Sheri the toast in Harry's dream return

Portsmouth 2 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

Mrs Thatcher was in power when Portsmouth were last performing among the élite. Since then, until the arrival of Harry Houdini, aka Redknapp, the fortunes of the men in blue had waned to a similar level as their political counterparts in a stadium which, despite some modernisation, still resembles a museum piece. Even the cobwebs look as though they have been around since 1898, the year of the club's formation.

There was a performance to blow them away yesterday on an afternoon when there was a new vibrancy about the old place. The smallest and by far the most unprepossessing of Premiership stadiums, due to be replaced by a new model in time, does have its advantages. The crowd, a touch over 20,000 of them, make it an intimidating presence for visiting teams, and better sides than Villa will succumb to the passion of the Pompey chimers.

"Making dreams come true" reads the slogan on the side of the old Fratton End stand, and two of Portsmouth's new-comers, Teddy Sheringham, released by Tottenham, and Patrick Berger, acquired from Liverpool, succeeded in achieving just that as they blessed Portsmouth's reintroduction to the top division with a goal in each half. It was a merited victory, too, though the visitors contributed to their own dismal start to the season with a rearguard display which cannot have impressed their manager, David O'Leary, making his managerial debut for Villa.

A late, debatable penalty from captain-for-the-day Gar-eth Barry, who four minutes later was ordered off for swearing at a linesman, left a scoreline which suggests a close encounter. That was never the case, though you would never have known it from the demeanour of Redknapp, who afterwards adopted that typical "gawd knows how we're going to survive" manner of his. "It was important to get off to a winning start, but my squad is nowhere near strong enough," he lamented. "If we get injuries, we'll struggle."

Sure, sure. We've heard it all before, Harry. Certainly, it won't always be as comfortable as this, but one suspects that the squad he has assembled, supervised by himself and the wily Jim Smith, is more than capable of troubling those clubs at the fag end of the division.

Portsmouth, like Chelsea, have made seven summer acquisitions. Unlike Roman Abramovich's investments, 70 miles up the A3, this is rather less of a revolution and rather more of a small uprising; a mere £3.4m being spent by Redknapp on behalf of his chairman, Milan Mandaric. There were no fewer than five newcomers in the home starting line-up: the Croatian midfielder Boris Zivkovic; the Serbian centre-back Dejan Stefan-ovich; the Czech midfielder Berger; the Senegalese midfielder Amdy Faye; and the 37-year-old former Tottenham and Manchester United forward Sheringham.

Yet Redknapp, as we have observed before, is the master of doing up his version of "dodgy" motors: little-known young foreign models; those established but unwanted players who could perform better with a little tinkering; and the likes of Sheringham, whose engines have been well round the clock already.

Faye, who was purchased from Auxerre, and played against Arsenal in the Champions' League last season, appears an astute acquisition, a ball-winner who distributes intelligently. He was instrumental in Portsmouth's first goal three minutes before the interval, claiming the ball in a challenge before finding Berger, who fashioned a chance for the Nigerian striker Aiyegbeni Yakubu, who evaded an insipid tackle from Alpay. His effort was parried by Thomas Sorensen in the visitors' goal, but Sheringham followed in to score a facile opener.

Strangely, O'Leary had dropped the Swede Olof Mellberg, a stalwart last season, and captain, installed Alpay alongside Ronny Johnsen in central defence and deployed Barry in central midfield as well as making him skipper. The man capped six times by England responded with an industrious, if hardly inspired, performance in the first half, during which Villa looked marginally the better side. It was Barry's excellent free-kick which offered his side their best chance, only for Alpay to head wide at the far post.

For much of the first period it was frantic, foot-in stuff, with little heed for an opponent's good health. Gavin McCann, a close-season signing by O'Leary, and Barry had to receive treatment to head wounds, the former playing on with a head bandage, which seeped blood.

After the interval, Yakubu was thwarted by Sorensen and then, just after the hour, was involved again, chesting down Steve Stone's cross for Berger to whip the ball through two poor challenges before placing it past Sorensen. "The bottom line is about defending well and taking chances, and we did neither," O'Leary said. "We're not a great enough team to give anybody a two-goal start."

There looked a possibility, though, when Barry went down in the area after appearing to have kicked the ground, although Zivkovic was apparently adjudged to have nicked him from behind, and put the penalty away with confidence. But soon afterwards Barry was dismissed with a straight red, and with it disappeared Villa's hopes of extracting a point. "He's let himself down, and his team-mates down," O'Leary acknowledged. "But he's a winner, and he's said some things through frustration. He has apologised now to the official."

Frankly, the whole Villa team deserve to apologise to the travelling faithful. As for Redknapp, he must only put his hands up to being unnecessarily pessimistic. But that's Harry for you. The Pompey dream of survival may just become reality.

Portsmouth 2 Aston Villa 1
Sheringham 42, Berger 63; Barry pen 84

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 20,101

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