Over the next few weeks our friends at the Pompey History Society will be taking a look back at some of the club’s league title successes. Graham Dubber, the society’s archivist, starts by telling the story of the record-setting 1901/02 campaign.
When, in 1898, a handful of Portsmouth businessmen announced their plans to form a professional football club in the town, it is unlikely that the local residents anticipated the speed and success with which the ambitious scheme was rolled out.
Within little more than a year, land was purchased, Fratton Park was built, club officials were appointed and players were signed up.
In their first season, 1899/1900, Pompey finished as runners-up to Tottenham in the Southern League.
The following year they were third, fully justifying the League’s decision to allow the fledgling club direct entry into the First Division, without the need to prove its worth further down the ladder.
Frank Brettell, whose appointment as the south coast outfit’s first manager had stunned the football world, made his name as boss at Bolton before joining Tottenham, where he built another force to be reckoned with.
It was a major surprise when he quit White Hart Lane with no explanation offered, but all became clear just a few days later when he was unveiled by Pompey’s.
But Brettell left the club by mutual consent in June 1901 after he and the directors failed to agree on one or two fundamental matters.
The team’s regular right-half, Robert Blyth, was promoted from within to become Pompey’s first player/manager.
He immediately set about preparing the club for the 1901/02 campaign. Their opponents, home and away, would be Brentford, Bristol Rovers, Kettering, Luton, Millwall Athletic, New Brompton, Northampton, Queens Park Rangers, Reading, Southampton, Swindon, Tottenham, Watford, Wellingborough and West Ham.
Pompey supporters were upbeat about the prospects for the new season, but the outcome of the opening day fixture at Kettering may have taken the edge off their bullishness.
The Shrimps, as the pink-shirted team had become known, lost 1-0, although the inauspicious start was soon forgotten as Blyth’s men embarked on what remains the most sparkling run of form in the club’s history.
Four straight wins were followed by two draws. Seven more victories followed, including an impressive 4-3 triumph against reigning champions Southampton at The Dell in November. By the turn of the year, Pompey had been beaten just once.
The first three matches of 1902 finished all square, but there was little cause for concern. That was followed by eight wins and two draws in a run that took the club through to the middle of April.
Three successes in four days over Easter, made the championship a near-formality. The second loss of the season, 2-0 at New Brompton, did not come until April 16.
It ended a run of 26 matches without defeat (including 19 wins) and Pompey soon got that shock result out of their system by hammering Brentford 7-1 in the final home fixture, with centre-forward Alex McDonald bagging four goals.
The season concluded with a third defeat, this time at Luton, but by then the result was of no great importance.
Pompey were already confirmed as Southern League champions. They finished on 47 points – five clear of their nearest challengers, Tottenham and Southampton. It was a remarkable achievement for a club that didn’t even exist just four years earlier.
In total, 22 players were called upon during the league campaign, but the line-up was generally a settled one. Inside-right Danny Cunliffe was ever-present and also finished as top scorer with 18 goals.
The season also saw some FA Cup success. Small Heath (later to become Birmingham City) were beaten at Fratton Park in the first round. Grimsby were their second round opponents and they were seen off after a replay.
Reading were then defeated at Elm Park, while Derby were held on home soil before Pompey bowed out of the competition with a 6-3 defeat in the replay at the Baseball Ground.
Just for good measure, Pompey also finished the season as champions of the Western League – a nine-club competition played mainly on midweek afternoons!
TAKING THEIR LEAVE
Sunderland-born Frank Bedingfield was Pompey’s star forward that season, scoring 12 goals in 16 Southern League appearances and 12 in nine Western League games.
He fell ill after scoring the cup winner at Reading in February 1902 and would never play again. He died of tuberculosis in South Africa two years later.
Winger Mickey Miecznikowski made his fifth and final appearance for the club at Luton on the last day of the season, scoring a consolation goal. He left the club for West Ham the following February.
STILL PLAYING THEM
In the 2019/20 season, Pompey faced Bristol Rovers and ‘New Brompton’ – now known as Gillingham – in League One.
WHO WERE YOU?
Founded in 1867, Wellingborough Town played in the Southern League against Pompey for four seasons until they resigned in 1905 after finishing bottom of the table.
The club folded in 2002, only to be reformed two years later, and currently compete in the United Counties League Premier Division, which is equivalent to the Wessex League.