Pompey look to luck and history

Alan Knight looked on as Portsmouth's multi-national collection of footballers walked off the training field, Serb and Finn, Senegalese and Congolese, Israeli and Russian. The club's veteran keeper, now on the coaching staff, reflected that since Pompey's last sojourn in the top flight in 1988, "the game has changed completely".

Up to a point. Some things remain the same. Sixty-five years after Jack Tinn's "lucky white spats" helped Portsmouth win their first and only FA Cup, Harry Redknapp, the club's latest manager, will be relying on a "lucky suit".

Since Portsmouth are playing Arsenal, the runaway Premiership leaders, in the Cup's sixth round this evening, Redknapp's team may need all the luck going but that is what the sages thought in 1939.

Wolves, with Stan Cullis at centre-half, had the division's meanest defence and were runners-up for the second successive season. Portsmouth, with the lowest-scoring forward line, had conducted their annual struggle against relegation. Portsmouth won 4-1. They were to retain the cup for six years, war having broken out later in the year.

Tinn was one of the first managers to realise the value of publicity and psychology. Before the game he invited two comedians into the dressing-room to keep his players relaxed. He also had his spats, ritually clipped on, left foot first, by the right-winger Freddie Worrall, who carried a sixpence in his boot and a horseshoe in his pocket for good measure.

Though it can be assumed that Alexei Smertin will not be dressing Redknapp in his lucky suit [worn for three games unbeaten, including the fifth-round defeat of Liverpool], and there will be no professional jokers in the dressing-room, Redknapp is a worthy successor to Tinn. Always ready with a quip and a quote, he, too, is an expert at making decent teams from limited resources.

Arsenal are a formidable challenge but, lest it be forgotten, were it not for Robert Pires' notorious dive Pompey would have won at Highbury in September. They have lost once in eight home games since Christmas, by a goal to Chelsea.

"It's a big challenge for us," Redknapp said, "but we've got some good players. When everyone is fit we can more than hold our own." Of Arsenal he added: "They are up there with the very best, the great Liverpool team and Don Revie's Leeds. I love watching them. I went to see them last Saturday. Jim [Smith, his assistant manager] said: 'What are you going there for? Do you want to scare yourself to death?' After five minutes they were two-up. I rung Jim and said, 'I think you were right'. But sometimes you can worry too much about the opposition."

Like Tinn, Redknapp has concentrated, Knight said, on keeping the players relaxed. "Harry and Jim have kept it low-key. The game's not been mentioned a great deal, except by people wanting tickets."

On Thursday it was hard to avoid the subject. The press had arrived. A photographer cajoled Linvoy Primus into a variety of silly poses with footballs. The kit man was not amused, having just bagged up the balls. Primus, having obligingly bagged them again, said: "I normally shy away from this sort of thing. I guess it's a reflection of the club doing well but it is usually the attackers who get the attention."

Perhaps, I suggested, it reflects who you are playing. Primus thought of Henry and smiled ruefully. "I hope he'll tone it down a bit," he said.

Portsmouth, surprisingly given the mutual antipathy between their fans, train on the outskirts of Southampton. Their base is shared with the university and there are posters on the walls ahead of student elections.

"Your clubs and societies need a good rogering," proclaims one candidate, Christian name of Roger. "Who will keep the prices as cheap as curry and chips?" reads another.

The cramped, municipal air of the place contrasts starkly with the state-of-the-art HQ of today's opponents, but making such comparisons, while tempting, can be misleading. Chelsea also rent a university training ground, while Leicester and Middlesbrough have superb training facilities.

It is what happens on the pitch that matters and Portsmouth have come a long way recently. Four years ago, they were on the brink of going bust. Administrators were in charge, players were being sold off cheaply, even the manager Alan Ball's club car was repossessed.

"It wasn't the only time," said Knight, who has been at the club for 28 years. "There were lots of times we weren't paid over the years. It seemed to dog the club for ever. Even when I came here as a schoolboy, they had the SOS Pompey campaign and were selling off bits of turf to keep going.

"At least we players were guaranteed to get paid eventually, through the PFA or whatever. It was tougher on the girls in the office and so on. Mr Mandaric saved the club from going out of business altogether." Milan Mandaric, a Serb-born Californian-based millionaire, who previously owned football clubs in the United States, Belgium and France, rescued Portsmouth from the wreckage of several bad owners in 1999. He now aims to make their future secure with the long-overdue reconstruction of Fratton Park.

There have been many false dawns on a project which pre-dates Mandaric, but he hopes planning permission will be granted before the end of the season. The £40m plan is for a Pompey Village residential and retail development featuring a 35,000-capacity stadium. It is to be hoped that it does not incur the same level of debt as the construction of Chelsea Village.

Mandaric has pledged to continue with the building even if Portsmouth go down, noting that Southampton's income, with their new ground, is 50 per cent greater than Pompey's, but Redknapp admitted staying up could make a big difference to its viability. Without it, however, he added, "we can't compete".

Thus Portsmouth's priority remains staying up, an aim which has been jeopardised by taking just nine points from 45 on a run which has seen them slip to within a place of the drop zone. Not that this precludes being excited about today.

"Getting promotion was a fantastic achievement," Knight said, "and it is crucial to stay up. I know how hard it is to get out of that division. I was in it a long time. But while the Premiership is obviously more important, you can't beat a Cup run."

This will be Portsmouth's first FA Cup quarter-final in half a century without Knight in goal. He was there in 1988, when Portsmouth lost to Luton; and again in 1992, when Second Division Pompey beat a Nottingham Forest team which included Teddy Sheringham, Roy Keane and Des Walker, then went out on penalties in the semi-final replay to Liverpool; and in 1997, when Chelsea won 4-1 at Fratton.

Redknapp's FA Cup record is even worse than his club's. As a player he never reached this stage and as a manager he did so twice with West Ham, losing to Arsenal on penalties in 1998 and to Spurs at home three years later. Indeed, none of the squad has lined up in a final, although Sheringham, Patrik Berger and Steve Stone did appear as substitutes, Sheringham and Berger going on to win. Injury is likely to preclude any of them starting today, although Sheringham and Stone hope to make the bench.

The trio are typical Redknapp players: experienced pros who had fallen from favour. Mandaric's fifth manager in three years, Redknapp said of his first few weeks: "It was scary watching the players in training - I thought, 'what have I done?'."

Wholesale changes have followed with the old pros leavened by cluster of little-known imports and some promising youngsters.

Among the latter is Richard Hughes, scorer of the goal which beat Liverpool in the last round and a former Arsenal reserve. Highlighting the eclectic nature of the squad, he was raised in Milan by Scottish parents and signed to Atlanta's renowned youth system. Liam Brady brought him to Arsenal and though he realised he would not win a first-team place, he values his time at Highbury. Four years in Bournemouth's first team followed before Redknapp signed him for £50,000.

"I've not played Arsenal at any level since," Hughes said. "I'm looking forward to it." So is all Portsmouth.

"Let's be honest," Redknapp said. "We'd rather have got Tranmere at home, but we'll give them a good game. We're playing some good stuff. We'll have a go, that's for sure."