Knight rides on to eternal youth

Stephen Brenkley meets a long-serving goalkeeper renewing local rivalries today
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The Independent Online
AT THE start of this season sporting quiz buffs were poised on the buzzer preparing to change one of their stock answers. Alan Knight was out of the Portsmouth football team and at the age of 34, after 18 years and 578 league appearances, transfer or retirement beckoned.

In either of those circumstances, the mantle of current longest-serving one-club man in the English game would have been passed on. However, nobody hangs around penalty areas for as long as Knight has done without picking up a few tips on perseverance, determination and self-belief. Within a month he was restored as Pompey's goalkeeper and his dedicated tenure is by now firmly re-established.

Last Monday he took his number of league matches to 600, equalling a record set by Peter Bonetti for a goalkeeper with one club. Today, Knight will be in the line-up, as usual, for the FA Cup third-round tie between Portsmouth and Southampton.

The match is crucial to reviving the ailing seasons of both sides and the intensity is hardly likely to be reduced by a derby rivalry that makes the behaviour of fans from different Mancunian or Liverpudlian camps look like that of long-lost brothers. They have been given thankfully rare opportunities to show the depth of their feelings, the Hampshire sides having spent only nine seasons of their league existences in the same division.

"I think the young players have probably been shocked by the level of it," Knight said. "It's not something they expect outside the big city clubs but it's there and it goes back a long, long way. It's important not to let too much of that show on the field because certain sections of the fans despise each other."

Knight speaks from experience. He played in the last FA Cup match between the sides, in 1984. Portsmouth lost, conceding the only goal in time added on to make up for a stoppage when a coin was thrown at the Southampton player, Mark Dennis. And during a friendly for Knight's testimonial in 1994, there were brawls in the city centre and outside the ground.

But the faithful goalkeeper, it is easy to discern, is relishing the prospect of a contest which could once more lead to the bittersweet taste of the big time. He last savoured it four years ago when Portsmouth beat Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup sixth round and played Liverpool in the semi-final.

"We went ahead in extra time," he said. "There were two minutes left, if that, when they got a free-kick. John Barnes took it, I could do no more than get a hand to it and touched it on to the woodwork. I can still see Ronnie Whelan across the other side of the goal tapping in the rebound."

He has played 704 matches, but that solitary incident in one of them will probably stay lodged in his mind. In the replay which Whelan's equaliser necessitated, Pompey hit the bar through Alan McLoughlin in the 87th minute but the score remained at 0-0 after extra time. Liverpool became the first club to reach the final in a penalty shoot-out.

Wembley may never be so close again but Knight, who first appeared at 16 and will be 35 in July, still harbours ambitions for himself and Portsmouth. Having regained his place he envisages remaining with the club - league champions in 1949 and 1950 - for which he had played in four divisions of the Football League before the formation of the Premiership. "Things aren't very settled off the field at the moment," he said. "But when they're sorted out I'd love us to get into the Premiership with a side to stay there. Of course, whether I play in it or not is a different matter.

"All goalkeepers like to go on until they're 40 these days and I'm no different. If push had come to shove earlier in the season I'd have been prepared to go elsewhere. It would have been hard after so long but I want to keep playing."

Perhaps even until he is the answer to the quiz question about the longest- serving one-club man of all time.