Knight's longest crusade

Andrew Baker talks to a dedicated goalkeeper clinging to his glory dreams
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The Independent Online
Everyone knows that Alan Knight has been Portsmouth's goalkeeper for a long time. But the entry on the International honours board in the club's bar still came as a surprise. "A. Knight" it read. "1919-20, England v Ireland." "Actually," Richard Owen, the club's historian, pointed out, "that's another Knight, Arthur. But it's an easy mistake to make."

Alan Knight in fact joined Portsmouth in 1977, making his debut against Rotherham in April of the next year. It was a match of little account to the club, because they had already been relegated to the Fourth Division. But Knight kept a clean sheet, the first of very, very many.

The manager then was Jimmy Dickinson, who was the club's greatest player in the 1940s, so Knight is a living, playing link with the club's greatest years.

Knight looks young for his 35 years, and sports a trendy goatee beard as if to advertise his youthfulness. Junior keepers have tried to replace him, without success. Most recently Terry Fenwick, Pompey's current manager, handed the keeper's jersey to Aaron Flaheven. "That was a difficult time for me, earlier this season," Knight recalled. "But Aaron is still only a young lad, and he had a dip in confidence and I got back in and things have gone well since then."

So well that the club are in the running for a play-off place. More importantly, they face Chelsea today in the quarter- finals of the FA Cup, giving Knight another chance to realise a dream that was cruelly denied in 1992, when Liverpool beat Portsmouth in the semi-final on penalties. They were the first side to forgo a Wembley appearance as a result of a shoot-out, and Knight will never forget it.

"It was a sad way to go. I remember walking into the dressing-room after the game and it was the most desolate sight I had ever seen. I said to some of the lads, 'You're young enough, you'll get another chance'. But I thought that was it for me."

It is doubly appropriate that Knight's second chance of glory in the FA Cup should come against Chelsea. One reason is that he overtook a Chelsea player, Peter Bonetti, to become the keeper who has played the most games for one club (Knight's current tally is 631 league matches). The other reason is that he might never have broken the record if, as Chelsea wished, he had joined them a few years ago.

"There was a chance I could have gone there a while back," Knight said, stirring two spoons of sugar into his post-training tea. "But the clubs couldn't agree and Pompey didn't have cover for me. My career seems to be full of almosts." He is stoical about missing the chance to be with Gullit and Co. "Ten or 15 years ago I would've got the right hump about it, but now I think that's just the way things go."

With the sale of the club to Terry Venables, Portsmouth doesn't seem such a bad place to be. The outlook is certainly brighter than it was when Knight first pulled on the No 1 shirt in the Seventies. "When I arrived the club was in a bit of a bad way," Knight remembered. "Eventually we came within a few hours of going out of existence. People were saying recently that we were slipping into the old ways again, but now the chairman's come along and hopefully things are changing financially. I'm just glad I'm still part of it."

Venables has so far restricted his activities to off-field matters, but he worked with the players on Friday, suggesting one or two things that might trouble his former club. But Knight seemed keen to downplay the Venables effect. "I don't think Chelsea will be too worried by all that," he said.

How much longer Knight will stay a Pompey player will be another matter for Venables. The keeper is out of contract at the end of the season and has yet to discuss his future with the club. "It's possible that I could find myself down at the Job Centre with a Cup medal in my pocket. But I reckon I've got a couple more years. I just want to get the Cup game out of the way, and then I'll talk to the club."

Outside the ground fans waited for autographs. "Knighty's dedicated to the club," said one, Dwane Ahearn. "He's saved so many goals. He should get the MBE or OBE or something. If it wasn't for him we wouldn't be where we are. I spoke to him once. I said, 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again'." This afternoon, he will.