Portsmouth Football Club may have recently slipped from the upper echelons of the English game, a victim of boardroom incompetency and relegated to The Championship saddled with serious financial difficulties, but it was not long ago that they were basking in the glory of an FA Cup triumph under the stewardship of Harry Redknapp.
That 2008 title had capped one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, but Portsmouth’s most golden of ages came during the 1940s as they became one of the dominant forces in post-war British football.
The Football League had resumed normal service in 1946/47 after the conclusion of the Second World War, ‘Pompey’ finishing twelfth and eighth in the First Division in 1947 and 1948 respectively. With popular manager Jack Tinn having been replaced at the helm by Bob Jackson, there were some doubts as to whether or not the club would continue to progress at quite the rate it had been doing prior to the war.
The South Coast club’s last major title had come just months before the outbreak of conflict in 1939, a Cliff Parker-inspired Pompey beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 in front of 99,000 at Wembley. Eight years on, Portsmouth were celebrating their Golden Jubilee and hopeful of collecting some silverware despite having a squad largely bereft of senior internationals and household names.
However, Portsmouth, led by captain Reg Flewinn and powered by the goals of forwards Ike Clarke and Peter Harris, started the season in superb form and went unbeaten for thirteen games before defeat at Wolverhampton towards the end of October. Adopting the W-M system that was popular at the time and had been refined by former Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, Pompey enjoyed both the best defensive and attacking records in the division, the goals being shared around by a dynamic forward line.
An interesting sub-plot to the season was the inclusion in the squad of Lindy Delapenha, the first Jamaican to have ever played in English football. Having fought for the British army in the Middle East at the tender age of sixteen, Delapenha had been spotted while playing for an army representative XI and offered a trial at Arsenal. The Gunners eventually decided against signing the Jamaican right winger, but Jackson was more than happy to bring him to the South Coast in the April of 1948.
By all accounts an technically excellent footballer, Delapenha is believed to have been only the second ever black player to have joined an English club (Arthur Wharton being the first) and went on to become on of the most prolific goal scorers of the 1950s during his time at Middlesbrough where he briefly played alongside the great Brian Clough.
As the 1948/49 season entered its second half it began to look as though Portsmouth could become the first team in history to claim the league and cup double. Comfortably top of the table and into the semi-finals of the FA Cup, the campaign had gone without a hitch until Pompey drew Leicester City in the last four. Facing a team which included the tricky inside right Mal Griffiths and a powerful young centre forward by the name of Don Revie, Jackson’s side were undone and lost 3-1 in the game played at Highbury on 26th March.
Dreams of an historic double may have been crushed, but Portsmouth redoubled their efforts in the league and did enough to finish five points clear of Matt Busby’s ever-strengthening Manchester United. 50 years on from its foundation, Portsmouth Football Club had won its first Football League title and done it with a style and defensive security that few had thought this unremarkable squad capable of.
A second consecutive title followed in 1950, Jackson’s team drawing in record crowds of over 50,000 at Fratton Park as their popularity continued to grow. However, the manager departed the club in 1952 to take the job at Hull City, Portsmouth struggling to achieve the same levels of excellence under new boss Eddie Lever.
The club may have never again quite reached the heights it attained in the late 1940s, but its fans can look back fondly on those few years when Pompey most certainly “played up”.