Question: how do you spend the evening before your first ever match as a Premier League manager? Answer: round up all your players in a local hotel and hold a quiz. "The topic was sport," said the Portsmouth caretaker manager Paul Hart, before adding with a chuckle: "Not my thing really, we would have been better with general knowledge."
Winning the quiz was not, of course, the aim of the exercise. Rather it was about instilling solidity in a team that had unravelled under the recently sacked Tony Adams in preparation for the relegation fight into which Hart has been parachuted.
"Great teams have great togetherness," said Hart. "Ask Kiddo [Brian Kidd, the former Blackburn manager and England assistant whom Hart has persuaded to help him run Portsmouth while the club ponders a permanent appointment] about Manchester United, or look at the Leeds sides of the 60s and 70s. Those teams were tight as a drum."
Portsmouth were once tight, too. Last season they kept clean sheets in 16 of their 38 league matches but under Adams they shipped goals at a ruinous rate, and the fractured defence eventually seemed to break the team's spirit. That things deteriorated so alarmingly under a celebrated former Arsenal centre-back means Adams may be added to the list of men whose managerial careers served as perfect contrasts to their playing days. Hart, however, insists that his own past as a robust central defender, notably under the tutelage of Brian Clough, has prepared him well for the challenge of repairing Portsmouth. "I was brought up at Nottingham Forest and that manager never talked about anything other than clean sheets," said Hart. "It's the perfect base to start from."
The three points here were secured by defenders who had ventured forward — Glen Johnson scoring after a marvellous run down the right, and Hermann Hreidarsson heading in from a corner — but, with the likes of Peter Crouch and Niko Kranjcar tackling with a gusto rarely seen under Adams, Hart seemed to garner more pleasure from the defensive work of his attackers than vice versa.
Man City's lack of penetration around their opponents' box, shown here by comparison with Steven Ireland's passing in the home win against Boro, is one reason for their poor away form this year
"We saw very clever defending from the front," said Hart. "They were cute in pushing the centre-halves into areas they didn't want to go. Every one of the players was superb. They've listened to us banging on about shape and they've delivered what, in defensive terms, was an almost flawless performance."
Hart does not know for how long he will be in charge of the first team before being asked to return to his position as the club's director of youth operations, but he tentatively admitted that the "tingle" he felt on Saturday meant he would be tempted to remain where he is in the long term if invited to do so. Whatever the duration of his tenure, he is adamant he will not let standards slip from the heights reached in his first game. "What the players are going to find out is that that's how you should always come off a football pitch — absolutely goosed."
It is unlikely, meanwhile, that Manchester City's players were even close to "goosed" after this sorry defeat. They may have had to duck, however, as afterwards their manager, Mark Hughes, bore an almost murderous expression. The Brazilians, Robinho and Elano, turned in performances that were so unrecognisable from the sparkling ones they had produced for their country four days previously that City's No10 and No11 looked like impostors. But Hughes fumed that they were not the only of his charges guilty of "a lack of drive and determination".
"That can be levelled at almost everybody in the team, not just Robbie and Ela because that would be unfair on them and too charitable on others," said Hughes before admitting some unspecified radical action may be required to address City's woeful form on the road, where they have collected only six points from a possible 33. "Maybe it's time that everybody understands where we are with regard to our away performances and we all accept responsibility," said Hughes. "That includes myself and the staff. We need to make sure that the team understands exactly what we're doing."
Man of the match Glen Johnson (Portsmouth)