In 2003-2004, Portsmouth made their Premier League debut after storming to the First Division title in the previous season. Former West Ham United manager Harry Redknapp was the man behind the revival at Fratton Park, ably supported by ex-Derby County boss Jim Smith.
Portsmouth made an incredible start, staying unbeaten in their first five matches and topping the table briefly in mid-August. A catalogue of injuries in mid-season threatened to derail the campaign but a South Coast Derby victory over Southampton in March was the catalyst for a brilliant run towards the end of the season. Pompey finished in a creditable 13th and ahead of some bigger established sides too.
Squad: Shaka Hislop, Pavel Srnicek (Left in February 2004), Harald Wapenaar, Linvoy Primus, Boris Zivkovic (Left in January 2004), Dejan Stefanovic, Hayden Foxe, Arjan de Zeeuw, Sebastien Schemmel, Richard Duffy, John Curtis, Petri Pasanen, Kevin Harper, Tim Sherwood, Nigel Quashie, Amdy Faye, Matt Taylor, Carl Robinson, Steve Stone, Richard Hughes, Gary O’Neil, Alexey Smertin, Patrik Berger, Eyal Berkovic, Vincent Pericard, Svetoslav Todorov, Deon Burton, Ivica Mornar, Lomana Lualua, Teddy Sheringham, Yakubu, Jason Roberts (Left in January 2004)
Early experience pays off
In pre-season, Portsmouth ensured that they would have some useful experience amongst their ranks. First to arrive was former Czech international Patrik Berger, whose contract had expired at Liverpool FC. Berger was also joined by Teddy Sheringham who was in a similar predicament after his second stint at Tottenham Hotspur had come to an end. Neither cost any money and Redknapp wasted no time in getting both added by the end of June.
Further experience arrived from abroad. Boris Zivkovic was another free capture transfer from the Bundesliga. He’d helped Bayer 04 Leverkusen reach the UEFA Champions League final in 2002. Also arriving before the big kick-off was Amdy Faye for an estimated £1.5 million from Auxerre and ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender Dejan Stefanovic from Vitesse Arnhem for £1.85 million. Portsmouth had done some smart business in the summer transfer window.
However, one of their talismanic figures from the previous season wouldn’t be sticking around. Despite captaining the side to their First Division title success, Paul Merson left in July, returning to the second-tier with Walsall. The main reason was to move closer to his family who were based in the Midlands. When paying tribute to his departing captain, Redknapp admitted: “He doesn’t feel he can play in the Premier now and I think he knows himself better than anybody. He said he played in the Premier League two years ago and found it difficult, so he certainly didn’t think it was going to be easier now.”
Portsmouth made a brilliant start to their maiden Premier League campaign and only their second top-flight experience in the last 45 years. They kicked off the campaign with a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at home to Aston Villa. Sheringham opened the scoring before half-time and Berger finished off a flowing team move to double the lead just after the hour mark. Gareth Barry did score a late consolation from the penalty spot but was sent off before full-time and Pompey had their first win on opening day.
The form continued in their next home match, where Sheringham truly rolled back the years. The veteran forward scored a second half hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers and the first treble of the 2003-2004 season. The 4-0 victory took Portsmouth briefly to the top of the table for 24 hours. Three away draws made it an excellent opening and one of those points gained was at Highbury. Sheringham again scoring to keep his rich vein of form going and Arsenal’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw was through a disputed penalty where Robert Pires went down under the challenge of Arjan de Zeeuw even though it looked like the Frenchman had tripped himself up. Thierry Henry converted the spot-kick and Redknapp was not amused. Nevertheless, it was a very encouraging start.
TABLE ON 15th September 2003
Slipping down the table
Portsmouth’s first defeat in their Premier League history came a week later when they were beaten 2-1 by Blackburn Rovers on home soil. At Fratton Park, they were formidable and not many sides enjoyed great success on the south coast throughout the season. In fact, they lost only five home matches all season and out of the teams that struggled all campaign, only Leicester City and Everton left with all three points.
Home form saw a couple of major scalps along the way. Liverpool FC visited Fratton Park in mid-October and left with a 1-0 defeat against their name. Against his former club, Berger scored the only goal of the game after four minutes. Three weeks later, Leeds United were destroyed 6-1 in a result that saw Peter Reid lose his job as Leeds boss. The win still remains Portsmouth’s biggest margin of victory in their Premier League history. Gary O’Neil scored twice on the day and he was one of the most consistent performers in the squad all season.
It was a different story away from home with a familiar tale of no points and no goals to show for their efforts. Redknapp and his team endured pointless and goalless trips to Birmingham City, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Chelsea.
When Southampton cruised to a 3-0 victory in the first South Coast Derby match of the season just before Christmas, Portsmouth had dropped into the bottom three after a run of one win in eight games. The early season optimism had somewhat got sour. With a growing injury list, fresh faces were added to the ranks in the January transfer window.
Still no away joy
Boxing Day did bring some light relief. A second half double from Berger helped Pompey to a 2-0 home victory against an out-of-form Tottenham Hotspur side. The opening of the January window gave the experienced Portsmouth manager the opportunity to refresh and reenergise his side.
Creative midfielder Eyal Berkovic was the first addition, coming in after he’d fallen out of favour with Kevin Keegan at Manchester City. Berkovic was one of six additions in a busy window. Also arriving were Lomana Lualua on-loan from Newcastle United, defender John Curtis on a free transfer from Leicester City and Croatian international forward Ivica Mornar for £400,000 from Anderlecht.
Exiting the club was Zivkovic. The Croatian had featured 18 times in the Premier League but a public spat with Redknapp led to the defender being released. A return ticket to the Bundesliga awaited him, as he joined VfB Stuttgart who were still competing in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds.
However, there was still no away joy. Portsmouth put in one of their best away displays of the campaign at White Hart Lane in early February against Tottenham. They equalised three times on the afternoon with new signings Berkovic, Lualua and Mornar all finding the back of the net. However, Gus Poyet’s 89th minute strike gave Spurs a fortunate 4-3 victory. By 20th March, Portsmouth were in desperate trouble. Just one win in 2004 in the Premier League left them in the bottom three with 10 games to play and two points adrift of safety. Victory was paramount in their next fixture against bitter rivals Southampton.
South Coast Derby revenge
On an afternoon in mixed conditions with sunshine and hailstorms, Portsmouth simply had to win the second South Coast Derby of the season. It was only Paul Sturrock’s second match as Southampton manager and he ended up on the losing side. Steve Stone’s cross found Yakubu and the Nigerian settled a scrappy contest in the 68th minute in Pompey’s favour. The 1-0 win was the lift-off needed for a fantastic end to the season.
A week later, the away hoodoo was finally broken. Yakubu, who would finish as the club’s top scorer in the league with 16 goals, struck the decisive goal in the 82nd minute for a 2-1 win on the road at Blackburn Rovers. It was a massive victory for the travelling faithful and took Portsmouth out of the bottom three for the first time since mid-January. They wouldn’t fall into it again for the remainder of the season.
In fact, Portsmouth lost only one of their last 10 fixtures and that was on the penultimate weekend away at already relegated Leicester City. Survival had already been clinched a week earlier by a 1-1 home draw with Fulham, whilst other results condemned the Foxes and Wolverhampton Wanderers. One of the season’s main highlights was a home victory over outgoing champions Manchester United. Stone scored his only goal of the season in the 1-0 win. Out of the division’s final top 10 – only Chelsea and Charlton Athletic claimed all three points on their visits to Fratton Park.
Portsmouth and in particular, Yakubu finished the season in the grand manner at home to Middlesbrough. The forward scored four goals and Sheringham concluded his one-season stay with an 80th minute goal in the 5-1 win over Boro. Portsmouth finished in 13th and ahead of four clubs on much bigger budgets in Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and Everton.
It had been a very successful debut season in the Premier League for Portsmouth and a reminder of how good a manager Harry Redknapp was.
FINAL 2003-2004 TABLE – 11th to 16th