When Portsmouth ended their 15-year wait for top-flight football back in 2003, few had played a bigger part in that season’s historic triumph than Scottish hitman Mark Burchill. And the former Fratton Park favourite is backing the good times to return under Paul Cook.
Ladbrokes News caught up with the 36-year-old to discuss Pompey’s promotion hopes, the club’s loyal support and his memories of winning the old Division One title. Grab yourself a brew and read on!
Ladbrokes News: Portsmouth are currently fourth in League Two, just two points off the automatic promotion spots. Is this the season we finally see them make the step back up to the third-tier, or are you tipping them to just fall short once again?
Mark Burchill: I think they’ll get there. The club are in a decent financial state right now, and [manager] Paul Cook has had some financial backing. They’ve brought in one player already this month, and I think they’ll actually make a few more additions between now and the end of January.
But even with the squad already there, if you look at the way they’re performing, I think Portsmouth are definitely good enough to finish in those top three spots. And if they can add another striker, then I think they’ll be real favourites to go up.
LN: The Pompey fans are due some good times in exchange for the loyal and vocal support they’ve given the side during some pretty dark periods. Can they make a big difference in this promotion push?
MB: They’ve had such a turbulent time since the turn of the decade, and those supporters really don’t deserve it.
The Portsmouth fans are fantastic – they keep singing and encouraging the side even when things have looked very bleak, so a promotion this year is the least they deserve. I never saw fans quite like them at any other club in England – they’re the best.
I genuinely think that when it comes to the crunch, they can have a huge impact on what happens on the pitch. As you get closer to the end of the season in a promotion push, every game becomes a ‘must win’, and I genuinely do think the encouragement you get at Fratton Park can help drag the ball into the net.
That was the case when we got promoted – they were a major factor in some of those really tight wins we had at home. I’m sure now with the club being fan-owned, that the people in the stands play an even bigger part.
Obviously, you’ve got to give huge credit to Paul Cook as well – it’s no easy task turning around a ‘sleeping giant’. And I think if he stays in the long term, they can certainly make it back up to the Championship.
LN: There are some really good young players in that squad – the likes of Conor Chaplin, Matt Clarke, Jack Whatmough etc. What do you think makes the club such a success in finding and developing emerging talent?
MB: I think there’s a good pool of talent in the area, because Portsmouth is a football mad city. Youngsters want to play the game, and the vast majority of them dream of stepping out at Fratton Park.
It’s part of the club’s traditions, as well. There was a really good young crop of talent coming through when I was at Pompey – Mark Wilson who’s now at Bournemouth was in the youth setup, and Gary O’Neil was breaking into the first-team as well.
Hopefully they can hold onto Conor Chaplin, at least until the end of this season. It’s no surprise there’s been Premier League interest in him, but he’s at the right place to progress right now.
I’d say that Portsmouth – and also Southampton, to be honest – have a great scouting network, and that’s obviously a big factor in bringing through young talent from outside of the local area.
LN: They’ve got a manager in Paul Cook with experience of winning this division – with Chesterfield back in 2012-13. Do you think that gives Pompey a big advantage?
MB: Absolutely. I think Paul rubs people up the wrong way sometimes because he’s quite outspoken, but I like him. He’s a good fit for the club as well – he’s a straightforward, hardworking guy for a club from a really proud working-class city.
He wears his heart on his sleeve, and that’s something which is sure to motivate his side, and it’s a quality I know the fans appreciate as well.
As you say, Paul’s been there and done it. He did a fantastic job over in Ireland with Sligo Rovers before coming to Chesterfield, and arrived at Portsmouth with a great amount of pedigree.
Even if they don’t go up this season, I couldn’t see them falling short again next year. He’s a successful guy, and it’ll happen for him sooner rather than later.
LN: There’s a lot of talent in the division as a whole. Are there any teams or players outside of Fratton Park who’ve impressed you so far in this campaign?
MB: I think you have to look at Plymouth Argyle, with the job Derek Adams is doing there. He was very unlucky not to get them promoted last season, when they fell just short at the final hurdle [losing the play-off final 2-0 to AFC Wimbledon].
They’re in the automatic spots now, and I can’t see them dropping out. Derek’s a smart guy, and he’ll make sure that his players use that hurt from last season to their advantage.
The performance they produced at Anfield will also have given them massive confidence. If you can get a result against this Liverpool side, you can do it against anyone.
LN: And finally – you played with some top-class talent at Portsmouth, the likes of Robert Prosinecki, Yakubu and Paul Merson, and helped the club win promotion to the top flight. What are your memories of your time there?
MB: I loved playing for Portsmouth. Obviously my time there was hampered by injuries, but I got to play and develop alongside those great players you mentioned – along with the likes of Steve Stone and Arjan De Zeeuw.
To play with Prosinecki was incredible. He was one of the most expensive players in world football when he joined Real Madrid in the early 1990s. So that was a great experience.
But the best thing about my time has to be the fans. They were unbelievable with me, and I still get Pompey fans on social media wanting to chat about those times, and anytime I’m in the area, I get a really nice reception. I think they liked what I was about on the pitch, and as a person.
Next up for Portsmouth is a trip to Crawley Town on Saturday, with 8/11 for the south coast club to make it six wins in 10 on the road.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing