Semi Final Memories: West Bromwich Albion 2008
West Brom fans still fill cheated by defeat in the 2008 semi-final to a Portsmouth team living way, way beyond its means, writes Frank Heaven.
Spring 2008 was a strange time in our recent history.
The good times were still just about rolling, but the first ominous rumbles of the looming financial thunderstorm could be heard.
There was a similar situation at Portsmouth Football Club.
Under manager Harry Redknapp, they had spent five successive years in the Premier League and reached their first FA Cup semi-final for 16 years. The team was studded with stars like Nwankwo Kanu, Niko KranjÄar and Sol Campbell.
But in the same way that nobody asked questions about the economy while their house prices were going up, no Portsmouth fans asked how they could afford such exceptional players on crowds of 19,000.
Pompey reached the final four with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford, and their opponents at the new Wembley would be Championship side West Bromwich Albion, their first semi-final appearance since 1982.
In terms of financial management, West Brom were the polar opposite of Portsmouth.
They were the first club to introduce ‘flex down’ relegation clauses in player contracts, so relegations from the top flight in 2003 and 2006 had not been financially damaging. Defeat in the 2007 play-off final against Derby — also at the new Wembley — meant the departure of key players including Curtis Davies and Jason Koumas.
But manager Tony Mowbray — aided by sporting director Dan Ashworth — brought in capable replacements such as Chris Brunt and James Morrison. His team built a reputation for purist, passing football which arguably reached its peak during the 2008 cup run, with impressive away wins at Peterborough (0-3), Coventry (0-5) and then Bristol Rovers in the quarter-final (1-5).
However, Mowbray’s Albion were frustrating, often dominating possession for long periods of games with no result.
And this was the case against Portsmouth. The Baggies dominated the first half, with centre halves Campbell and Sylvain Distin struggling to cope with veteran striker Kevin Phillips. But aside from one long-range shot, and a lay-off to Zoltan Gera who forced a low save from David James, Phillips and Albion could find no way through.
Just after the break came the sucker punch: Dean Kiely could not hold a shot from Milan Baros and Kanu was there to slot in the rebound.
Robert Koren hit the bar late on with a shot that beat James, but that was as close as Albion got.
It would be a familiar pattern the following season after promotion to the Premier League, as the team won plenty of friends for their football — but got relegated.
Portsmouth went on to win the cup against another Championship team, Cardiff City, but that proved a high-water mark.
That Autumn, as the nation’s finances started unravelling, so did Pompey’s.
Redknapp jumped ship in October, Russian owner Alexander Gaydamak put the club up for sale, and suddenly Pompey were sinking under £135m of debt — down, down, down, via a couple of administrations, to the fourth tier of English football. Where they remain today.
Few West Brom fans will shed a tear for Portsmouth’s current plight. Many believe the club should be stripped of the 2008 FA Cup for their financial recklessness. Cardiff fans may feel the same way. Whether Portsmouth’s followers feel the trophy was a price worth paying for what came next is uncertain.
And what about the nation’s finances? Well, growth is up, but the UK is still losing money and debt continues to climb.
A bit like football really.