Ian Porterfield: Have football will travel for a Sunderland legend

One of the FA Cup's greatest giant-killers is in his fifth foreign posting as a national coach. Simon Turnbull hears about life in Armenia
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It is the morning after the night before and Ian Porterfield is just a little bit weary. Understandably so. The coach of the Armenian national football team has travelled back overnight from Helsinki, mulling over the frustration he and his players encountered in the Finnair Stadium on Wednesday evening. By all accounts, it was not just a 10th-minute goal by Mika Nurmela that was respons-ible for beating them in a Euro 2008 Group A qualifying fixture but also the goalkeeping heroics of Jussi Jaaskelainen.

"If it hadn't been for him, it would have been a different result," the one-time assistant manager of Bolton says of the current Wanderers and Finland keeper. "He made two wonder saves. It wasn't a double save - they were two saves apart - but it was certainly in the Jim Montgomery class."

Ah, Jim Montgomery... "Jimmy Monty" and that wondrous Wembley double save. All of a sudden, down the crackling telephone line from Yerevan to a small corner of the North-east of England - a distance of 2,331 miles - time travels back some 33 years.

From his apartment in Arm-enia's capital city, Porterfield can see the outline of Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark was said to have come to rest after the great flood. The view from the English end of the telephone line - framed on the studywall of this old Roker Park diehard together with a £4 ticket for Wembley's North Terrace - happens to be a snapshot from the day that Jimmy Monty's double save left Trevor Cherry and Peter Lorimer scratching their heads beneath the old Twin Towers.

It is a photograph of Porterfield dispatching a right-foot shot past the despairing David Harvey, the moment time stood still for Sunderland supporters: precisely 31 minutes and 32 seconds past three on the afternoon of 5 May 1973. It was the goal that caused the biggest shock in FA Cup final history and completed the fairytale story of Sunderland's transformation under Bob Stokoe's inspirational management from Second Division strugglers to trophy-winning 1-0 slayers of Don Revie's mighty Leeds United.

Not that time has stood still for Porterfield since that glorious day. In 1974 he came perilously close to losing his life in a car crash. In 1986 he became manager of Aberdeen, the last man to replace Alex Ferguson in football management. In 1993 he was the first manager of Chelsea in the Premier League and the first manager to be sacked in the Premier League. In the same year he became the head coach of Zambia after their national team and officials perished in a plane crash. He guided them to within one goal of the World Cup finals and remains a national hero.

Now, at the age of 60, the man from the old Fife mining town of Lochgelly is three months into his fifth foreign posting as a national head coach. Since August, Porterfield has been attempting to bring to bear his powers of football miracle-making in the smallest of the former Soviet republics. Tucked away in the southern Caucasus, on the border of Europe and Asia, Armenia is a country in a state of recovery from the devastating effects of genocide, earthquake and mass migration. For a national football team coach, it is not the cushiest of outposts.

Simply getting to matches can be an ordeal. "We usually have to fly into Vienna," Porterfield says, "then we've got six or seven hours' wait and maybe go on to Germany and wait for another connection from there. This time we chartered a flight to Helsinki, but we still had to go via Moscow. It took seven hours."

Getting a team together can be a problem too. "We've got one boy at Rapid Bucharest who hasn't been in the team for two years," Porterfield says, "and we've got another lad in Russia whose team won't let him come. When we played Finland at home we only had two midfielders."

Finland, coached by Roy Hodgson, top Group A with 11 points. Armenia lie second from bottom with just the one point from four games. Having held the Finns to a 0-0 draw in Yerevan and pushed them mightily close in Helsinki, though, Porterfield's team have been punching above their weight in a group that also includes Portugal, Poland, Belgium, Serbia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

"Looking at the quality of the other teams, you have to be realistic," the coach says. "We're looking to come out of the group with respectability, and to improve as we go along. I always look to the long term. My main aim when I came here was to build something better for the future. It's an interesting challenge. I knew it would be a difficult one. In the various countries I've been to, it's always been an against-the-odds situation. But you accept that. Your job is to get the best out of what you have; not to complain about it, but to get on with it. I'm enjoying it here. My wife and I have a wonderful apartment in the heart of Yerevan. The people have made us welcome. Obviously there's great progress still to be made in this country, but I feel one of the best ways to create a good image for your country is if your football team can make a good impression."

Porterfield did more than that in his first foreign assignment. He was awarded the Freedom of Zambia. He has also guided Trinidad and Tobago to within a whisker of the World Cup finals, been national coach in Zimbabwe and Oman, and had spells in club management in Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

"When I left Chelsea in 1993 I'd never worked outside of the UK before and I had no real desire to do so," he reflects, "but the chance came along to go to Zambia because of the tragedy they suffered and it's amazing how things have gone from there. I've worked in four different continents in the last 13 years.

"It's a bit sad, but when you leave the UK the doors seem to get closed to you getting an opportunity back there again. Why that is I will never know, because if you go overseas you learn so much from the different people and the different cultures. It makes you a better person and a better coach.

"This is my fifth job as a nat-ional team coach and I see it as a privilege. It's something to feel proud of, because you're representing a whole nation. Although I'm Scots, I'm representing all the people of Armenia." Sadly, Porterfield never got to represent his own people on the international stage. He was on the brink of a Scotland call-up at the age of 27, in the form of his life as an intelligent, probing, left-of-centre-midfielder, when he was involved in a car crash on the outskirts of Sunderland in December 1974. He suffered a fractured skull and a broken jaw.

"Bobby Brown was manager of Scotland at the time and I was more or less told that I was going to be picked for the next game," Porterfield recalls. "Then I had the car crash and it changed my life. I was very, very lucky to come out of it, to play football again, to coach, to do all the activities I do. Most certainly, God was good to me.

"I've been helped by a lot of people in football - people like Jack Charlton, people who have given me good support, good advice. But if it wasn't for a man called Dr Kalbag, a neurosurgeon at Newcastle General Hospital, I don't think I would be here talking to you just now."

Thanks to the skills of Dr Ram Kalbag, Porterfield was back in training at Roker Park within two months. He played for the reserves, wearing a protective rugby scrum cap, before the end of the 1974-75 season. He made 22 appearances in Sunderland's Second Division championship-winning team the next season, but his best days at the club he joined as a replacement for the great Jim Baxter were behind him - including one day, of course, that will never be forgotten on Wearside.

"When you go back to 1973, we had the basis of a good team a bit before the Cup run," Porterfield reflects. "We had Jim Montgomery, Dave Watson, Billy Hughes, Dennis Tueart. These were really top players.

"We had a lot of other good players as well. When Bob Stokoe came as manager in November 1972 we were probably just short of a couple of players and he brought them in: Ron Guthrie at left-back and Vic Halom at centre-forward.

"Bob created a good spirit and we had a team with wonderful ability, a good balance to it, and a great work ethic. It was just sad that it got broken up in the years that followed because Sunderland have just drifted along since then and not achieved what their fans deserve, and there are no better supporters anywhere - anywhere - than the Sunderland supporters.

"I don't know Roy Keane or any of the new consortium but potentially they've got a giant of a club that really should be up there with the best." In the meantime, the wonderful memories of a 33-year-old giant-killing will keep having to suffice.

LIFE & TIMES: The long road from Lochgelly

NAME: John Ian Porterfield.

BORN: 11 February 1946, Dunfermline.

EARLY PLAYING CAREER: Started with Lochgelly Albert. Had trials with Leeds, Hearts and Rangers before joining Raith Rovers in 1964.

SUNDERLAND CAREER: Signed for £45,000 in 1967. Scored winner against Leeds in 1973 FA Cup final. Made 254 appearances, scoring 19 goals.

MANAGERIAL CAREER: Roth-erham 1979- 81, Sheffield United 1981-86, Aberdeen 1986-88, Reading 1989-91, Chelsea 1991-93. National coach in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Oman, Trinidad and Tobago, and Armenia. Coached in Saudi Arabia and South Korea.