Portsmouth play Cardiff City for the FA Cup today in their first major Wembley final for 69 years.
For Harry Redknapp, their 61-year-old manager, the wait has been almost as long. Although there will be plenty of neutral backing for Championship side Cardiff, who are appearing in their first Cup final since taking the trophy to Wales in 1927, few would begrudge Redknapp a moment of glory.
The Englishman, who this season steered Portsmouth to an impressive eighth place in the Premier League, has often been portrayed as a lovable wheeler-dealer and there is no doubt he is an effective operator in the transfer market. Tony Pulis, who this season guided Stoke City to automatic promotion to the Premier League, having started out as Redknapp’s assistant at Bournemouth, told the Times last week: “I’ve worked with the cleverest manager who has ever lived in Harry Redknapp. I’ve seen him talk Arabs into buying sand.”
But a shadow was cast over Redknapp’s business dealings when, in November, he was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting, as part of a police probe into soccer corruption, before being bailed. Redknapp, who vehemently denies any wrongdoing, is convinced the police’s action cost him any chance he had of becoming England manager, at a time when he was the leading home grown candidate for the job.
What is not in dispute, is that Redknapp has an excellent eye for a young player — at West Ham United he nurtured the careers of future England internationals Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole among others. And he is equally adept at getting the most out of the likes of veterans such as rejuvenated England goalkeeper David James and Sol Campbell, when many pundits were convinced the duo’s best days were behind them.
Redknapp is also more tactically astute than he is often given credit for. During their 1-0 semi-final win over West Bromwich Albion, where their winner was scored by Kanu, another player whose career was revived by Redknapp, Portsmouth were outplayed in the first half. But Redknapp changed their formation and Portsmouth, whose 1939 FA Cup final win came shortly before the start of World War II, have a shot at taking the trophy back to Fratton Park for only the second time in their history.
When Redknapp arrived at Portsmouth for the first time in 2002, they had just spent several seasons narrowly avoiding relegation to the third tier of English soccer. But 14 months later, they were promoted as champions.
A falling out with then Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric led to a short stint with arch south coast rivals Southampton, before he returned to Portsmouth with the club facing relegation. But an extraordinary run of 20 points from 10 games saved them from the drop.
Portsmouth’s recent form has been poor. They lost their final four games of the Premier League season and have gone three matches without scoring, all encouraging signs for Cardiff as they try to become the first side from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup since West Ham in 1980.
Pompey head to Wembley knowing that England striker Jermain Defoe, who has scored eight goals in 12 games since Redknapp signed him during the January transfer window from Tottenham Hotspur, is unavailable because he is cup-tied. Quite where their next goal is coming from is a worry for Portsmouth fans, who this weekend hope their club can win its first major trophy for 58 years since claiming the second of their successive English titles.