Pompey's players' player relates to Cardiff

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The Independent Football

Before Portsmouth's last game of the season at the weekend a trestle table was carefully carried out, sagging under the weight of enough player of the year awards to fill even a pair of mantelpieces. All had been voted for by various supporters' clubs, and each went to David James. Then another award was announced, the players' player of the year. That went to Sylvain Distin.

James joked that unlike the fans the players had to put up with his moaning in the dressing room, and so voted elsewhere, but he then recognised that Distin had had a superb season since moving to Fratton Park in the summer.

“He's been a tremendous signing,” said the goalkeeper. “From his own point of view it was important he played well because Linvoy Primus was ripping trees up (in that position) last year but the transition has been good. Sol and Sylvain have made a great partnership.”

Indeed, the Frenchman's partnership with Sol Campbell has been the rock Portsmouth's run to Saturday's FA Cup final has been built on. Pompey have conceded one goal in five ties and none at all in the four matches when the Campbell-Distin pairing has been in place,

“He's obviously a great player with a lot of experience,” said Distin of Campbell, “and I like to play with those kind of players because you always have something you can learn, whatever your age. With a player like Sol, with his experience, there are always one or two things to pick up from him.”

Of his award he added: “It made me feel proud. I think that means that they like me, so it's good, and it means I performed, so it's great.”

Distin's form will come as no surprise to those who watched him at Newcastle and Manchester City. The 30-year-old has put together seven solid seasons in the Premier league, which makes it perplexing that he has never received even a squad call-up from Les Blues, especially as Raymond Domenech has often selected Jean Alain Boumsong, a failure at Newcastle and Juventus, and Lilian Thuram, once a great player but now a 36-year-old reserve at Barcelona.

But Distin is not rated across the Channel as he played only a season in Ligue 1. He began as an amateur, combining playing for Joue-les-Tours, then Tours, with working for the council. At 21 he turned pro, with Gueugnon, of Ligue 2, and had a remarkable season. Gueugnon won at Marseille in the French Cup, then lifted the French League Cup, defeating Paris St Germain in the final. PSG promptly signed Distin, but after 28 matches he was loaned to Newcastle.

That cup final memory has come back to Distin this week. “It was a bit like Cardiff playing Portsmouth,” he said. “We had a bit of everything, a bit of luck, good footballers, and we believed, that was the most important thing. I know Cardiff will have that spirit. It's also going to be an opportunity for them to prove everybody wrong because everybody thinks we are going to win. For me they are not a small side and it's going to be a tough game until the last second.”

And what if his performance impresses Domenech, as he finalises his Euro 2008 squad? “Perhaps he will watch, but it will be a shame if he picks me just because of the Cup Final. I'm not disappointed I've not been picked because I came into football very late and I didn't have any contact or opportunity [with the national set-up]. If you have a little taste of it and then they don't call you any more, then you feel: 'Oh why, why?' - but I don't really think about it. With what I've done so far, I'm really happy with all my choices and what I've done, so I'm not going to regret (not being in) the French team now. Nobody forced me to stay in England, I enjoy it here.”

He especially enjoys it at a club which, on reputation at least, is smaller than his previous English ones. “When people talk about big clubs,” said Distin, “they are talking about the past history of the clubs. For me a big club is where the club is right now, not 20 years ago. I played for Newcastle and I didn't win anything, I played for City and I didn't win anything either. At Portsmouth I'm going to play in a final for the first time in England, so for me that's the most important thing, not too much what happened in the past. I'm here right now.

“I remember when I signed here some people didn't say too much, but I could see in their eyes: 'Why Portsmouth?' They have the answer today.”