Meet Pompey's last champions of England

As the relationship began to disintegrate, Milan Mandaric confronted Harry Redknapp over his recruitment policy.

Saturday, 23rd April 2016, 2:41 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:38 pm
The Portsmouth Schools team celebrate winning the English Schools Football Associations Under-15 Inter Association Trophy in 2004 with team manager Graham Bryant, far left

‘You want to buy more players? Why don’t you coach the ones you have got?,’ asked Pompey’s owner in May 2004.

His flow continued: ‘What about these Portsmouth schoolboys, I hear they want to play here, what are they like?’

Blues boss Redknapp reacted with a shrug of the shoulders and replied: ‘I haven’t seen them’.

Mandaric responded: ‘Well, who is this bloke Bryant running the team?’

Pompey’s owner was referring to Graham Bryant, a PE teacher at St Edmund’s Catholic School.

The 54-year-old from Copnor would retire from the profession two years later, but at that moment was being lauded in the Fratton Park corridors of power for leading Portsmouth Schools to national glory.

‘Jim Smith told us that story about Milan and Harry’s argument, although I’ve never found out if it was true,’ reminisced Bryant.

‘I’d like to think it is, Jim was Harry’s assistant at the time and one day repeated it to Louis Bell while in his taxi. I can imagine it was accurate because Redknapp didn’t even come to the second leg of the final at Fratton Park!’

The aforementioned Bell was an under-12s coach at Pompey’s Centre of Excellence and a former St Edmund’s pupil of Bryant.

Their paths again crossed more than two decades later when Bell’s son, also called Louis, enrolled at the Arundel Street school.

And so began the double act which would, in youth football terms, give Portsmouth its only champions of England.

Next week marks 12 years since Portsmouth Schools captured the prestigious English Schools’ Football Association’s Under-15 Inter Association Trophy.

It remains the sole occasion in the competition’s continuous 112-year existence the city has hoisted it aloft.

Bell senior added: ‘We had a parents’ evening and, knowing plenty of the lads through my work with Landport, I told Graham their football team would be cracking.

‘The school never really had a strong side until that point because they didn’t own any playing fields.

‘The problem was there was no Portsmouth Schools under-15s team – so I volunteered to be coach. Needing a teacher to be involved, Graham took charge as manager.

‘We were up and running. Graham laughed when I told him we would win it. We did, though!’

St Edmund’s formed the backbone of that successful squad, supplying Stephen Horsley, Jason Prior, Billy Huntley, James Wilson, Dex Boyle and, of course, Bell junior.

The city had eight schools for Bryant and Bell to select from, making it among the smallest authorities in the country.

Regardless, their journey took them to the final against Bishop Auckland, with a first leg at Durham City attended by 1,800.

Skipper Tom Roberts netted the only goal of the game and Portsmouth headed into the Fratton Park second leg with a prized lead.

Bryant said: ‘We’d actually missed the deadline to register for the competition – but still applied.

‘Then Bristol dropped out at the last minute and we were in. You could say our name was on the cup!

‘I was retching in the toilets before the game at Bishop Auckland, I was so nervous we were going to get hammered.

‘Our team was full of good players, there were no stars.

‘Billy Huntley was on the books of Southampton and once told me: “I don’t think I’m going to get my scholarship, they have got someone better than me”.

‘Well, he was right, he wasn’t kept on – and the striker he talked about was Theo Walcott!

‘Jake Thomson was also at Southampton and it was through their links which led to the offer of St Mary’s for our home leg, as Pompey were being difficult!

‘Peter Storrie had told us: “Nobody plays on Fratton Park unless it’s our first team”. So Louis got Jim Smith to have a word and they soon realised the publicity of playing at St Mary’s wouldn’t have been good. We paid all costs, including for the Tannoy and gatemen.

‘Around 3,500 fans turned up to cheer us on and the kick-off had to be delayed for 10 minutes to cope.’

According to Bell senior, it wasn’t only Southampton who offered to stage that second leg, Anfield was also mooted – despite Liverpool not even in the final.

‘As the first side through, we were given home advantage for the second leg,’ said the ex-taxi driver.

‘Before Liverpool played Bishop Auckland in the other semi-final, their manager wanted a favour.

‘He called me and said: “Can we swap venues? We’re supposed to be at Anfield in the first leg but I think we’re going to win it and it would be nice to do it in front of our own fans”.

‘I replied: “Hold on a minute, you aren’t even in the final”. His reply was: “That’s a formality”.

‘Well, Liverpool went on to batter Bishop Auckland – only to lose to an 89th-minute goal!

‘Don’t worry, I phoned him back!’

It was Bell junior who would net the winning goal on that glorious Fratton Park occasion on the evening of April 27, 2004.

The striker on Pompey’s books latched on to Matt Docherty’s stoppage-time clearance and raced half the length of the pitch to net in front of the Fratton end for an aggregate 2-0 success.

Unfortunately for Bell, he was released at the end of his scholarship three years later, along with team-mates Ray Rogers and Roberts.

Almost 12 years on and the majority of that triumphant squad no longer play football competitively.

There are exceptions, Docherty and Wilson are at Bosham, Roberts turns out for Bemerton Heath Harlequins and Sean Howe is at Fareham Town.

Thomson appeared 16 times for Southampton before representing Bournemouth, Torquay and Exeter in the Football League. Today he is with the Hawks.

Another who reached the professional ranks was Jason Prior, with AFC Wimbledon. A defensive midfielder and reserve keeper 12 years ago, he has scored 151 goals in 215 games for current club Bognor.

As for the much-travelled Bell junior, he is presently with Bosham.

‘Not a lot of them are playing any more, some have either jacked it in or are turning out in Saturday football,’ said the 27-year-old.

‘Many of us still keep in touch, though. Myself, Matt Docherty and Stephen Horsley help James Wilson run Meon Milton under-sevens.

‘That final doesn’t seem like 12 years ago. I still remember that ball being cleared and running towards the keeper, who was way back on his line.

‘I had ages and looked down – the next time I looked up he was right on me, but I scored!

‘We knew each other as kids, had grown up together either on the same side or as opponents, and possessed a real togetherness.

‘That is how we won it.’

The following year a Portsmouth Schools under-15 team was unable to defend the title, increased school commitments dictating Bryant could no longer spare the time.

Bell volunteered to stay on, yet without a teacher to assist it was decreed the side could not compete.

The under-15s do remain, however, and last Saturday beat Aldershot 5-2 to reach the Pickford Shield final, with Bryant refereeing.

After leaving teaching in 2006, he spent five years as a concierge at the Meon Valley Marriott Hotel & Country Club in Shedfield.

Now aged 66, he is chairman of Peter Ashley Activity Centres at Fort Purbrook and Fort Widley.

Bell has worked the local non-league circuit in various managerial roles and is presently boss of Hampshire Premier League table-toppers Baffins Milton Rovers.

The 53-year added: ‘It was the first time in 100 years Portsmouth Schools had won it – but they won’t win it again for another 100 years.

‘Schools football has been so watered down, schools have cut budgets and teachers no longer have the time.

‘It was in a better place back then than now. That’s a tragedy.’