European Lessons (Part I)

By Jim Bonner
Last updated : 04 October 2008

Neville Dalton is a journalist with the BBC News website and a Portsmouth fan of 40 years. His expressed views are his and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Just got back from one of the most amazing days of my 41 years of supporting Pompey, and I thought I'd share with you some of the lessons I've learned from our first competitive match in Europe.

Pompey can hold their own in European competition

I'm sure there are better teams in the competition, and certainly teams with more experience of playing in Europe.

But last night Pompey were playing a pretty decent Portuguese side who managed to break up the monopoly of the country's big three last season to qualify for the early stages of this season's Champions League.

Yet over two legs, Pompey emerged the deserved victors, surviving a massive scare that seemed to panic them for a while, before slipping into a higher gear to see off their challenging opposition, in front of their noisy, fiercely partisan fans.

Pompey should have learned a lot from that first adventure, where a rethink of tactics; better execution; a more attacking mind-set, and superior teamwork and fitness saw them through.

And the best lessons will probably have been learned in those periods of adversity.

It's not just cricket matches that can spill into two days

When Peter Crouch fired home Pompey's equaliser after excellent work from Nadir Belhadj on the stroke of midnight, he became the first Pompey player to score a goal in a game which had started the previous day.

It was a ridiculous kick-off time, even by continental standards, and undoubtedly contributed to the disappointing size of the crowd for a game in which the home team kicked-off already two goals down.

It clearly didn't deter Pompey's amazing contingent who put up with the warm Portuguese sunshine, the even warmer Portuguese welcome and nigh-on a whole day's drinking time before getting to the match.

And therein was part of the problem. I understand the timing was to suit television, the real masters of the modern game.

But there was a time when football was for the fans, and the idea was to get as many as possible to go along and watch them.

But with school and work the next morning, the temptation to see whether Vitoria SC could overturn that first-leg deficit was never going to be an overwhelming one for the people of Guimaraes.

To be honest, it would not have mattered what time kick-off had been for Pompey fans.

If they could find the money and the time, they were always going to make the effort to embark on stage one of our European tour.

And with one exception (see below), they didn't let the fact that extra-time - followed by a shut-in - meant an anxious scramble to make the specially arranged late-night transport spoil their party.

Pompey fans know how to behave

We know they're good at drinking. We know they're supportive of the club and blindly loyal to it.

But in some people's minds - and I have to admit, I was in that number - the inviting combination of thirst-inducing sunshine and virtually a full day's drinking time before they even had to get to the ground, was a worrying mix to set before a crowd, many of whose pre-match ritual was to tuck away a pint or two - and squeeze in that extra one - before turning up at the ground.

I was fearing disaster, not least to Pompey's reputation and possibly to the mood surrounding the game, when I discovered that most Portsmouth fans would be given the opportunity of a full day's drinking in the sun before the match.

It wasn't helped when literature for the official Pompey travel arrangements flagged up the fact that Porto and Guimaraes had plenty of bars and restaurants to spend time in before kick-off.

I have been to enough away games to see what the effects of alcohol can be on some of Pompey's travelling support.

And it's not always appreciated by many of their more restrained fellow fans, let alone by the host towns and cities.

But even though the majority of the 3,000 or so who made the trip to northern Portugal could not quite bring themselves to politely decline the kind invitation of their hosts to sample the delights of the nation's hospitality industry, I saw very few examples of bad behaviour.

And I imagine the majority of residents of Porto and Guimaraes must have been delighted that their usual midweek takings were probably quadrupled while their cities were left pretty much unscathed.

I never thought I would say this, but on their first sojourn into Europe, Pompey fans were excellent ambassadors for the club, not just in the stands, where they already have a fine reputation, but in and around the cities, where they seemed to strike up a tremendous rapport with some of their hosts.

I'll never forget the local university students in Porto serenading us in a riverside pavement café with the whole gamut, from the Pompey Chimes, to One Pedro Mendes, and Stand Up If You Hate The Scum.

Even most of the hardest drinkers demonstrated how you can have a good time - a really good time - without resorting to violence, vandalism or generally boorish behaviour.

Pompey CAN manage a piss-up in a wine-making city

Memories of the Ticket Master fiascos, which themselves were probably an unfair slight on Pompey's organisational and administrative abilities these days, faded for those on the official Portsmouth Football Club excursions via Porto in conjunction with Thomson Sport.

I can speak only for the day-trip from Gatwick, but the coaches were there when they should have been; airport hassles were kept to a - necessary - minimum; transfers worked smoothly, and the stewards and travel reps all seemed to know what they were doing.

If this is an example of how Portsmouth Football Club is going to handle things for the club in Europe, roll on the Champions League!

We still don't have a squad with sufficient depth to cope with Europe as well

Yes, we won - and deservedly so. But not without a scare, caused largely by a combination of not quite getting our tactics right for handling with the demands of a second leg tie where we were already 2-0 up but facing a tigerish onslaught in the return leg, together with a depleted midfield that left us a bit short where it counted.

The attitude and application of Sean Davis and Richard Hughes has endeared them to Pompey fans.

Either can come in a do a pretty good job alongside the likes of Lassana Diarra.

But they are not Sulley Muntari - or even Gary O'Neil. And in an ideal world, with their lack of pace and limited creative skills, you wouldn't want to have to play them both in the same midfield.

But that is what Harry did (presumably because of the continuing injuries to Papa Bouba Diop and Niko Kranjcar), and with a less-than-fit Diarra alongside, it provided a canny and determined Vitoria side with the crucial initiative in midfield, in the first half at least.

The introduction of Arnold Mvuemba - together with the realisation that Pompey are better pushing forward to give their excellent strikers the support and opportunities they need - changed things around.

But after a gruelling 120 minutes, not ending until the early hours of Friday, you do fear for them against Stoke City on Sunday.

Ideally, Harry should rest half that team. But does he have the luxury of replacements who he can be confident will do as good a job?

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