Pompey, Charlton's game in hand and Plough Lane... it all sounds horribly familiar
Friday, 30th Apr 2021 07:26 by Steve Bone
I'm having flashbacks to 1986 and they're not too pleasant. Not just because they feature The Chicken Song from Spitting Image and Cliff and the Young Ones singing Livin' Doll for the first-ever Comic Relief (actually I say that but, as charities records go, that wasn't a bad one in my opinion). No, my aversion to being reminded of events of exactly 35 years ago is more because the memories feature, in this order: Pompey locked in a promotion race with Charlton, Charlton having an extra game to play and Plough Lane looming large in the whole messy scenario.
This 2021 race for the last play-off spot – though at the time of writing it's still actually and factually a clamour for three places between six clubs – is bringing me out in a cold sweat because, for those of us of a certain age and with long memories (and which football fans don't have long memories where bad luck, disaster or injustice is concerned?) it's all about too much like the conclusion to the season back in the the the year when the Hand of God helped win the World Cup and Sam Fox first got into the charts.
Pompey had started the 85-86 campaign like a train, and not a Southern Rail one either. In Alan Ball's second attempt at promotion from Division Two (the Championship in old money, for any youngsters tuning in) the Blues were described in the final week of October, after a 4-0 win at The Den, by then Millwall manager George Graham as 'certs for the title'.
Well, we had news for him. Anyone who thought Kenny Jackett would be setting a new trend a generation later in moulding Pompey sides capable of looking promotion favourites in late autumn before falling apart thereafter was proved wrong when it went awry in the second half of that very season.
Actually, things started to unravel before then. I can still remember standing on the south terrace family enclosure on a dark, cold November afternoon as Peter Withe inspired Sheffield United to a 3-0 win that rather proved to we fans that Pompey were not quite the second tier kings we'd been led to believe.
We'd won 14 of our first 17 games in all comps that season as a side featuring the likes of Mick Channon, Kevin Dillon, Mick Kennedy, Alan Knight, Kevin O'Callaghan and of course Messrs Gilbert and Blake in the heart of defence blew away all before them. In the true Blues tradition of spectacular collapses, we then went six without winning.
Things levelled out again after the winter dip – we actually won away to Charlton and Wimbledon, among other successes - and when we won 3-2 at Brighton on Easter Monday, now with poacher extraordinaire Mick Quinn in the side, we seemed well set to make up for the bitter disappointment of having missed promotion the previous May, when we'd been pipped on the last day by Manchester City on goal difference.
But just as had happened 12 months earlier, an inconsistent April ruined everything. Norwich were way out in front and it was between Pompey, Charlton and Wimbledon for the other two promotion spots (this was a year before the words play-offs was first uttered).
The writing was on the wall after a 2-0 midweek loss in the Potteries (we couldn't even, it seemed, do it on a relatively pleasant night in Stoke) and we went to Sheffield United HAVING to win to keep the dream alive, with the Addicks and Dons closing on us and having extra games left to play.
On the day of the Chernobyl disaster, I made my first-ever long away trip, on the coach to Bramall Lane. We hadn't won there for 31 years before then (and we've not won there in the 35 years since) so why any of us thought we might do so that day, I can't tell you. As Bally observed afterwards: 'We had to win, the game was there to win but we didn't look like we wanted to win.'
If memory serves correctly, we were still in with a mathematical chance as we made our way home from South Yorkshire, but knew in our hearts the game was up. And when, three nights later, Charlton beat Fulham and Wimbledon overcame Stoke, it really was dream over. Our final home game, against Bradford, was a dead rubber. Ball observed in his programme notes as he reflected on another near miss: 'What an occasion it might have been.'
The final table showed Norwich as Division Two champions (sound familar?) with 84 points, Charlton second with 77 and Wimbledon third with 76. Pompey ended three points behind the Dons with 73 and a better goal difference so in fact it was the defeat at Stoke, rather than the Blades draw, which proved the nail in the coffin.
Of course, a year later it was largely forgotten as Bally's hardened troops got over the line, albeit in anti-climactic fashion through Oldham losing at Shrewsbury, but in 1986 – to 16-year-old me and many thousands of other Pompey fans – the end of the season was painful, so painful. Gut-wrenching, nothing less.
So you'll forgive me for closing the curtains and hiding behind the sofa as the weird and unpredictable 2020-21 League One campaign veers to its conclusion with Pompey needing to grind something out at Plough Lane and rely on Charlton slipping up.
If it goes in our favour, maybe some 35-year-old demons will be exorcised. But that's a big if. The only consistent thing about Pompey so far in 2021 is how inconsistent they've been, if that's gramatically possible. Just when you think everything's rosy, they implode; and when you think all hope is lost, they go and string you along for another game or two. The mad affair at Accrington the other night was not unlike the whole season being played out in 90 minutes.
Just for a change I'm making no predictions. Because where Pompey and promotion campaigns are concerned, that is the most futile game you can play. Can someone let me know when it's safe to look at the league table please?
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