John Sullivan: The Big Interview

A city rejoiced in the preservation of its football club, while Brazilian dancers added to the party.

Wednesday, 2nd March 2016, 7:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:30 pm
John Sullivan. Picture: Joe Pepler

Then came the beginning of massive Pompey reconstruction.

The aftermath of the life-saving High Court success in April 2013 saw Guy Whittingham appointed as permanent manager, with physio Steve Allen his assistant.

Necessitating a squad to be built from scratch for the promotion push from League Two, that summer heralded the arrival of 11 new faces to Fratton Park.

Meanwhile, five survivors of the previous campaign – David Connolly, Patrick Agyemang, Johnny Ertl, Phil Smith and Yassin Moutaouakil – were retained.

The 2013-14 season was declared a bright new era under community ownership.

By the end of it, caretaker boss Andy Awford had triumphed in keeping Pompey in the Football League.

Whittingham, followed by Richie Barker, departed as managers. There was to be no instant return to League One.

John Sullivan was a member of this glorious fresh start and the goalkeeper for the opening-day match against Oxford United.

Pompey failed their audition piece, slipping to a 4-1 defeat in front of a crowd of 18,181. Sullivan was immediately dropped.

The former Charlton player featured only seven times during the campaign before quitting professional football.

It was not supposed to happen that way.

Sullivan said: ‘Unfortunately for us we were the first crop after the community ownership came in.

‘So many new players arriving at once was a huge issue. Generally, when you go to a club you want the core of the squad to be there, with a couple of players added each season. We were different.

‘Mind you, I am sure if we were put together at the start of the season by a manager like Paul Cook you would have seen different results.

‘On paper it wasn’t a bad squad but generally we all underperformed apart from a couple of players.

‘The fact we were trying to stay up at the end of the season was crazy.

‘I can talk about this now because I have left the career but at times it felt like “we are Portsmouth and we’ll get back promoted, we are too big for this division”.

‘Every player says the same when they join, I did! The reality is the club is in League Two.

‘One of the reasons I joined was the thought of playing in front of 15,000 to 17,000 fans, what a prospect for a player of our ability.

‘Let’s not beat around the bush here, we are League Two players who are generally much of a muchness.

‘There are so many players out there at that level for who even playing against Portsmouth is going to be their career highlight.

‘As a team, though, we also lacked a few leaders.

‘I know Paul Robinson from my time at Millwall, one of the best professionals I played with. If only we’d had a couple like him.

‘Then there’s Michael Doyle. I’ve played against him and he’s not just a good captain but a leader.

‘We needed a few more of that kind to keep everyone intact.

‘Another mistake was the club going to Colchester for five days in pre-season. We should have gone to Spain for a week or something to really get to know each other away from everything.

‘When you have 20 new players together you need to spend a lot of time in each others’ company to really bond.

‘I understand there being a budget and Colchester was a great trip but we should have gone away somewhere else to get that team spirit.

‘You spend more time with your team-mates than your families, you really do, and maybe we could have had a bit more help.

‘I think that reflected in a few performances where we weren’t as much as a team as we could have been.

‘I had a feeling pretty much early on that, although we were the rebirth of Portsmouth, it would have taken something extraordinary to get promoted that season just because of the way we were put together.’

Sullivan arrived at Fratton Park having impressed for AFC Wimbledon in their successful battle against relegation.

Recruited within days of scheduled number one Simon Eastwood opting to join Blackburn, he represented one of Whittingham’s early signings.

With Smith also on the Blues’ books, the pair battled it out for the opening 11 matches of the campaign.

Yet Sullivan never played for Pompey again following the September 4-2 debacle at York.

And he feels there were flaws in the club’s recruitment policy.

He added: ‘In my eyes, maybe the research on us wasn’t done as well as it could have. There seems to be a much better infrastructure at the club now.

‘Did they really know what they were signing? Did they see me play at Wimbledon often or did they hear: “John did well at Wimbledon”? Did they really know about my ability? Did they watch me, really study my game and think: “This is the keeper for us”?

‘Or did they just sign me because I was a free transfer and heard I did well? “Let’s bring him in. If he is good, great. If not, we’ll bring someone else in”.

‘So did Portsmouth know much about me? No, because after one game they dropped me.

‘I was told I was brought in to be number one, then I get the number 25 shirt and am dropped after one match.

‘No matter how strong you are it does knock your confidence.

‘I also felt sorry for Phil Smith. He would go in the team, make a mistake and I’d be back in – for both of us it was a hard situation.

‘Generally in the goalkeepers’ union everyone knows their place. I’ve been at clubs where I know I’m number two and it is okay because I am striving to be number one.

‘Your job is to push him. If he gets injured, if his form drops, if he gets sent off, be ready to play.

‘Whereas we didn’t know who would be starting each game.

‘Eventually Trevor Carson came in and was unlucky not to get a contract. He was fantastic.’

These days Sullivan is a real estate agent in Las Vegas.

Qualifying in September, he has so far sold property worth more than half a million dollars in the state of Nevada.

He no longer plays football, not even among friends, as he focuses on a fresh career away from the beautiful game.

He said: ‘I know I didn’t play to the best of my ability at Portsmouth and you just have to stand up, be a man and accept that.

‘I am not blaming anyone for not playing week in, week out. I just think I could have had maybe a bit more support from the start.

‘I look at that team and David Connolly was exceptional, Tom Craddock had a lot of ability but suffered bad injury problems, Simon Ferry was a fantastic player but it didn’t work out for him through injuries.

‘Sonny Bradley started the season unbelievably well before his form dipped. Andy Barcham is in good form at Wimbledon right now and Ricky Holmes was involved in an awful lot of goals.

‘But off the field there was a lack of experience, the structure wasn’t there. It was no-one’s fault, the club was starting again.

‘Things take time, they don’t happen overnight, they just don’t.

‘It just wasn’t the right time for any of us. It didn’t work out, that happens in football.’


I respected David, the career he had and his knowledge of the game was fantastic.

He demanded tip-top professionalism every time. If he had problems with people I don’t really know too much about that but he had played at such a high level and had high demands.

If you got him on a one-on-one and talked about the game, he would mention things which wouldn’t even cross your mind.

Is every player going to get on with everyone else? Of course not. I had huge respect for David and in the future he will go on to be a great manager.

When we did finishing drills in training, he was the best scorer I have ever come across, an exceptional player.


I don’t regret joining Portsmouth. If I had stayed at Wimbledon, would I have done better and been happier? Yes. But I think I was delaying the inevitable.

The reality is I lived my dreams being a professional footballer – now I am in a place where I love my new career and feel I can really build myself.


I actually liked Richie Barker, even if I wasn’t playing under him. For managers, sometimes it doesn’t work out.

His goalkeeping coach, Anthony Williams, was cool, very laid-back but I prefer someone hard-working like Dave Coles. If Colesie had stayed for longer he probably could have turned my Pompey career around.