David James: Portsmouth's Saviour?

From his fight to protect jobs at his club to his struggle for the England No 1 shirt, David James speaks his mind about a tough year – and today's duel with Drogba
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By the time Amir Khan fights Paulie Malignaggi at Madison Square Garden tonight, we will know the result of the FA Cup final and whether, in boxing terms, it should have been declared a horrible mismatch.

Which might be pitching it a little strong, but has there ever been a Cup final between two clubs still notionally in the same division, with one of them so hotly fancied to win as Chelsea are to beat Portsmouth? I can't think of one and nor can David James, who represents the last line of defence against a team that on its most recent outing, needing only a 1-0 win to clinch the title, went on an eight-goal rampage against poor bewildered Wigan.

So let's start with the most obvious question of all, albeit one with no easy answer: how on earth does a defence as leaky as Portsmouth's has often been this season repel a bunch of players who have scored 103 goals in the league alone? James sighs. I don't doubt that he and his teammates have been pondering little else all week, as well as how to nick one at the other end. But he hasn't won 49 England caps and played more Premier League games than anyone else by being defeatist, and he's not about to start now.

"Chelsea haven't won every game this season," he says, matter-of-factly. "There is historical evidence to suggest that they can be beaten, as long as you get the preparation right. I've watched our semi-final against Tottenham a number of times, and Tottenham played very well that day. So in the context of what they've done this season, reaching the Champions League, the performance we put in then has to give us confidence. I'm not saying Chelsea will be easy to beat, of course not, but we can't be rabbits in headlights. Besides, if it was a foregone conclusion we wouldn't even need to turn up. Or we could just give them the Cup and go."

There is also, I suggest, trying very hard to agree with him that a Chelsea win (and therefore a League and Cup double) is not a foregone conclusion, the significant experience of an FA Cup final victory to draw on, two years ago against Cardiff City. Yet it wasn't the final that year that inspires James to think he might hoist the Cup again this afternoon, but the quarter-final, a 1-0 defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford.

"I still draw strength from that," he says. "I can remember the quarter-final draw, thinking the last one we want is United away, but on the day there was a funny feeling in the changing room, and as soon as we heard they were putting out a full-strength side, as soon as we realised they were taking us seriously, we began to think we could do it. The worst-case scenario is when they play their second or third team against you. That's really demoralising."

James stored in his lively mind the lessons learnt that day; useful fodder for the manager he fully intends to become. But for now he is still a player. One who refuses to be intimidated by the thought of Didier Drogba running riot in his penalty area today. "The scoreline doesn't matter. You've lost the Cup whether you lose 1-0 or 3-0. So I'm not thinking about that. All I know is that to win the Cup you have to do something really special, which we did last time by beating Man United, probably the best team in Europe at the time. This time we have to beat the best team in England, and at least we have the advantage of playing them on neutral territory."

When Portsmouth won at Old Trafford, though, the club seemed to be in sound financial health. Within little more than a year it was almost sickly enough for the Last Rites to be delivered, and I ask James whether anything in his long career had prepared him for the tumult of a season in which not even relegation was the worst thing to happen to the club.

A short laugh. "No, nothing. When we won the Cup the plan was to kick on, to sail to the top of the League, to go on and do some great stuff. Yet this season we were weeks from being wound up, if not days. What was a fairy-tale turned into a nightmare. But the most important thing is that the club still exists. Just before we went into administration there were serious worries that it might be wound up. That's not something I ever imagined being involved in. A relegation battle is one thing but ... well, it's not a story you could invent."

James has already opined publicly that the FA Cup win in 2008 was partly responsible for the club's downfall, because players had been offered bonuses for European qualification and paying them exerted an intolerable strain. With predictable irony, most of those players subsequently had to be sold to relieve the debt. "The turnaround in playing staff over the last two years has been incredible," he says. "Seven influential players who were here two years ago have gone."

Avram Grant, however, has come back, and if anything good has come from Portsmouth's tempestuous season, apart from reaching the Cup final, then James thinks it is the esteem with which Grant is now widely regarded in the game. "He was here, with Harry [Redknapp], when I first joined the club. Funnily enough, I kept five clean sheets in my first five games – I think we were top of the League for a weekend – and right from the outset I could see what he was about. He clearly had a wealth of knowledge, and not just about football. He often talked about Michael Jordan, for example. He understood how to get the best out of players, and when I heard he was coming back I was delighted. If he had come six months earlier we might have stayed up."

Portsmouth are not the first club to reach the Cup final and be relegated in the same season, but I venture that no other club has plumbed such depths with the chance of finishing on such a remarkable high. James agrees. "And it's because I have ambitions to go into management that I've been trying to keep a close eye on people's emotions. For instance, there are 14 players likely to represent the club in the final, but that leaves 16 players who won't. There are so many emotions going round, and as Huey Lewis said in a great song, the more things change the more they stay the same. You really have to credit the manager, because when there was anger, when players weren't getting paid on time, he kept us focused on playing. He was a very calming influence. I don't know if you've ever heard Avram raise his voice, but I have only once, after a 5-0 defeat."

James himself is another to emerge from the debacle with his reputation enhanced, declining to take the one-year contract extension due to him after 22 matches this season because of the financial implications for the club, and, heroically, helping to save the jobs of several backroom staff by paying their wages out of his own, in concert with a number of his team-mates.

"The administration team had to make 80-odd redundant," he explains, "of which half a dozen – masseurs, physios and so on – were at the training facility. Those redundancies would have impacted on our chances of staying up at the time, so we as a group of players agreed to facilitate the wages so we had a better chance of staying up. We didn't stay up, but I like to think it made a big contribution to reaching the Cup final. We still pay those wages but it was never just me. When I heard [about the redundancies] I got home with this endless buzzing in my head, thinking 'what can I do about it?' It wasn't about keeping on mates, it was about keeping on valued staff. And when I got home I got phone calls from a couple of the lads, and I thought 'fantastic, I'm not the only one stressed about this'. It was a combined effort."

He knows, despite everything he has said about Chelsea being beatable, that it will take the mother and father of combined efforts to win the Cup today. He also knows that Fabio Capello will be watching, and I suggest to him that a strong personal display might secure his place as first-choice keeper in South Africa. "I don't know. I hope I'm the one in goal but I'm not going to preach about how I should be No 1. My desires are for England as a nation, and I've so much faith in Mr Capello. It's a strange one, but he has given me genuine belief in myself, and if he can do that for me he can do it for everyone else."

How, I ask, has Capello filled him with self-belief? After all, West Ham's Robert Green has recently been the favoured one. "Well, it's bizarre, but the best way of putting it is that when I was 15 or 16 I wasn't sure whether I wanted to play football for a living, do athletics, or go into the army. The idea of being regimented, of order and discipline, that suited me. And that's what Mr Capello stands for. You respect his authority, and he's so clear in what he says. He doesn't feel – like some of his predecessors – as if he has to be your best mate to make you feel good."

Whether or not he features in the World Cup, James intends to play on for at least one more season, untroubled by the thought that he will be 40 even before the 2010-11 campaign kicks off. He points out that of those who played in the Premiership's inaugural season 18 years ago, only Ryan Giggs, Sol Campbell and himself remain in top-tier football, a claim he will no longer be able to make if he stays at Fratton Park. But let us conclude by gazing into the past, not the future. James has already played in three FA Cup finals with three different clubs, losing twice and winning once. So, is the elation of winning the Cup a more intense emotion than the despair of losing?

"That's a good question. I lost with Liverpool against United [in 1996] and I didn't take any kind of defeat well at that age. The Villa one [in 2000 against Chelsea] was the last time I cried. As a team we just didn't play that day, which was so disappointing. The win two years ago I'm ambivalent about. I was obviously very happy to win, but I found myself standing back and watching other people enjoying themselves. That was a strange feeling, and then I missed all the changing-room celebrations, all the champagne-spraying, because Glen Johnson and I were in the drug-testing room. Most of the lads went out that evening, but I stayed back with my missus and the kids. The next day was better in terms of understanding what it meant. We went on an open-top bus to Southsea Common, and there were supposedly 200,000 people there. It was surreal, like a scene from one of those zombie films, seeing everyone migrating towards that one area. For me that spectacle was better than the final itself."

Might there be another such victory parade tomorrow? It sounds more unlikely than the plot of any zombie film, but this is Pompey we're talking about, so yes, there might.