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FIRST PERSON

His FA Cup runneth over

May 18, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- Here's a brazen breach of sportswriting etiquette: We won.

I mean, to Hades with objectivity: We won.

Yeah, we beat Cardiff City, 1-0, in the final of the venerable FA Cup in chilly Saturday drizzle at Wembley Stadium, meaning the world's oldest soccer tournament has gone for the first time since 1939 to Portsmouth, a club from England's south coast or, you know, "we."

Not everybody can use the "we," but I received judicious permission in April 2007, after a match, in a pub, from a blue bear.

To explain, I moved to England in 2006, carefully chose a favorite club from the celestial Premier League and wrote a book about resuming fandom after decades of press boxes, with the American version due out in August and titled "Bloody Confused! A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer."

Avoiding the route of choosing from among the mastodons Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal, I sought unpretentious grit and uncommon exuberance, and found it in a bandbox of a stadium near the English Channel, Fratton Park, the beautifully decrepit home to Portsmouth, or "Pompey."

Buying tickets as do real people, riding trains to matches, hearing impromptu songs, marveling at the corrugated steel of the English stomach that can blithely hold a vat of beer even well before a 3 p.m. kickoff, I came across an extraordinary human dressed as a blue bear, with a Portsmouth insignia on the furry chest.

I first spotted him in February 2007 on a train and then on a bus clearing a fogged window with his right blue paw. I soon knew the distinctive honor and digestive rigor of pubs and stadiums with the phenomenal Charlie Allum (bear), the glorious Dan Pawsey (friend of bear) and the luminous Dylan Hopkins (friend of bear), all then 27, all with Pompey in their corpuscles.

Smelling Portsmouth's hugest day since the back-to-back titles of 1949 and 1950, the bear set apparent ursine air-miles records last week by flying from his current habitat of Sydney, 31 hours with a night-long stopover in Abu Dhabi. By Saturday afternoon, we'd all reconvened in front of the world's greatest stadium, and those three filed in.

I headed for a Wembley pub.

My press-credential request had met decline, the far-flung hamlet of Los Angeles losing out to excessive demand from Portsmouth and Welsh media. (Fair enough.) My ticket search had been half-hearted and racked by guilt pangs about hogging the seat of somebody who'd suffered decades for this. (I'd non-suffered for 20 months.) I arrived at the pub, the stadium visible out the window, trying to picture the seat I might've had occupied by somebody who'd lived through the 1970s. (That's when Portsmouth languished in the fourth tier of English soccer, or barely north of oblivion.)

"Before the kickoff today, I was in tears," said Pompey fan Ted Hill, who'd spent 40 years craving a day like Saturday as opposed to my two seasons spent crying when "we" beat Manchester United in April 2007 and following a club incessantly in the league's top 10, including eighth for 2007-08, best finish since 1956 -- and now . . . this.

This: the rarest of days, May 17, 2008. The FA Cup, the cherished season-long tournament that runs concurrently with the league season, had its first final since 1991 lacking any of the four mastodons. It had Portsmouth, which two springs ago almost plummeted out of the Premier League, but which won, 1-0, at Manchester United in a quarterfinal in March. It had Cardiff, 12th in the second tier, first Welsh club in the final since 1927.

It had dreamy-eyed fans singing songs on the Jubilee Line of the Tube, the Welsh fans crooning words that indicated a certain distaste for England. It had a blue army against a blue army, both fan bases chanting "Blue Army" to achieve redundancy.

Then it began, and the Nigerian striker Kanu steered in a goalkeeping error in the 37th minute for Portsmouth's goal, and Pompey withstood about 20 closing minutes of intermittent pelting.

"Petrified," Hopkins said.

"I kept thinking they would score," a blue bear said.

"And it just dragged and dragged," Hopkins said.

"Massive relief," Pawsey said.

Finally, a whistle, and I confess to a trace of mist at the big-screen sight of Harry Redknapp, Portsmouth's 61-year-old English manager awarded his first major cup. I relished seeing the 30-something veterans, defender Sol Campbell and goalkeeper David James, seemingly as elated as the fans. And I loved hearing later that a blue bear almost cried and probably would have "if I wasn't in a stupid suit."

I ran back to the stadium to see grins on fans filing out and hear one of many men in curly blue wigs saying, "Heaven! I'm gonna wake up! Pinch me! Pinch me!"

Hill: "Total euphoria, like all your Christmases come at once."

And wearing my navy-blue Portsmouth jacket in a case of clear bias, a fan after years of shunning fandom, I felt just a hint of what fans do feel when daydreams do come. So I guess I probably should get back to the press box and shut up before I become some crowing nuisance.

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