When John Mousinho was appointed Portsmouth manager in January 2023, most Fratton Park regulars saw it as a backwards step. Amid a sea of more popular and well-known candidates, his arrival on Portsea Island sparked more resignation than celebration.
Now 53 matches and just eight defeats into his reign, there’s no one else the club’s long-suffering supporters would rather have in the dugout. Before the 2-1 Boxing Day defeat at Bristol Rovers, Mousinho had lost just five games in League One, a record which put him level with Pep Guardiola during the equivalent period and means Portsmouth go into 2024 at the top of the table.
Not bad for a manager who didn’t even apply for the Pompey job after previous boss Danny Cowley and his assistant (and brother) Nicky were relieved of their duties.
“I knew that the job had come up, I actually knew the Cowleys really well from the pro licence [training course],” Mousinho tells i. “I felt for them when they lost their jobs here but I didn’t really think anything of it. I didn’t apply for the role – I never thought it would be a consideration.
“I was just keeping an interested eye on it as a player in League One. I was really surprised to get the call and once we started down the process it became apparent that it might be a possibility. But even to get the call in the first place was a real surprise.
“I’d always wanted to go into coaching, I’d always wanted to be a head coach or a manager. I just thought the pathway to a club like Portsmouth might be a bit different. I’d spent quite a bit of time at Oxford [as player and coach], so I thought that was a possibility, or maybe one of my former clubs or dropping down a couple of levels.”
Fittingly, Mousinho was a bolt from the blue.
Pompey finished the 2022-23 season with a spate of draws, ending with an 11-match unbeaten run but missing out on the play-offs by seven points. This season they have turned those one-point frustrations into something more substantial, helped by a welcome propensity for injury-time goals.
After a summer overhaul, Mousinho has built a Portsmouth squad with the kind of robust edge required to escape a division they have been marooned in since 2017. A festive blip aside, the club’s supporters are already dreaming of sharing a division with Southampton again, although Saints’ own form may see that moment postponed for another year at least.
As 2024 begins, the road to promotion may well be more complicated than the simple hop down the M27, but Pompey’s form – both at Fratton Park and away from the south coast – looks likely to ensure they will be involved in the promotion fight until the business end of the season.
“Throughout my formative years as a footballer, Portsmouth had been a Premier League club, they had won the FA Cup and then obviously gone through a tough time with administration,” Mousinho says.
“I had played at Fratton Park seven or eight times and got the same feeling – it’s a proper old ground and it’s a club that’s steeped in history and gets crowds of 20,000 fans every weekend with the potential to go even higher.
“I had played in that atmosphere and, to be honest, I hated it. It was an intimidating place to go and play, it’s not just what you walk into, it’s the changing rooms, you walk up the steps in a tightly packed tunnel.
“There’s a feeling of nostalgia. This is one of the last old proper grounds. Other grounds are nicer, but they’re a bit more sanitised. Everything about the ground, everything about the city – it’s an island city and has that kind of island mentality. Football means everything to the people here.
“Yes, there’s a pressure that comes with it but I was always very aware of that when I took the job. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think I was capable of handling that pressure and that responsibility.
“As much pressure as it brings, you get a huge amount of upside in terms of support. I asked the fans from the very beginning that whatever they thought of the appointment and however left-field it was, to get behind the boys. That’s exactly what they have done.”