Time for the spirit of 2002 – time to leave League Two

The Pompey players celebrate Deon Burton's opener in the 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest in 2002
The Pompey players celebrate Deon Burton's opener in the 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest in 2002

The abiding memory remains Paul Hart tearing into a Nottingham Post journalist with the pair positioned mid-way up Fratton Park’s South stand.

Well, for me, anyway.

Certainly unfortunate, particularly considering the immense significance to Pompey of the 90 minutes which had earlier unfolded.

Hart’s mood at that moment was brutal, foaming at the mouth over a question surrounding his decision to leave promising youngster Craig Westcarr on Forest’s bench during their 2-0 defeat.

The ferocity of that one-sided exchange stubbornly continues to be lodged in the mind, even if it did occur 13 years ago this very weekend.

In years to come he would repeat such antics in my company, incidentally, with me on the receiving end.

The final occasion involved issuing a Pompey ban.

As for Westcarr, his affiliation with being a substitute continued upon joining the Blues last season, to the point a picture of a park bench would occupy his Twitter profile.

Thankfully, the Fratton faithful will gloriously reminisce over far more important incidents which arrived that day. Good, good times.

In August 2002, a crowd of 18,910 rolled up for the Division One curtain raiser in the hope of being entertained by Harry Redknapp’s transformed playing squad.

The starting line-up consisted of eight debutants, among them a player who had signed earlier in the week – Paul Merson.

And so began the 2002-03 campaign, the last time Pompey fans savoured a promotion-winning side.

In the ensuing years there have also been one FA Cup win, two FA Cup finals, one Community Shield final, one excursion into the Uefa Cup and three relegations.

Regardless, history shows the Blues have won promotion only five times since the end of the Second World War.

An indicator of how rare such feats occur and a gauge which indicates such a constant ambition is tough to achieve, irrespective of the level.

Today, 13 years on from that 2-0 victory over Forest and Hart’s journalist-induced meltdown, we will be gathered at Fratton Park for a first match of the season, this time Dagenham & Redbridge forming the opposition.

What’s more, the same giddy-anticipation levels will also be present as fans crave climbing out of a division for what could potentially be a sixth time in 70 years.

Pressure then for Paul Cook, albeit a manager not shy of proclaiming his promotion target to stoke up the feel-good factor which has swept the city upon his appointment.

In these days of footballing impatience, however, it remains to be seen how long such optimism will be retained and before those chest-beating cheers tumble into a grumble.

As Cook himself jokes, minutes into his maiden friendly at the Hawks he heard a voice behind the dugout mutter disgruntedly ‘Same old Pompey’.

Still, during a summer of fervent recruitment, 14 new players have arrived, while 14 have departed, with the Blues boss given complete control over his squad, budget permitting of course.

They will be unleashed on the Daggers this afternoon as the latest batch attempts to spark a successful season.

Perhaps now is not the right time to reflect on August 2013 against Oxford United amid similar sentiment – a day which attracted a 18,181 crowd.

Unfortunately, what followed was a crushing 4-1 home defeat, consisting of a Johnny Ertl red card and shaky performances from full-backs Yassin Moutaouakil and Dan Butler.

So much for racing out of the starting blocks – Pompey went on to win only two of their opening nine League Two fixtures.

Incidentally, the last time Pompey won a first league fixture was a 3-0 triumph over Blackburn in August 2006.

Still, far happier times on August 10, 2002, upon the visit of Forest in a match which would not only shape the future of the Blues but also several of their players.

Among the starting line-up was central defender Arjan De Zeeuw, a left-back from Luton Town called Matt Taylor and, of course, Merson.

A notable absentee was Svetoslav Todorov, suspended from a red card at Preston the previous season. He would go on to net 26 goals in 48 games that campaign.

Also, no sign of the all-conquering wing-back system – that arrived two games later at half-time while 2-0 down at Crystal Palace.

Instead, Pompey lined-up in a 4-3-1-2, with Merson in the hole behind Deon Burton, who had signed on the eve of the match, and a loanee from Juventus in Vincent Pericard.

Both strikers would score in that opening 45 minutes and put Redknapp’s side on the path towards a staggering nine victories and one draw in their opening 10 fixtures.

In fact, Pompey subsequently lost just once at Fratton Park from that moment until the start of November, when Leicester City triumphed in a game of water polo.

They would go on to win the Division One title with 98 points and a goal difference of plus 52 to join the post-war promotion feats of 1986-87, 1982-83, 1979-80 and 1962-63.

Back to the present day and the expectations are rolled out once again. Maybe, yes maybe, this can be the year.

Since departing the Premier League in 2010, the club have not finished higher than 13th in any division. Neither has it deserved to.

Any similar outcome in the forthcoming campaign would be deeply unpalatable to all concerned at Pompey.

So here we go again – now it’s over to Cook and Co.