South Coast Derbies between Portsmouth and Southampton are few and far between these days. Before their recent League Cup clash, the sides hadn’t met each other for over seven years. However, as COPA90 discover, that rarity only fuels the intense nature of this fascinating rivalry.
When Harry Redknapp stepped down as Portsmouth manager in November 2004, he said he needed ‘a break’.
Portsmouth fans understandably felt strongly about his mid-season departure, and would have been excused for thinking his ‘break’ would last longer than a fortnight…and that it wouldn’t end with the nightmarish scene of him standing on the pitch at St Mary’s, hoisting a Southampton scarf above his head.
Redknapp became a marked man. There he was, the man who’d revived Portsmouth, joining their bitter rivals. It added fuel to an already fiery antipathy between fans on the opposite sides of the South Coast Derby.
Redknapp’s two-and-a-half years in the Fratton Park dugout had been largely successful. When he moved downstairs from his director of football role to replace Graham Rix in March 2002, Pompey were languishing down in 15th in the old Division One table.
Never one to bespangle his words, ‘Arry said he would have a ‘right crack’ at breathing new life into the club.
“The highest betrayal possible”
Terry Brady, former Portsmouth Director
Alongside trusted lieutenant Jim Smith, he did just that. Powered by the goals of Bulgarian striker Svetoslav Todorov – with whom Redknapp had previously worked at West Ham – Pompey clinched the First Division title to return to the top-flight for the first time since 1988.
“Redknapp is a paradox,” says Colin Farmery, author of Seventeen Miles from Paradise. “He was the archetypal manager for Portsmouth. He had that self-deprecating approach but was also someone who could galvanise the siege mentality of supporters.”
A respectable 13th-placed finish followed, but six months later Redknapp was out. Following the deterioration of his relationship with Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric, the beleaguered coach needed to recharge his batteries.
Then, in a twist worthy of Hitchcock, he rocked up at arch-rivals Southampton two weeks later. Portsmouth did not mince their words.
“The highest betrayal possible,” uttered Fratton Park director Terry Brady. “The fact that he did that shows a self-destructive side to him because he shredded his reputation with Pompey fans,” adds Farmery. “When he came back to Pompey, it was never quite the same.”
Of course, while Redknapp’s move ‘down the road’ sparked fury among the Pompey faithful, he hadn’t exactly catapulted himself several rungs up the English footballing ladder by taking the Southampton job.
The Saints had just parted ways with former academy director – and possible Pointless answer – Steve Wigley and were mired in a relegation battle.
The scale of the task facing Redknapp was duly demonstrated during his first away game as Saints boss. Thumped 5-1 by a Jermain Defoe-inspired Tottenham, Redknapp admitted he’d gotten himself ‘into a tight one’ by taking the St Mary’s gig.
He wasn’t wrong. By the time he took Southampton up to Fratton Park in April, they were bottom of the table, having won just three times during his fourth-month reign.
Mercy was not forthcoming at the home of his previous employers. Having been greeted by banners and placards branding him ‘Judas’, Redknapp cut a demoralised figure as he watched Portsmouth run out 4-1 winners, with all five goals arriving in the first 27 minutes of a breathless first half.
‘Judas, Judas, give us a wave,’ bellowed the gleeful Pompey fans. Harry was not in the mood to oblige.
“I think Redknapp is one of the few things Portsmouth and Southampton fans agree on,” Carl Anka, who covers Southampton for The Athletic, tells COPA90. “When I mentioned his name to Southampton fans, they called him ‘Judas’ and ‘liar’, and when I mentioned him to Portsmouth fans, he was simply referred to as ‘Jamie’s dad’.”
Not exactly a figure of whom either side of the derby have fond memories.
History of the rivalry
The Redknapp era is a fascinating footnote in the Southampton-Portsmouth annuals. The rivalry itself, however, stretches back much further.
“The rivalry predates football,” says Farmery. “Southampton was a commercial port, whereas Portsmouth was military. Southampton was more affluent so there was always a civic, economic rivalry.”
Initially founded as a church football team in 1885, Southampton found great success in the Southern League, winning it six times between 1897 and 1904.
During that period, Portsmouth were founded in 1898. Towards the end of the 19th-century, there was a growing appetite for professional football in Pompey, thanks in no small part to the success of amateur side, Royal Artillery FC.
“This whole story about the dock workers is absolutely false. They needed a reason to hate each other and invented that.”
Carl Anka, Southampton correspondent for The Athletic
The rivalry’s earlier chapters paint a different picture to the current landscape. When Portsmouth won the FA Cup in 1939, the majority of Southampton fans were thrilled for their neighbours 17 miles down the road.
Having conquered Wolves at Wembley, the trophy was paraded around The Dell and displayed in Southampton Guild Hall ahead of the 1939/40 season, much to the delight of their counterparts.
In the 1960s, the rivalry intensified significantly as the clubs began to meet each other regularly in the Second Division, a period in which the Saints held the upper-hand on Pompey with four wins to two and four draws.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Pompey-Saints rivalry, Anka believes, is that it’s been shaped, at least partially, by a myth. “This whole story about the dock workers is absolutely false,” he says. “They needed a reason to hate each other and invented that.”
The myth to which he refers is, of course, the story about the origin of ‘scum’, the unflattering sobriquet bestowed upon Saints fans by their counterparts.
The barstool myth goes that ‘scum’ is an abbreviation for the South Coast Union Men of Southampton, who allegedly crossed the picket line when Portsmouth dock workers went on strike in the 1950s.
Farmery laughs when it is brought up. “Utter tosh,” came his withering debunk.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Certain games from down the years live long in the memories of fans.
Their 1976 Second Division meeting is a source of acute agony for Portsmouth. Not only were Lawrie McMenemy’s Saints looking forward to an FA Cup decider with Manchester United, but they effectively relegated their closest rivals to the third tier in front of a deflated Fratton Park.
Mick Channon’s last-minute goal left Portsmouth ten points adrift of safety with five games remaining. Relegated, they watched as the Saints beat United in the FA Cup final that year before earning promotion to the top flight in 1978.
Pompey, meanwhile, had to wait for a crack at revenge. The next competitive South Coast Derby came eight years later when Southampton visited Fratton Park in the FA Cup fourth round in January 1984.
“The first derby I went to was the ’84 cup game,” recalls Farmery. “Saints scored a last-minute goal and I remember thinking ‘how the hell did that happen’, but there was also some nastiness from the terraces.”
Indeed, that infamous ’84 clash advertised some of the rivalry’s more unsavoury elements. Three minutes were added on after Southampton defender Mick Dennis was struck on the head by a coin while taking a throw-in, while his teammate, Reuben Agboola, was racially abused by some Pompey fans, who threw bananas in the direction of the Nigerian left-back.
There have been other regrettable encounters, notably the rioting that followed their March 2004 league clash which led to 94 arrests.
Episodes like these are snapshots of the darker undercurrents synonymous with football’s biggest rivalries. When the football is good and the crowds are loud, it’s easy to romanticise, but it’s the goals that should make the headlines, not hooliganism.
“I’ve never understood that visceral side,” says Farmery. “It detracts from it. We’re talking about football matches, not life or death. You want to be passionate about your team but when you need hundreds of coppers outside to ensure everyone can get home safely, you tend to ask the question ‘what is the point of this really?’"
Pompey’s revenge for ’84 arrived during the previously discussed ‘Redknapp derby’, while they also thumped the Saints 4-1 at St. Mary’s in a heated FA Cup fifth-round encounter in February 2010.
Since then, they have met only three times, twice during 2011/12 Championship season, and September’s League Cup affair.
“One of the reasons the rivalry has that edge is because we don’t play each other very often.”
Colin Farmery, author of Seventeen Miles from Paradise
The infrequency with which they face each other is in stark contrast to, say, Celtic vs. Rangers or Liverpool vs. Everton, but it’s a facet which has helped breed animosity between Southampton and Portsmouth fans.
“One of the reasons the rivalry has that edge is because we don’t play each other very often,” explains Farmery. “There’s that festering grudge that carries over a period of years, you don’t get it out of your system. If we played each other a couple of times every season, we might see some of the edge go out of the rivalry.”
Naturally, these interim periods have been populated with oscillating fortunes for both clubs, on and off the pitch.
The last 15 years have been particularly eventful. While Pompey enjoyed a seven-year spell in the Premier League, which included an eighth-placed finish and the FA Cup triumph in 2008, Southampton spent the same amount of time trying to get back to the top flight following their relegation in 2005.
However, against a backdrop of mounting financial troubles, the club dropped into League One in 2009. Back-to-back promotions in 2011 and 2012 returned them to the Premier League, where they have been since.
Portsmouth haven’t quite been able to mirror their rivals’ ascent. The 2009/10 season saw the club enter administration and the subsequent nine-point penalty condemned them to relegation. They fell into administration once more in 2012 before successive relegations saw them plummet down to the fourth tier.
“Pompey fans got complacent when we were top dogs,” said Farmery. “But when things went pear-shaped, there were grinding of gears in terms of fans expectations. When the going got tough, the fans pulled out all the stops in 2012 and 2013 when we put together a community bid to buy the club.
“It was a great show of solidarity. For four years, we ran it as a supporter-owned club, we kept our discipline in League Two and then got promoted. It was a phenomenal story.”
That extraordinary show of support helped steer the club through an incredibly dark chapter before The Tornante Company, headed by former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, completed a takeover in August 2017.
Things have been looking up since. A promising eighth-placed finish in the 2017/18 season was followed by narrowly missing out on the League One play-off final in 2019. Climbing out of that division will be difficult but, should they manage it, they could find themselves in the Championship with Southampton before too long.