“I didn’t realise quite the level of intensity and hatred there was there. It was the one derby I hadn’t done – because they hadn’t played for so long – and I didn’t realise it was going to be right up there with all the others. It’s palpable. You understand how much it means to both sets of fans to win the match.” – Referee Graham Poll after the 2nd December 2003 derby at St. Mary’s.
In the build up to the next South Coast Derby on December 18th, I decided to have a look at the players who crossed the divide and turned out in Pompey blue and Southampton Red & White.
The second in this series looks at a man who unites the fans in their opinions of his abilities as a player and who fittingly made his last appearance as a South Coast player in a derby.
A South Coast derby will be hostile occasion for the away side at the best of times, but on the 7th January 1996, it was a particularly nerve wracking experience for one of the visiting Pompey players to the Dell.
For Jon Gittens, it was a case of returning to his old stomping ground as well as a matter of local pride.
Midlands born Gittens was a trainee Tailor while playing for local non-league side Paget Rangers when he was snapped up by Saints in 1985. The twenty one year old central defender made his first team debut in April the following year and initially looked like he was going to become a regular in the first division sides lineup. Gittens found it difficult to get games ahead of the relied upon Mark Wright and Kevin Bond though and having already gained a reputation for being rough and ready Gittens was offloaded to Swindon Town by Chris Nicholl for a fee of £40k.
Nicholl would pay ten times that to bring Gittens back to the Dell just four seasons later. Gittens second spell proved to be as fruitless as the first, playing second fiddle to the likes of Neil Ruddock and Richard Hall in the Premier League, and he was soon loaned to first division Middlesbrough.
While Gittens will never be remembered as one of the clubs best players, Saints fans will always look upon Gittens as a trier and a tough player, but one that “Never looked like cutting it at Saints” according to @ThePhilReed. “Gittens was flipping hard!” was the verdict from Saints fan @alexgbourne ”He was rock solid and gave his all.”
After helping Middlesbrough gain promotion to the Premier League, Gittens made his move to the North East permanent but found himself back on the South Coast and in the first division again with Portsmouth just a year later.
His first two seasons at Fratton saw Gittens establish himself as a regular under Jim Smith and then Terry Fenwick. Still renowned for his love of getting stuck in, Pompey fan @simmouae remembers him as a “booking a game man” as his no-nonsense approach made him a regular in front of the officials. Gittens had seemingly found his level in the First division, although Pompey were struggling, @Lord_Palmerston recalls “Gittens was strong but had the turning circle of an oil tanker. On his way downhill before he joined PFC but reasonable at our level”.
Gittens would find first team games more difficult to come by in the 1995/96 season and his trip back to the Dell in January 1996 in the FA Cup third round would prove to be his ninety ninth and last appearance for Portsmouth.
Gittens headed west to play for another set of rivals in Torquay United and Exeter City respectively before heading to non-league football.
After management spells with Fareham Town and Blackfield & Langley the UEFA A licensed coach is now training other coaches for the Football Association.