It's All My Fault

Neville Dalton is a journalist and a Portsmouth fan of more than 40 years.

OK, confession time.

I feel it is my duty to fellow Pompey fans - particularly those who seem to be in no doubt as to who is responsible for our capitulation at Blackburn on Saturday, judging by the renewed outpouring of condemnation of our manager.

It was me. My fault. Mea culpa.

No, I wasn't actually at the match; I wasn't shouting instructions from behind David James' goal, telling the players not to pick up the opposition every time David Dunn took a corner or Benni McCarthy put over a cross.

And no, actually I wasn't responsible for convincing referee Andre Marriner that Pascal Chimbonda's swing at Jamie O'Hara wasn't a sending-off offence.

I'm afraid the reason I have to hold my hands up and admit to ending Pompey's mini-run of success is that I actually thought they would win yesterday - and said so.

Please forgive this irrational behaviour, this straying from the straight and narrow of limited expectation.

I have learned my lesson and won't be so careless (or carefree!) again in my assessment of Pompey's chances in the future.

This past month or so has been a revealing lesson about human nature, of how our perceptions of a situation and our expectations can so dramatically colour our reactions to what actually happens.

I've had no doubts about Pompey's destiny since long before the season began. The takeover saga that defined our summer left me concerned not only for the shape of the season to come but for our whole future (and to be honest, most of those worries remain, despite the litany of owners and investors we seem to have been involved with since).

I knew we were certainties for relegation as the clock ticked towards the start of the new season, uncertainty reigned in the boardroom and we still hadn't replaced any of the remaining quality players we'd been forced to sell to stand still.

It meant I approached the new season in surprisingly good spirits, resigned to our fate and looking forward to the occasional bright spot to illuminate the miserable winter ahead.

And boy, did that pay dividends! While most of you have been arguing among yourselves about which is Paul Hart's worst failing; whether the dearth of decent players or dire tactics was most responsible for our desperate position at the foot of the Premier League, I have been sitting back and enjoying so much more of this season than I could ever have imagined.

Yes, that's right. I'm actually enjoying this season. More than I have any for years.

Goal drought

Of course, there are experiences that just do not compare - winning the FA Cup, playing in Europe, watching world-class players perform superbly in Pompey shirts.

But with every up there was a down. Yes, our cup-winning campaign, which saw us achieve that second successive top-half finish was magnificent and memorable.

But anyone remember those six successive home games without a goal, let alone a win? That miserable spell leading up to the final when we failed to win in five games, throwing away an even higher Premier League finish?

And what of those two Wembley games? Weren't they among the most boring, unenterprising performances of the season? And against lower-league opposition at that?

Yes, they were all of those things - but that season gave us unimagined success, the like of which Pompey fans hadn't experienced for generations.

Maybe for most of us, the privilege of watching the likes of Muntari, Diarra, Defoe and Campbell, Distin and Johnson - not to mention witnessing the lads lift the FA Cup - consigned those other aspects to the dimmest recesses of our memories.

so. The majority of these past half-dozen years or so has been absolutely spectacular. Excitement and enjoyment beyond compare.

Except, it's almost impossible to detach yourself totally when you're experiencing these events in real time and view them in proper perspective.

History will record the early 2000s as one of the best periods in Pompey's 100-odd years.

The goal droughts, uninspired football, 4-5-1s (oh yes - there was plenty of that under Harry, lest we forget) will rightly be forgotten.

But they were very real at the time. We remember Benjani's hat-trick in the 7-4 goal-athon against Reading in September 2007.

We may recall the next league goals scored by Pompey at Fratton that season - another Benjani hat-trick against Derby County, in January 2008.

But at the time, we were also acutely aware of the 0-0 draws at home to West Ham, Manchester City and Everton, not to mention the home defeats to Spurs, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.

OK, it wasn't a crisis, but it felt pretty alarming suddenly to watch a team of highly paid, incredibly talented, footballers struggling to contrive a goal in the midst of our best season for more than half a century.

Now, if you want a crisis, think back to the 1970s (those of you who can), and the limited array of talent at the disposal of our seemingly limited managers.

Season after season of second-division mediocrity, broken only by successive relegations to the third and fourth divisions, before a long, slow climb back up the leagues, and eventual arrival in the Promised Land under the great Alan Ball.


But wait. Weren't there a few moments of excitement even among those years of dross?

I remember as a schoolboy jumping for joy at the emergence of a veritable goalscoring machine, Andy Stewart, who threatened to produce as productive a little-and-large partnership with Big Ron Davies as we were to anticipate again 30 years later when Mark Burchill teamed up with Peter Crouch in a team that Harry Redknapp was to tell us later was one of the worst we Pompey fans had ever seen!

I recall David Kemp's goalscoring oasis in a desert of mediocrity; Alan Biley's similar contribution a decade or so later - not to mention in-between an experience I had never previously known… promotion. Not once, but twice!

It's all about expectation, I tell you.

Looking back now, these all seem pretty tame fare compared with what we've been used to in recent years. But they were magical moments at the time.

Just like our debut Premier League season wins over Manchester United and Liverpool were, even though we briefly flirted with relegation.

And our thrashing of Southampton was during what many fans regard as our worst season in the top flight, under Velimir Zajec and Alain Perrin.

The point I'm making is that it is very hard to be objective and keep your expectations realistic when you are being carried along on a wave of success - or usually in Pompey's case, relative success.

Which is why I am enjoying this season so much.

You see, the most miserable Pompey season I can remember was not one of those 1970s or 1980s ones but last term.

The upheaval caused by Redknapp's departure, our constant selling of the players who had made us such a cracking team, the fiasco under Tony Adams and the dire days under Paul Hart made 2008/9 a thoroughly depressing time, in football terms.

When the extent of the club's financial mess became clearer (I won't say clear, as even now we're not privy to the real details), I adjusted my ever-plummeting sights still more and resigned myself to a season (if we were lucky to last that long) of thumping defeats under a myopic manager with poor players.

And yes, though the thrashings didn't materialise, our opening games this term suggested we were indeed in for a long, hard season.

But even then there were encouraging signs - not for everyone; not for those who actually believed Pompey had a hope in Hell's chance of staying up this season.

But for the likes of me, who knew we were on a highway to nowhere, the way we played against Arsenal at The Emirates gave me hope - not that we would stay up, but that we might not be in for such a depressing season after all.

Yes, we were indeed well beaten (though not as well as several subsequent visitors to north London); our midfield and defence were torn apart almost at will (as have many better ones since).

But we were not afraid to take the game to our superior opponents. We actually looked pretty good going forward, stringing together some impressive little moves in midfield and attack.

Generally, things have continued to improve. Not so much the results, but our performances.

I'm not one to bemoan how we should have won games because we played better, but I did share some of Hart's post-match observations that we should take encouragement from many of our narrow defeats.

We have played some spirited, sometimes impressive football - and equally refreshingly, it has been played by surprisingly good players.

The victories over Stoke and Wigan were among the best performances I have witnessed under a Pompey team for years.

The quality of football was as good as - if not better - than most of what we played in our super season of a year or two back, although I fully acknowledge the limited nature of the opposition.

It might have been more effective under Harry that year - but so it should have been, with the likes of Diarra, Muntari, Mendes and Defoe at our disposal.

Hart has none of them, and that's not his fault (although I concede substitution decisions and tactics "on the hoof" are).

But our football has been largely flowing and positive, particularly at home. And for that I am extremely grateful to Hart, who has magnificently thrown back in my face some of the criticism (totally justified at the time, I might add) I hurled at him last season.

Of course those of us expecting victories are understandably still going to condemn this current era.

We're still bottom, still losing most weeks, and still playing the likes of Aaron Mokoena, Michael Brown and Marc Wilson - none of whom could have hoped to get near the first time in our halcyon days.

But if you can do as I did, and equate our prospects to our financial situation and the incredibly limited resources at our disposal, you can actually enjoy this season!

Just remember, one day we may just be grateful for the memories of these desperate days.