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The most intense derby never played

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PORTSMOUTH — I want to start by saying I’m from Hampshire. The south coast derby between Portsmouth and Southampton is something I’ve always been aware of, as the pride of both port cities on England’s south coast is on the line for the League Cup third round tie.

Locally, it dominates discussions. These two teams go years without playing one another. This time, it has been seven years since their last meeting, before that there has been waits of seven, eight and even 10 years between games.

This rivalry has been born from a lack of action and in those lengthy gaps, many myths about dockers from each city going on strike added further fuel to the fire.

It is the most intense derby hardly ever played. The world hardly ever gets to see it. In the last 31 years the two teams have played each other 10 times. Just 10 times.

The lack of games and opportunity for bragging rights is what makes this derby one of the most intense, and special, in England. Both clubs have fallen on tough times financially in recent years and when one was in the PL, the other was languishing in the lower leagues, and vice versa.

Hampshire police are undertaking their biggest-ever operation to make sure both sets of fans are safe, with drones, helicopters and police horses all out in force. The last time these teams met in the Premier League at Portsmouth it resulted in the highest number of arrests for a PL game in history.

The fact this cup game was drawn out of hat to happen just last month, plus it is being played at night and around rush hour provides huge issues for the local police.

There is an extra crackle in the air around these games. There are extra looks over your shoulder. Many see Hampshire as an idyllic coastal area of England. It may well be most of the time, but not for this game. To use the south coast lexicon this is the Skates versus the Scummers. Yep. You read that correctly.

Here is my first-person account of being in Hampshire ahead of the game, traveling to Fratton Park and being behind-the-scenes at one of the fiercest, and less heard about, derbies in world soccer.


THE BUILD UP

After the draw was announced in late August, there has been a month of build up. A month of fans snapping back at each other. A month of both teams showcasing famous derby wins on social media.

But what is a month when tensions have been bubbling up under the surface for seven years?

The thing about this rivalry is that the cities are 18 miles apart and are pretty much independent from one another. Portsmouth is a naval port, Southampton a container and cruise ship port. It takes 20 minutes to drive from one to the other along the M27, but when you get halfway, towns like Fareham and Whiteley become somewhat of a no man’s land.

If you walk into a pub in these areas, you have no idea who supports who. There’s a scan across the bar, just like walking into a saloon in the Wild West. The tension is very, very real on a daily basis.

Unlike Man City v. Man United, Everton v. Liverpool and Arsenal v. Tottenham, there are rarely people from the same family who support either team. You are either Saints or Pompey. That’s it.

Portsmouth and Southampton should probably be chucked together as one city, just like Raleigh-Durham or Minneapolis-St. Paul in the United States. But there is absolutely no desire from locals for this to happen. None whatsoever. South Hampshire is the eighth largest urban area in the UK, and Southampton and Portsmouth are its two biggest cities.

Local councils and the UK government have tried to link the cities together to get planning and funding for the area as a whole, calling it ‘Solent City’ but there is something holding it all back. Football. And that’s just how it is. The local media outlets cover both teams, towns around both cities selling the Southern Daily Echo (Southampton) and the Portsmouth News. For the days leading up to this game, legends of both clubs have been fanning the flames and talking about past glory.

National radio and TV stations have been debating just how big this game is, and where it ranks in terms of UK and European rivalries. But unless you’re from Hampshire or the South Coast, nobody has a real sense of just how big this is. That is the beauty of it.

For this game, the referees have been told that players subbed off do not have to adhere to the new FIFA laws that they should exit the pitch at the nearest possible spot. Due to fears over their safety, players will have to walk off at the halfway line.

“I think people who have never been to one of those games and never sampled the atmosphere would probably look at it and kind of say ‘Oh, it’s just a little south coast derby, it’s nothing important’, but to the two sets of fans it’s an incredibly important fixture,” Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier said before the game.

Pompey boss Kenny Jackett knows his team are the underdogs (they currently sit fourth from bottom in the third tier and Pompey fans are singing week in, week out for him to be fired) but he also knows playing at home will provide a huge advantage. He smelt an upset.

“Of course we can [cause an upset],” Jackett said. “You can get things right on the day. Particularly with it being a home game, I think that really helps us.”

Saints’ Austrian boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, in his first full season as a manager in England, has been told for the last month just how big this game is. After a less than impressive start to the PL season, Hasenhuttl’s reign as Saints boss will likely be deemed a success if he can do two things: 1) Keep them in the Premier League. 2) Beat Portsmouth.

“Sure you can be a legend. It doesn’t matter if you are a League One team or a Premier League team. In that moment it’s not interesting. It’s about this one game and you can be a big hero if you decide it,” Hasenhuttl said.

Players from both teams talked about the importance of the game, but talk really wouldn’t do it justice.


THE GAME

Heading to Portsmouth on a train from London on the day of the game, Waterloo station, London’s busiest, has numerous trains to Southampton and Portsmouth every hour. But again, both cities are close but kept separate.

Lads in Pompey shirts hung off the train at each stop down to the coast, a beer in hand. Any Saints fans were well disguised.

A train to Portsmouth does not pass through Southampton, and vice versa, for a very good reason. That reason was about to be hammered home.

Pompey fans on the train were watching videos on social media of the police and home fans gathering near the entrance to the stadium.

“Saints haven’t won at Fratton Park for 35 years. That is a long, long time,” said one. “Yeah, but that will end tonight,” said a pessimistic fan. Some Pompey fans were even placing bets on Saints to win.

“I think it is good to play a local rival,” said a child dressed in a Pompey kit to his father. While two Pompey fans sat to one side were getting frustrated by train delays due to signaling problems, they were skeptical. “This is because they’re bringing in the scum. That’s it. This is going to make everyone agitated.”

The walk to the stadium from the station was terrifying. You can only describe it as entrenched, unconscious hatred. This had an edge to it. It is instinctive for these fans to hate one another.

Riot police trucks lined the route to the stadium, police helicopters were overhead, drones in the sky, it was all going on. Portsmouth fans were shown running up and down the streets trying to attack police horses (one of them punching a horse and then getting the expected treatment from officers) and it was all getting a bit out of hand before the game.

It was rumored a small group of Saints fans were caught up in the train chaos and were late to arrive, and the police were doing their best to separate the fans.

Here was the Song of choice belted out by Pompey’s fans:

“He’s only a poor little scummer. His face is all tattered and torn, He made me feel sick, So I hit him with a brick, And now he don’t sing any more.”

Portsmouth fans couldn’t believe a ‘bubble system’ wasn’t being implemented to keep the Saints fans safe.

“There will still be a war. The police are playing a game, ‘which copper can catch the most hooligans.’ It is crazy.”

Another discussion broke out: “You should kick a scummer, or punch one.” Then a nice addition arrived: “I’ll hit one with a brick. That will sort them out.”

Rain pouring down. The wind howling off the English Channel. Floodlights on. An apt scene was set at Fratton Park seconds before kick off.

Fratton Park is one of the oldest, and tightest, grounds in England. It is an intimidating place for any team, let alone their bitter rivals, to visit. It is old school to the extreme.

As Mike Oldfield’s Portsmouth song roared over the speakers, you felt as if you had been transported to the 18th century and were about to leave for the high seas on a tall ship.

The game itself started superbly for the home team. Pompey should have been at least 2-0 up early on. John Marquis hit the post. Brett Pitman had a shot well tipped over by Alex McCarthy and Saints somehow scrambled the ball off the line from the corner as McCarthy juggled with the ball on the floor. It was chaos.

Then, Saints scored with their first chance of the game. Local lad, Danny Ings, first had a shot beaten away and then turned superbly before curling home a beauty to make it 1-0. Saints should have doubled their lead when Ings was denied by MacGillivray, then Hojbjerg had a shot cleared on the line.

Lifelong Saints fans Ings scored a second just before half time and celebrated in front of the home supporters and coins and other objects flew the way of Southampton’s players.

In the away end red flares were plentiful.

Saints were in charge but Pompey, and their crowd, would not go away. Literally.

Home fans chucked the ball at Saints players who were trying to take throw ins. Chants of “Blue Army!” rang out and “Scummers, Scummers!” at regular intervals.

Southampton’s 2,000 fans behind the goal heaped praise on Ings, “he’s one of our own” and the chants got louder and louder.

In the second half the home fans continued to sing and their players continued to come close to pulling a goal back.

Multiple crosses flashed across the goal and both sets of fans were going through their full repertoire of anti-Pompey and Saints songs. Each set of fans sung “there’s only one team in Hampshire” proudly.

“Your support is f***** s***!” sang the Pompey fans as the rain poured down. That was followed by “You’re going home in a Pompey ambulance” and “You dirty scummers, we will see you outside!”

The battle lines had been drawn for the tight streets outside of Fratton Park.

Second half goals from Cedric Soares and Nathan Redmond put the game beyond doubt for Southampton, as their fans celebrated wildly at the final whistle.

It was Saints’ first win at Pompey since 1984. My word, 35 years is a long time to wait for a win at your bitter rivals. And this was their biggest ever win at Portsmouth.

”Four nil in your own back yard!” was the taunting chant from Saints’ fans who had to wait in the stadium for close to an hour after full time as the police cleared the nearby streets of Pompey fans.

Portsmouth’s fans were in great voice too, and no matter how the game turned out on the pitch, the atmosphere off the pitch was right up there with the best. The whole occasion lived up the hype and the weather, the game and the fans all combined to deliver a special night.

This game may not be played for another seven years, and it if isn’t, that’s a shame. It needs to happen more often, but maybe you can get too much of a good thing.

Hasenhuttl was jubilant at the final whistle.

His first tase of the south coast derby has him hooked.

“We will not forget this evening, and the fans too. It was a fantastic atmosphere until the end and to score four goals here is fantastic. It is more than only reaching the next round. It is about reaching the hearts of the fans,” Hasenhuttl said. ‘You could feel the tradition that is in this derby. I think I have never had such an atmosphere in a stadium so far and I have seen a lot in my entire footballing career. It was a very special game for me also.”

Danny Ings added: “It’s a crazy feeling. I’m very fortunate to have played in some big derbies but for me personally, this one tops it. When the draw was made I couldn’t wait for the fixture. When I got the nod to play I just couldn’t wait to step over the white lines and do my best for the club.”

More of this please, Pompey and Saints.

The south coast derby is a gem which teases us every now and then. We want more.

Of course, the intensity bubbles over and there were reports of scuffles after the game, police having to move in and opposition fans clashing in the streets as the rain pelted down on England’s south coast.

If you ever get the chance, one of these derbies at St Mary’s or Fratton Park is a must.

Manchester United: Solskjaer hopeful of new Paul Pogba contract

Paul Pogba contract
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is singing a new tune, hopeful that star midfielder Paul Pogba will stick around Old Trafford for the long term.

Reports say that United has an option to extend Pogba’s contract by an extra year beyond its 2021 expiry, but Solskjaer is thinking bigger. He has been praising Pogba plenty since the World Cup winner returned to the lineup.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

It’s a bit surprising given Pogba and his super agent’s constant time in the rumor mill, with Real Madrid often linked with the Frenchman. And that agent, Mino Raiola, has not been so nice when it comes to judging Solskjaer.

But Solskjaer is reportedly hopeful that Pogba can join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and others in building a new power.

“I can’t comment on discussions between player and the club but. of course, we want to keep the best players around the club,” Solskjaer said. “We want to build a squad for the future and Scott and Nemanja are a similar position but at different stages in their careers. One at the start, one really experienced one.”

Pogba leads United in key passes per game with 2.3, though his minutes have been severely limited by injuries this season. He had 13 goals and nine assists last season, and turned 27 in March.

The way United’s performed in recent weeks it would not be a surprise if keeping its main talents while adding another stalwart center back and wing would propel it into a more serious table discussion.

Do you buy the idea that Pogba could be with United well into the future?

Suarez goal gives Barcelona win, relegates neighbors Espanyol

Espanyol relegated
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Seventh-place one season ago, La Liga mainstays Espanyol are being relegated from Spain’s top flight.

The final decision came at the hands of their Catalan neighbors Barcelona, who got a second-half goal from Luis Suarez to relegate Espanyol.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Espanyol are 11 points back of 17th place and can only capture nine more points this season following the 1-0 loss in a match where both teams had a player sent off.

Suarez’s goal was a nice one after Antoine Griezmann’s back heel pass to Lionel Messi saw the Argentine’s shot deflect onto the path of the Uruguayan finisher.

Espanyol had been in the top flight since 1994 and has only spent four single seasons outside La Liga since 1929. Leganes and Mallorca may join them soon.

Barcelona moves a point back of Real Madrid. Real has four matches left to Barca’s three and holds the tiebreaker.

Klopp reacts to Liverpool wins, says Henderson injury ‘not nothing’

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Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was a bit more what we’re used to from the Premier League champions.

But that wasn’t the focus of the post-match despite a highlight-reel show from Mohamed Salah, as Reds boss Jurgen Klopp sounded an ominous note when asked about Jordan Henderson leaving the match with injury.

“I don’t know exactly but it was something with the knee I think. We know it’s not nothing.”

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Henderson’s not exactly a player to hit the deck unless he’s feeling pain, and Klopp removed him for James Milner with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about the only bad news from the win, as Liverpool became the first team this season to breach the 90-point mark and saw Salah’s brace move him within three goals of the Golden Boot lead.

Salah would only say, “Let’s take it game-by-game,” but it’s clearly on his mind.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says the Egyptian is hungry to get a share of a third-straight Golden Boot.

From the BBC:

“He has his targets, he’s around the Golden Boot and it’s something he wants to retain,” Alexander-Arnold said. “He’s a world class player who scores so many goals for us and we try to get him on the board as much as possible.”

As for the match, Brighton almost as missed some big chances as Liverpool before the game was out of reach. Klopp admits that it was a challenge.

“We started really well,” Klopp said. “We had to adapt a little bit as we knew what they wanted to do but it was a little bit hard to defend. We left one or two players in a position where if we won the ball we had players in the counter-attack position. We got the first two goals with super balls but we could have scored more. I said to the boys at half-time they could have been 2-2 too. It was a nice game to watch.”

The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.

Liverpool march continues with 3-1 win at Brighton

Brighton - Liverpool recap
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Mohamed Salah had two goals and an assist in the first eight minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday.

Salah is now three goals behind league leader Jamie Vardy, and Liverpool’s 92 points are 23 more than Man City. Jordan Henderson also scored for the Reds.

BRIGHTON – LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY

Leandro Trossard scored for Brighton, whose 36 points are nine clear of the bottom three with four matches to play (The 18th and 19th place sides do have a match each in hand).

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Liverpool’s 30 wins through 34 outings is a Premier League record and Jurgen Klopp’s men are chasing several PL records. The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.


Three things we learned

1. Salah somehow under the radar: Look, the Egyptian star’s 32-goal league season was an outlier. Not a lot of guys consistently hit 25, let alone the 30 mark in the Premier League. But Salah has rather quietly put together another amazing season with 19 goals and nine assists in PL play plus another four and three in cup competitions. Salah is one assist of joining the a small group of players to get double digit league goals and assists in a top five European league this season.

While it’s become sexy to praise Sadio Mane as the Reds’ top winger, Salah has been just as good. He could’ve had another goal in the 53rd but Mat Ryan made a fine intervention at close range. If Salah is under the radar, it’s because Liverpool has spread the wealth this season and had so many heroes in close matches. But boy, oh boy, is he their best weapon.

2. Lamptey shows glimpses, then youth: The sample size is very small, but 19-year-old Chelsea outcast Tariq Lamptey has played well at right back in most of his outings for Brighton since the return from the coronavirus pause. Lamptey was at blame for Liverpool’s third goal in both the chance conceded and actual finish from Salah, but the $4 million January buy looked well worth the price tag in a terrific first half at the Amex.

3. Seagulls still missing final ball: Brighton produced four big chances in the game to Liverpool’s two, but only put one in the back of the net (SofaScore). That’s sadly been par for the course this season, as Brighton’s style has been worthy of a top half place. Brighton entered the day with seven fewer goals than its expected goals total. Only Everton, Watford, and Norwich have been less fortunate.

Man of the Match:

Salah.


Brighton – Liverpool recap

Salah had a goal and an assist within 500 seconds of kickoff.

The Egyptian took a feed from Naby Keita to score off a Davy Propper giveaway and then set up Henderson’s second to have the Seagulls’ heads spinning early.

Brighton found a chance in the 19th but Neco Williams recovered with a slide to block Leandro Trossard from slotting a point-blank goal.

The Seagulls pulled within one just before halftime when in-form youngster Tariq Lamptey swept a cross into the mix for Trossard to punch home.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Salah could’ve had it 3-1 at one end but Brighton’s Dan Burn asked the Egyptian to hold his drink with a butchered wide-open shot at the back post in the 60th minute.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the close score, and brought on Fabinho, Andy Robertson, and Sadio Mane in the second half. One of the players he removed, Naby Keita, had a strong hour before departing the contest.

Henderson almost produced a third Liverpool goal after a rare Lamptey error spring a chance that took a wicked turn off Dale Stephens.

The Reds made it 3-1 off the ensuing corner, Salah’s clinical header in front of Lamptey. Henderson limped off for Liverpool late in the contest.

Ryan denied Salah a hat trick in stoppage time and the Egyptian headed over the bar at the final whistle. He could’ve had five.