Five years ago, as Portsmouth's director of football, Harry Redknapp cringed with embarrassment as his team went in at half-time 4-0 down to West Bromwich Albion. His club's sense of satisfaction at reaching the FA Cup final while sitting sixth in the Premier League is therefore understandable, as well as offering hope to all those suffering dark days in the doldrums. Redknapp must take most of the credit for the transformation, though true satisfaction will only come through finishing the job against either Barnsley or Cardiff City to win his first major trophy in 25 years of management.
West Bromwich may be, in Redknapp's words, "the best footballing team in the Championship by a mile" but the way Portsmouth struggled against them in the first 45 minutes confirmed that they cannot take a first FA Cup win since 1939 for granted. Albion's bright movement and neat passing was undermined by a failure to make sufficient chances, which always had the potential to cost them dearly. So it proved 10 minutes into the second half, when their former striker Nwankwo Kanu scrambled in a goal that should have been disallowed for a handling offence by Milan Baros.
If beaten FA Cup semi-finalists can rarely manage to look on the bright side of life, the losing dressing-room yesterday was less of a morguethan normal, as the players immediately resolved to put bitter disappointment behind them and achieve the season's true priority of promotion back to the Premier League. Last season they knew the despair of losing a play-off final here, and with six games to play the target must be to avoid risking a similar fate.
"Let's hope there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," said Tony Mowbray, a manager whose lugubrious mien makes Avram Grant look like Tommy Cooper. "The message coming out of the dressing-room is, 'Let's go and earn the right to go and play teams like Portsmouth every week'. On the balance of play and chances created, there was nothing in it."
Redknapp admitted that the first half had not gone as planned. "They passed the ball better than us and we had problems," he said. "At half-time we dropped Kanu a bit deeper and had bodies in the middle of the park, and it worked better for us. If we play as we can, we've got a fantastic chance of winning the FA Cup, but we all know that on the day anything can happen."
On 17 May Portsmouth will have to go about their work more successfully than in the first half yesterday. By half-time the two goalkeepers had made one save apiece, though Dean Kiely's for Albion was nothing more than a straightforward catch from Sully Muntari's optimistic 35-yard free-kick. David James, being David James, made harderwork of keeping out a shot by Zoltan Gera, who had been neatly set up by Kevin Phillips. The manner in which Phillips dropped off into midfield to link up the play offered the Championship side much promise, but once they moved the ball closer to goal, Portsmouth's excellent back-four provided a formidable barrier.
Luck ran their way for the goal, however, Baros, who had already been booked, using his arm to control Glen Johnson's pass before hitting a shot that Kiely did well to keep out. The goalkeeper might then have reached the loose ball but for the presence of Gera, who hacked at it, allowing Kanu to tap in. Ports-mouth's best spell followed, during which Baros should have secured victory. Played in by Niko Kranjcar, he delayed and was denied by Kiely.
A proper Cup tie had at last broken out, the ball flying from end to end at greater pace as players tired. Albion, seeking their 100th goal of the season, might have had it when Gera won possession back and shot high, or when Robert Koren took Carl Hoefkens' pass and hit the bar with James beaten. Ishmael Miller took the wrong option in crossing towards Phillips when Koren was unmarked, then Portsmouth, taking off Kanu and reverting to 4-5-1, should have capitalised on Kim Do-Heon's mistake, Kiely saving from the substitute David Nugent.
Albion finished with their goalkeeper in the opposing penalty area, hoping to reach a left-wing corner, but when it was cleared the referee, Howard Webb, indicated that their race had been run – for now. Mowbray, to his credit, was not inclined to dwell on Baros's handling, pointing out: "There's nothing I can do about it now."
Phillips was more forthright about the decisive moment of the game, claiming: "You know what officials are like in these big games, they tend to bottle it a little bit. I don't think we deserved to lose, but promotion is our main aim." It would be a deserved achievement.Reuse content