WHEN AC MILAN CAME TO PORTSMOUTH
Ten years ago today, Portsmouth hosted AC Milan. The Rossoneri. Seven-times Champions League winners. Winners of eighteen Scudetti. And they were playing a stone’s throw away from my house.
A draw against one of the best sides in the world with Glen Little starting. Younès Kaboul smashing a header past Dida. Papa Bouba Diop and Richard Hughes occupying the midfield alongside Gennaro Gattuso and Emerson. A creaking Kanu up top making it 2–0. 2–0! Against AC fucking MILAN.
But, that’s when Portsmouth snapped out of dreamland and reality returned. Having gone 2–0 up, Filippo Inzaghi’s last-minute equaliser should have disheartened the 19,703 Pompey fans in attendance. It didn’t. This was our Portsmouth’s moment. The kind of moment that only a Thursday night televised game on Channel 5 can bring. Yes, I’ll be telling my grandkids about it.
Following the classic chants of “Who are ya?” and “His teeth are offside”, Ronaldinho scored a free kick that only Ronaldinho could score to bring one back. Distance didn’t come into the equation for the goofy genius who, while in the twilight of his first-class football career, was still better than anyone else on the pitch when he wanted to be. Thirty yards out, last five minutes? No worries. David James was a very good ‘keeper by Pompey standards, but it may as well have been a penalty—he didn’t get anywhere near it.
Just look at the way Ronaldinho attacks that ball: five steps, full tilt from an angle, full-body whip, David James left floating in the air, momentum taking him a good five yards past his post, throwing everything he could to stop it. When you hit a ball like that, a goal is inevitable.
But it was what the Brazilian said after the game that will be remembered forever on the south coast. “The best atmosphere in the world of football.” That’s what a Ballon d’Or winner—a genuine legend of the game—said about Fratton Park. He would have walked past our trophy cabinet and laughed. Not only had this man won more than any of our team, he’d won more in his two years at Barcelona than our club had since 1898.
The match was massively hyped, of course. AC Milan coming to town in the only season your club will probably ever play in Europe is a special occasion. Tickets sold out immediately, and little 11-year-old me missed out. It was heartbreaking. I’d been there for Pompey’s first ever European game at Fratton Park, a 2–0 win over Vitória Guimarães, and it was incredible. Before the game, we walked round to the away entrance to see the away fans because they were Portuguese. It all felt so alien to me—foreign away fans at Fratton Park. We’d won the FA Cup just a few months before but this was different, it was Europe. I needed more.
But I’d survive missing one game. When I say I lived ‘almost a stone’s throw away’ from the stadium, I literally mean it. I went to buy the programme and was even treated to a burger from one of the catering vans at the end of my road. I didn’t have a ticket, but I still had that pre-match buzz. AC Milan were in town, and I was just two roads over.
I don’t think anyone in Pompey was ready for what was to come, though. We’re an optimistic bunch, but no-one would have said we’d do what we did. At school, we spent our breaks scoring as Shevchenko and Kaka, after school, we went to the park to do the same. It was all anyone spoke about.
Thursday nights aren’t meant for football, but mum didn’t care about missing Corrie that night. Dad didn’t care about my homework, either. With all the doors and windows shut, we had to turn the game up on the TV to drown out the garbled sounds of the game around the corner. Sat in front of this fat silver telly. Not even on a HD channel because this was 2008 and things like that were yet to be invented. As an 11-year-old, it’s hard to grasp what football truly means but I think that was the night I understood. Yeah, I was comfy on the new leather sofas we’d got, a night with the heating on and drinks and snacks served to my seat. But it meant fuck all. I wanted to be out there in the cold on a rock hard seat half occupied by the fat guy next to me (not you, dad). These days might never come back again.
We knew what had happened before it had happened. It’s a weird feeling when you’re celebrating a goal you haven’t seen go in. Running round the living room, your dad throwing you around while Glen Johnson’s got the ball 30 yards from goal. Mum clapping away, playing it cool but we know she loves Pompey. I thought it was only a game, mum?
It was brilliant for us but must’ve been odd for Milan. Imagine being one of their players, off the plane and rocking up in your Dolce & Gabbana suit to be greeted with a massive sheet of tin. If you’ve never seen Fratton Park, it’s a bit of a strange one. A timeless Archibald Leitch design blesses one side, but that’s not what the Rossoneri would have seen: the players’ entrance looked more like a B&Q than the B&Q opposite the ground. Che mucchio di merda.
You’re stood on the pitch waiting for kick-off, and all you can hear is “PLAYYYYYYY UP POMPEYYYYYYYYYY, POMPEYYYY PLAY UPPPPPPP”. They think: Isn’t that the place that got destroyed by a volcano? Well, thank God it’s only Portsdown Hill overlooking Portsmouth and not Mount Vesuvius because PO4 was shaking.
And I’m sorry; I have to mention Glenn Little again. Armand Traoré was on the other wing. Richard Hughes through the middle. Not exactly a daunting sight for the likes of Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko. There were only six substitutes named. We made subs; they made subs: ours were Arnold Mvuemba and Sean Davis. They brought on Alexandre Pato, Clarence Seedorf, and Ronaldinho. Glen Johnson turned up just 10 minutes before kick-off—still got two assists though, didn’t he?
Each team has a moment that defines them. A moment that you can talk about with fans of other teams and they know exactly what you’re talking about because that was your team’s place in the public discourse: that night at Fratton was ours, but I’d like to think it was a moment for every ‘smaller’ club.
It wasn’t 11 v 11 that night ten years ago; it was 19,714 v 11. A whole city v 11. Portsmouth FC may have drawn with AC Milan, but Portsmouth won. If you turn up and sing your heart out, your team can do anything. Even with Glen Little down the wing. I’ve had a lot of great nights as a Pompey fan and a lot of really bloody shit nights as well, but, ten years ago tonight, I had my proudest.
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