The Fans - Fans agree to disagree
It is a measure of how much victory will mean to Portsmouth in this season’s derbies that the Blues’ biggest, loudest and most recognisable fan, John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, freely admitted: “I would much rather take six points off Southampton than have guaranteed survival in the Premiership.”
Westwood, who by day works in the family bookshop in Petersfield, was invited by the Daily Echo to come face to face with Steve Bull, the heavyweight Saints fan whose hip-swaying goal celebration dance was a feature last season on national television.
“In my opinion we are the biggest team on the south coast and it will be nice to prove it,” boasted John ahead of the first of the two December derbies.
“We have got the most passionate fans, we have genuine passion and people are so proud of Portsmouth. That is obvious. We have had nothing to shout about for years and we are still here.”
Bull, however, points to the rollercoaster ride Saints’ fans have endured over the past few seasons – supporters who have remained loyal through thick and thin.
He countered: “Southampton have the better fans. We are more passionate.
“We have had to fight off relegation with other managers and, now that Gordon Strachan has come in, we are getting right behind a manager who is bringing us some success.”
The draw for the fourth round of the Carling Cup paired together Saints and Pompey for a derby at St Mary’s on December 2 with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.
The passion that this first south coast derby for almost eight years has created shows the importance of a victory and the earning of much-vaunted bragging rights over their biggest rivals.
At 10.30pm on Thursday, October 30, fans of Southampton and Portsmouth saw extra spice added to their season when they were drawn out of the hat for their first meeting since 1996.
“I was absolutely over the moon,” said Westwood of the draw. “I had just come out of the ground at Nottingham Forest (Portsmouth’s opponents in the third round).
“At first I didn’t believe it but then I saw that people started jumping around on the minibus and I knew it was true.”
As soon as the draw was made, the phone of larger-than-life Saints devotee Bull began to ring.
“The first person I had winding me up was my brother. He just kept saying ‘Pompey are gonna beat you! Pompey are gonna beat you!’” he recalled.
Both fans have shown unshakeable devotion to their chosen team. In 1989 Westwood took the unusual step of changing his name by deed poll to include the name of his beloved Pompey.
Meanwhile, 31-stone Bull, who promised to lose weight following his five minutes of television fame, declares Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer as his favourite all-time Saints and even named a pet cat Tissi in honour of Southampton’s legendary number seven.
Bull’s status as Saints’ ‘biggest’ fan was confirmed when the club asked him to lead the pre-match and half-time entertainment on match-days at St Mary’s.
“I am so dedicated to Southampton I would work for free,” Bull explained.
In the first game of the 2002-2003 campaign, Bull became only the second person to save a Le Tissier penalty in the pre-match entertainment against Middlesbrough.
Ironically, the only other goalkeeper to save a Le Tissier spot-kick, Mark Crossley, sat on the bench for Boro that day.
While Portsmouth spent years battling in Division One, Saints have consolidated their place in the top-flight.
This and the fact that it was the red corner that comprehensively won the last match between the two sides has left Saints fans looking down on their south coast rivals in more ways than one.
“I was at the last game between the two sides,” remembered Bull. “I went with my brother, who was 16 at the time. It was back in 1996 at The Dell and I sat at the Milton Road end. We won the game 3-0 easily.
“Magilton scored twice and Shipperley got the other.
“After the game I was ecstatic, very ecstatic. It proved we were the top team.”
Unsurprisingly, Westwood sees it slightly differently.
“I can’t wait for the game. Just to get back and show them who the top team is,” he remarked.
“We owe them one after a Mick Channon goal effectively condemned us to relegation in ’76.
“I was at the game in January 1988 when we beat them 2-0 at The Dell. I was elated after the game, especially after what had happened in 1976.”
Pompey’s first taste of top-flight action since 1988 was expected to represent a struggle to adapt to Premiership football.
But Westwood not only has confidence in the summer purchases by manager Harry Redknapp, but also that Portsmouth will finish the season above Saints.
“We are coping well with the standard of the Premiership,” he said.
“It is faster and more technical but we have bought in players with European experience and previous captains of their clubs so we have plenty of experience.
“Pompey will definitely finish above Southampton without a doubt. We are expecting to finish midway and to establish ourselves.”
Bull, though, has other ideas.
“Saints will finish higher,” he crowed. “Not by too much, though, as I don’t think Pompey will go down because they are actually playing well.
“This season is going amazingly well, apart from the game against Man City (Saints lost 2-0 at St Mary’s).
“This time last year we didn’t have as many points as what we have now and look what happened, so the signs are good.”
Surprisingly, the Daily Echo did manage to get both fans to agree on one thing; the importance of the derby to the fans of both clubs.
“Getting through to the next round is important but it definitely adds extra spice getting your main rivals in the league, let alone drawing them in the Cup,” explained Bull. “It is a very big game and it is always good to beat Pompey.
“I want them to be in the Premiership every season because the banter between the two sets of fans is what you look forward to.”
Westwood goes even further.
“I would put this up there with any rivalry in the country,” he said. “It’s up there with the Merseyside, the Manchester and the north London derbies.
“It is a fierce rivalry between the two teams.”
One thing the two fans were never going to agree on was the final outcome.
While Westwood refused to predict a scoreline for fear of tempting Portsmouth’s fate on the night, Bull boldly predicted: “It is going to be 3-1 to Saints. As much as I don’t want them to, and hope they don’t, I think that Portsmouth will score.”