Once again, soccer’s top-flight League contests in both England and Scotland seem condemned to be unchallenging two-horse races. The respective managers of Arsenal and Manchester United have been told to cool down their playground animosities, and we shall see this Tuesday evening if they can manage it. The singular Alan Shearer has at last potted his 400th goal; the Geordie is an old-time English centre-forward of authentic vintage, true inheritor of the line from Bloomer and Dean through Lawton and Lofthouse. Which leaves an uncluttered stage for the ancient FA Cup competition to fill with some bold strokes of genuine theatre in the fourth-round ties this weekend. Worries about the old tournament’s status dissolved when the 31 third-round games three weeks ago were watched by 535,487, an average of 17,714 and the highest attendance since 1981.
None of the famous-for-90-minutes minnows let themselves down either, and Exeter City’s two defiantly perky performances before going out to Man U had Devon dancing. There might be more of the light fantastic down in them thar parts should Yeovil Town put one across Charlton Athletic in the fourth round. By far the most dagger-sharp tie, however, is the Hampshire hooley between Southampton and Portsmouth. Surprisingly, the two venerable clubs have previously played each other only four times in Cup competition (Southampton winning all four; in League contests Southampton lead by 29-19).
To the unremitting rivalry, added spice this time has a particularly tantalising tang, for only in November did the Saints’ new manager, chirpy speculator Harry Redknapp, move along the coast to St Mary’s stadium from Pompey’s true-blue fastness of Fratton Park. Portsmouth folk took serious umbrage at such a flagrantly shameless defection, their intensity cranked up as soon as this Solent shindig was plucked out of the hat. Local bragging rights are up for grabs. To be sure, all police leave has been cancelled. Mind you, traitorous transfers are not new. Down the century and beyond, 45 turncoats have played for both clubs, the best known being Mick Channon, fabled fleet-footed dervish, now a racehorse trainer. When Mick moved to Pompey in 1985, he says he noticed ‘a terrible hatred in a lot of Portsmouth people for anyone from Southampton, although, oddly enough,’ he added, ‘the feeling doesn’t seem to work the other way round.’ Which only goes to prove that canonised saints can never really change their stripes.
I enjoyed a fair few squashed-up Saturdays at higgledy-piggledy Fratton. For those of a certain generation, a salty trip down there always evoked remembrance of Movietone News and terraces full of jolly Jack tars acclaiming Pompey’s finest plays and players — Jack Froggatt, Peter Harris, Reg Frewin and good Jimmy Dick. More recently, Southampton took on the senior strut and I was often dispatched down to the dear old Dell to warm to Paine and Davies, Fisher and Osgood and, of course, the remarkable Mattie le Tizz, as well as, for a short while before the big guns sounded for him, a precocious crackshot apprentice centre-forward from the north-east who had it all: feet, head, speed, oomph, anticipation, greed, hunger, the lot. Certainly on that unforgettable April day in 1988 when 17-year-old Alan Shearer scored a half-hour hat-trick against Arsenal in his very first match for Southampton, even the ranks of Pompeyites had to say ‘Wow!’