Even by its own lofty standards, the 2007/08 edition of the Premier League was extraordinary. Inspired by a violently proficient front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, Sir Alex Ferguson’s European champions-in-waiting lifted the title, with a staggering +58 goal difference amassed en route, leaving misfortunate title-chasers Chelsea and Arsenal cursing their luck, with the London pair having set record-high points tallies for second and third-place finishers, respectively.
Across the season, Tottenham and Reading played out a deliriously entertaining 6-4 in December, Middlesbrough thumped Manchester City 8-1 in May, and, throughout the campaign, all manner of magnificent hat-trick-related history was made. Emmanuel Adebayor became the first player to score three goals in consecutive matches home and away to the same team in the same season – in electric 5-0 and 6-2 victories against Derby – while Wigan’s barnstorming 5-3 win over Blackburn in December saw hat-tricks scored by two opposing players in the same game for the first time in Premier League history, Marcus Bent scoring thrice for the Latics and Roque Santa Cruz doing likewise for Rovers.
And then there was the glorious failure to launch of Derby, with Billy Davies’ (and, later, Paul Jewell’s) Rams shattering the record for the worst Premier League performance since the introduction of the three points for a win rule. One win, eight draws, 29 losses; 20 goals for, 89 goals against; 11 points. Fewest ever wins, worst goal difference in the 38-game era, joint most defeats in a Premier League campaign. It was all so beautifully hideous.
Though for all their disparate and diversely dramatic exploits, there was one distinct 90-minute period of football that best encapsulated the wondrous insanity of the 2007/08 Premier League season – and it was a game that involved not a single one of the aforementioned clubs. This honour befell the match that, on 29 September 2007, set its competition’s record for the most goals in a single game: Portsmouth 7-4 Reading.
Two seasons before, Pompey had escaped relegation from the Premier League by just four points, but, in the latest full campaign, they’d banished all nascent fears of the drop and finished the season as high as ninth, just two points shy of securing a UEFA Cup berth.
Reading, meanwhile, in the same season Portsmouth had spent their days glancing nervously over their shoulder, had romped to the Championship title with 106 points and had followed that with a wildly impressive eighth-place finish in their first season in the top tier of English football, ending the season one position and one point better off than Pompey.
Heading into the game, the home team were sat in 11th-place in the league, looking upwards after an impressive 1-0 victory away to Blackburn. Reading were also on something of a high, having recently secured only their second win of the season, 2-1 at home to Wigan.
A soon-to-be extremely busy Fratton Park crowd were made to wait just six minutes before being brought to their feet for the first time that afternoon. After Papa Bouba Diop had nicked possession back for his team on the halfway line, Benjani received the ball and played it smartly behind the Reading defence for John Utaka to chase. Continuing his own run into the penalty area, it was Benjani to whom the ball then sailed, waiting unmarked at the back-post for a tap in to make it 1-0 to the hosts. Reading custodian Marcus Hahnemann threw his arms up in disgust at the concession of such a simple goal. And he thought he was frustrated then.
In a game that would average a goal every 8.18 minutes, incredibly it would be another half an hour before the second would be scored. This one, again, began with Diop and ended with Benjani. Given possession a little way into the Reading half, the Zimbabwean lifted his head and began running at pace. He passed Nicky Shorey as he surged infield, escaped the attention of Brynjar Gunnarsson, then wrong-footed Ívar Ingimarsson. Cutting the ball back onto his right foot, Benjani let fly a low shot that none of Shorey’s attempted slide, Michael Duberry’s out-stretched foot, nor Hahnemann’s desperate dive could prevent. Two goals for Benjani; two goals for Pompey.
It looked certain that Portsmouth would be carrying a three-goal advantage into the half-time interval when a quick break saw Diop switch the ball to Benjani, whose header across the face of goal found Glen Johnson no more than three yards out and with almost a whole open goal to aim at. But a heroic last-ditch dive from Hahnemann prevented the Royals from falling even further behind, and the American goalie’s teammates swiftly repaid him for his services with a goal of their own.
A low cross into the box clattered off a Portsmouth leg and landed at the feet of Liam Rosenior, who prodded it goalwards, but his attempt could only kiss the goalline after bouncing down off the crossbar. The close-range rebound off the left boot of Dave Kitson was denied by the legs of David James but the ball was finally put in by Stephen Hunt, who handed his team a lifeline just as the referee was lifting his half-time whistle to his lips.
Scarcely three minutes into the second half and Reading were level. Seemingly lacking confidence in the back-tracking Sol Campbell’s ability to deal with Hunt’s hopeful up-field punt, James came storming out of his goal with eyes on extinguishing the danger all by himself. But the Englishman succeeded only in pouring fuel on the fire as his wayward lunge missed both the ball and the grateful Kitson, who turned the ball into the empty net from distance. James closed his eyes and screamed at the heavens a particular four-letter expletive that you’ll win no prizes for guessing.
The Pompey crowd were on their feet again moments later, celebrating what they thought was a swift return to winning ways, as Benjani dropped deep to link-up with Johnson. The full-back then galloped forward before swinging in a tantalising cross that Diop met with a fantastic diving header to beat the Reading goalkeeper all ends up. He didn’t beat the linesman’s flag, however, despite replays showing the Senegalese midfielder to have been a clear couple of yards onside. The goal did come, though, moments later, as the unlikely combination of a Sylvain Distin cross and a deft Hermann Hreiðarsson header restored the advantage for Harry Redknapp’s men.
Around the hour mark, with only a comparatively meagre five goals to speak of thus far, Reading were gifted the chance to draw back level once again as an infield flick from Kitson found the arm of Diop and there stood referee Mark Halsey, just a few feet away, ready and willing to blow his whistle and point to the spot. But in the meeting of the minds that followed, David James emerged victorious, throwing himself to his left and parrying away Nicky Shorey’s spot-kick.
On 70 minutes, Reading looked to build an attack from midfield, but a loose touch from Gunnarsson allowed Sulley Muntari the opportunity to snuff out their move and find a quick pass through to Benjani, who was stood in acres of space between the two Reading centre-backs. Sprinting through to goal, Benjani suddenly found himself face to face with the goalkeeper, who’d come hurtling out of his goal in the desperate hope of shutting down Pompey’s latest attack.
Benjani, though, simply flicked the ball past the American and charged onwards, leaving a prostrate Hahnemann to spin awkwardly outside of his area like a wayward lawn bowl, before tapping into the open net to secure his hat-trick and put Portsmouth 4-2 up.
Before Steve Coppell could even hope for his team to stop the rot, it was five. A sumptuous period of play down the right eventually gave Sean Davis the opportunity to find a teammate not once but twice and it was his second cross that allowed the hardly enormous Niko Kranjčar to beat a trio of Gunnarsson, Graeme Murty and Hahnemann to the ball to nod in another Portsmouth goal.
Just two minutes later, the two offending outfielders were hooked by Coppell in favour of Shane Long and Emerse Faé, and the changes seemed to work as it was Reading who found the net next. Out of his goal again in order to claw clear a Faé cross, David James’ punch found James Harper on the edge of the area, whose volley made its way into the net thanks to a telling, if albeit unintentional, deflection off the backside of his teammate Shane Long. The fever dream continued.
Adequately intoxicated by the 81 minutes of madness they’d drunk in up to then, the Fratton Park faithful saw nothing unusual in imploring Sean Davis to “shooooooot” from some 30 yards; so, upon hearing their cries, the Pompey-midfielder-turned-professional-crowd-pleaser did precisely that. Where exactly the trajectory of his shot would have ended up had it not been deflected, we’ll sadly never know. Science still owes us that one. However, sadder still for Reading was that his shot cannoned off of the head of Ívar Ingimarsson and flashed past a helpless Hahnemann to make it 6-3 to the hosts.
Long since seduced by the party spirit, and seemingly unwilling to allow Davis to hog the whole of the limelight, Kranjčar began to unpack his bag of tricks. Threatening a run down the wing, the Croat cut inside Rosenior before being tripped by Long. Retaining possession, though, the referee allowed the midfielder to carry on – and carry on he did, clambering back to his feet before toying with the two Reading players again.
Feigning a shot, Kranjčar sold them a lie with a neat rabona chop and cut back onto his left foot before darting between them en route for the penalty area. Rosenior let him run, Long gave a half-hearted attempt at a block, and so it was the despairing block of Harper that finally, illegally, stopped him. A penalty to Portsmouth the result. Muntari placed the ball on the spot, retreated a few steps, before dispatching the penalty in the most Muntari way imaginable: by thumping it as hard as he could down the middle.
It was left to Campbell to have the final telling impact upon the occasion, as it was he whose attempted block turned Shorey’s frankly nihilistic first-time shot into the Portsmouth goal to leave David James annoyed once more, the fans incredulous, and the whole of Reading wondering just how it was they’d conspired to score four goals away from home in the Premier League yet somehow return to Berkshire with nothing to show for it.
Come the season’s end, once again, it was those in Portsmouth blue who were by far the happier of the two clubs. Though their impressive pursuit of European football had unravelled in the final weeks of the season, losing each of their last four league fixtures and finishing eighth, it was a willing sacrifice made in order to focus on the FA Cup final, from which they emerged victorious, beating Cardiff 1-0 at Wembley to lift their first piece of major silverware for nigh on six decades.
Elsewhere, Reading ended the campaign in 18th, falling through the trapdoor back down into the Championship on account of a subpar points tally and a goal difference painfully three goals worse than a mightily fortunate Fulham.
In the aftermath of a quite absurd game of football, Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp had clearly let the fun of the fair get to him as he opined to the press of the similarities between this game and the famous European Cup final that saw Real Madrid defeat Frankfurt by seven goals to three. And so, it was left to Reading boss Coppell to rather aptly summarise the Premier League’s one and only 11-goal thriller when he said: “It’s difficult to analyse a match like that and if you try you will be there a very long time.” So, for Steve’s sake, we’ll leave it there.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp