I must confess I never really got into the Pompey rivalry in my first few years as a Saints fan. Sure I cheered if I heard they lost, and sung along to anti Pompey songs at games, but that was about it. I started supporting Saints in 1997, so I'd never seen a south coast derby. To me Portsmouth were just some lower league team who I knew very little about. Why should I care about them when I'm watching the likes of Matthew Le Tissier and Marian Pahars every week I thought? I remember seeing some Pompey fans in a bar on holiday in the late 1990s or early 2000s when they had a televised Friday night game with someone like Gillingham. They saw me in my Saints shirt and chanted 'scummer' at me, but I just laughed it off. A similar thing happen in 2001 when a load of their fans visited St Marys for an England Under 20 match in which their star striker Peter Crouch was playing. Once again, I just didn't care. That would all change of course.
In 2003 Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth won promotion to the Premiership, the same year we finished 8th in the top flight and reached the FA Cup final. That summer was full of rubbish jokes and Robbie Williams sampled parody songs about how Pompey would only last a season in the Prem, before inevitably going back down and returning to their rightful place in the lower leagues. 21st December 2003, the date was set for the first South Coast derby since 1996, and the first in the league since 1988. As luck would have it, the two teams ended up meeting three weeks earlier in the Carling Cup. I got my first taste of a derby match, and started to really understand what it was all about. It was the most heated atmosphere I've ever been involved in at a football match. James Beattie scored a brace in a fairly comfortable 2-0 win to send the visitors out. A few weeks later, Jason Dodd scored the opener direct from a corner in a comprehensive 3-0 win at St Marys. Marian Pahars added the second with a screamer in the second half, before James Beattie rounded things off late in the game to put Saints in 4th place in the Premiership. I was starting to really get into the rivalry by now, and my hatred would only grow from here. By the time we faced them again at Fratton Park on 21st March 2004 much had changed. Gordon Strachan had left, and Paul Sturrock had recently been appointed. They were stuck in the bottom three pre-match, and another defeat against their local rivals would surely signal the end for Pompey's Premiership dream. They won though, 1-0 through a second half Yakubu strike. After the goal you could see years of built up frustration coming out from the Fratton Park fans. They hadn't won a derby match since 1988 when they beat us 2-0 at the Dell. You have to go back even further for their last home win, which was in September 1963. Many fans in the ground that day had grown up with Pompey firmly in the shadows of Southampton for their whole lives, so this was something special. The truth is we just never turned up that day. We were lucky to only lose by one, although Kevin Phillips was literally inches from an equaliser in the dying minutes when his shot hit the inside of the post. After the game some Pompey fans thought it would be a great idea to trash their own town (as you do). The youngest banning order in the country was given to a female fan. Back on the pitch, Pompey kicked on from their derby day win and comfortably survived after a fine run of late form. In fact, they finished just one place below us after some indifferent form under Sturrock. Now we'd have another season of the South Coast derby, and things would only get more intense.
By the time we faced Pompey again on 13th November 2004 things had gone from bad to worse. Paul Sturrock was sacked just two games into the campaign amid rumours of dressing room unrest. He was replaced by the clueless Steve Wigley, a former Portsmouth player who had been on the coaching staff at St Marys for years. Wigley hadn't won a single league match by the time derby day rolled around. They were sat comfortably in mid table, and expecting their first ever win at St Marys. It looked as though they might get it when Andreas Jakobsson put through his own net after just 12 minutes. They taunted us with chants of "going down", but were quickly silenced when Dexter Blackstock equalised six minutes later. The game remained on a knife edge until Kevin Phillips hit the winner on 71 minutes. It was a nervy last few minutes, and we had on loan keeper Kasey Keller to thank for keeping us in it after a late Pompey onslaught. It should have been the turning point for us, but it wasn't. It proved to be a false dawn, and Wigley was sacked when results didn't improve. Pompey were having managerial problems of their own. Despite a decent start, Chairman Milan Mandaric had a falling out with Harry Redknapp. After weeks of speculation, Redknapp finally left his post at Fratton Park in November 2004 following the appointment of Velimir Zajec as director of football. When asked at his final press conference if he'd ever be tempted to take up the managerial position 'down the road' Redknapp replied "No chance". But he did.
In December 2004 Harry Redknapp was named Southampton manager. I've got to admit I thought it was a real coup at the time. In fact it was the most excited I'd ever been about a new managerial appointment. I had total confidence that Redknapp would repeat his success at Portsmouth for us and lead us to comfortable safety. The fact that his arrival annoyed Pompey fans so much was an added bonus too. Redknapp almost got off to the best possible start in his first game against Middlesbrough on December 11th. We put in our best performance in months, and looked completely comfortable at 2-0, until we somehow contrived to let the lead slip in stoppage time, drawing 2-2. It's probably not unfair to say the rest of the season might have turned out entirely different had we managed to hold out for a win that day. We lost our next match 5-1 at Tottenham, and picked up just two points in the four games that followed. Redknapp's first win as Saints boss came in the FA Cup 3rd round at Northampton. That set up a tie with, you guessed it, Portsmouth.