflected the pain of the club's calamitous season.
The Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish, was dispassionate. He said: "In a sense it is amazing they have got to the semi-finals because the situation here suggests doom and gloom, but you look at the squad and there are a lot of very good players – players far more experienced than some of mine. There is a siege mentality. It was almost as if they were going to go for it because they have nothing left to lose."
Portsmouth (4-1-4-1): James; Finnan, Ben-Haim, Hreidarsson, Belhadj; Wilson; Webber (Diop, 84), Brown, O'Hara, Utaka; Piquionne. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Dindane, Kanu, Mullins, Owusu-Abeyie, Basinas.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson (Gardner, 83), Ferguson, Bowyer, Fahey (Phillips, 71); Jerome, McFadden (Benitez, 75). Substitutes not used: Maik Taylor (gk), Murphy, Michel, Parnaby.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Portsmouth Brown.
Man of the match: O'Hara.
Attendance: 20,456.Reuse content