James keeps faith as David takes on Goliath
HAS there ever been an FA Cup final between two clubs still notionally in the same division, with one of them so hotly fancied to win as Chelsea are to beat Portsmouth at Wembley today?
I can't think of one and nor can David James, who represents the last line of defence against a team that on its most recent outing, needing only a 1-0 win to clinch the title, went on an eight-goal rampage against poor bewildered Wigan.
So, let's start with the most obvious question of all, albeit one with no easy answer: how on earth does a defence as leaky as Portsmouth's has often been this season repel a bunch of players who have scored 103 goals in the league alone?
James and his team-mates have been pondering little else all week, as well as how to nick one at the other end. But he hasn't won 49 England caps and played more Premier League games than anyone else by being defeatist, and he's not about to start now.
"Chelsea haven't won every game this season," he says, matter-of-factly. "There is historical evidence to suggest that they can be beaten, as long as you get the preparation right.
"I've watched our semi-final against Tottenham a number of times, and Tottenham played very well that day. So, in the context of what they've done this season, reaching the Champions League, the performance we put in then has to give us confidence.
"I'm not saying Chelsea will be easy to beat, of course not, but we can't be rabbits in headlights. Besides, if it was a foregone conclusion, we wouldn't even need to turn up. Or we could just give them the Cup and go."
There is also, I suggest, the significant experience of an FA Cup final victory two years ago against Cardiff City to draw on.
Yet it wasn't the final that year that inspires James to think he might hoist the Cup again this afternoon, but the quarter-final, a 1-0 defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"I still draw strength from that," he says. "I can remember the quarter-final draw, thinking the last one we want is United away, but on the day there was a funny feeling in the changing-room, and as soon as we heard they were putting out a full-strength side, as soon as we realised they were taking us seriously, we began to think we could do it.
"The worst-case scenario is when they play their second or third team against you. That's really demoralising."
James stored in his lively mind the lessons learnt that day -- useful fodder for the manager he fully intends to become. But for now he is still a player, one who refuses to be intimidated by the thought of Didier Drogba running riot in his penalty area today.
"The scoreline doesn't matter. You've lost the Cup whether you lose 1-0 or 3-0. So, I'm not thinking about that.
"All I know is that to win the Cup you have to do something really special, which we did last time by beating Man United, probably the best team in Europe at the time. This time we have to beat the best team in England, and at least we have the advantage of playing them on neutral territory."
When Portsmouth won at Old Trafford, though, the club seemed to be in sound financial health. Within little more than a year it was almost sickly enough for the last rites to be delivered.
Had anything in his long career prepared James for the tumult of a season in which not even relegation was the worst thing to happen to the club.
A short laugh. "No, nothing. When we won the Cup the plan was to kick on, to sail to the top of the League, to go on and do some great stuff," he says.
"Yet this season we were weeks from being wound up, if not days. What was a fairy-tale turned into a nightmare. But the most important thing is that the club still exists.
"Just before we went into administration there were serious worries that it might be wound up. That's not something I ever imagined being involved in. It's not a story you could invent."
James has already suggested that the FA Cup win in 2008 was partly responsible for the club's downfall, because players had been offered bonuses for European qualification and paying them exerted an intolerable strain.
With predictable irony, most of those players subsequently had to be sold to relieve the debt.
"The turnaround in playing staff over the last two years has been incredible," he says. "Seven influential players who were here two years ago have gone."
Avram Grant, however, has come back, and if anything good has come from Portsmouth's tempestuous season, apart from reaching the Cup final, then James thinks it is the esteem with which Grant is now widely regarded in the game.
"He was here, with Harry (Redknapp), when I first joined the club. Funnily enough, I kept five clean sheets in my first five games -- I think we were top of the League for a weekend -- and right from the outset I could see what he was about.
"Avram clearly had a wealth of knowledge, and not just about football. He often talked about Michael Jordan, for example. He understood how to get the best out of players, and when I heard he was coming back I was delighted. If he had come six months earlier we might have stayed up."
Portsmouth are not the first club to reach the Cup final and be relegated in the same season, but surely no other club has plumbed such depths with the chance of finishing on such a remarkable high.
James agrees. "And it's because I have ambitions to go into management that I've been trying to keep a close eye on people's emotions.
"For instance, there are 14 players likely to represent the club in the final, but that leaves 16 players who won't. There are so many emotions going round and, as Huey Lewis said in a great song, 'the more things change the more they stay the same.'
"You really have to credit the manager, because when there was anger, when players weren't getting paid on time, he kept us focused on playing. He was a very calming influence. I don't know if you've ever heard Avram raise his voice, but I have only once -- after a 5-0 defeat."
James himself is another to emerge from the debacle with his reputation enhanced, declining to take the one-year contract extension due to him after 22 matches this season because of the financial implications for the club, and, heroically, helping to save the jobs of several backroom staff by paying their wages out of his own, along with a number of his team-mates.
"The administration team had to make 80-odd people redundant," he explains, "of which half a dozen -- masseurs, physios and so on -- were at the training facility.
"Those redundancies would have impacted on our chances of staying up at the time, so we as a group of players agreed to facilitate the wages so we had a better chance of staying up.
"We didn't stay up, but I like to think it made a big contribution to reaching the Cup final.
"We still pay those wages but it was never just me. When I heard (about the redundancies) I got home with this endless buzzing in my head, thinking 'what can I do about it?'
"It wasn't about keeping on mates, it was about keeping on valued staff. And when I got home I got phone calls from a couple of the lads, and I thought 'fantastic, I'm not the only one stressed about this'. It was a combined effort."
James knows, despite everything he has said about Chelsea being beatable, that it will take the mother of combined efforts to win the Cup today. He also knows that Fabio Capello will be watching.
Whether or not he features in the World Cup finals, James intends to play on for at least one more season, untroubled by the thought that he will be 40 even before the 2010-11 campaign kicks off.
He points out that of those who played in the Premiership's inaugural season 18 years ago, only Ryan Giggs, Sol Campbell and himself remain in top-tier football, a claim he will no longer be able to make if he stays at Fratton Park.
James has already played in three FA Cup finals with three different clubs, losing twice, with Liverpool (against Manchester United in 1996) and Aston Villa (against Chelsea in 2000), before helping Pompey beat Cardiff two years ago.
"We went on an open-top bus, and there were supposedly 200,000 people there. It was surreal, like a scene from one of those zombie films, seeing everyone migrating towards that one area. For me, that spectacle was better than the final itself."
Might there be another such victory parade tomorrow? It sounds more unlikely than the plot of any zombie film, but this is Pompey we're talking about, so yes, there might. (© Independent News Service).
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