Chris Dunlavy looks at the career of Portsmouth legend Andy Awford
THERE is never a good time to break your leg. But for Andy Awford, it really couldn’t have been any worse.
It was September 28 1994, when Awford, then 22 and Portsmouth’s star defender, went for a 50-50 with West Brom’s hulking centre-back Gary Strodder and snapped his leg in four places.
Two years earlier, Awford had been one of a glut of home-grown youngsters who had captured the nation by taking Liverpool all the way to an FA Cup semi-final replay, losing only in a penalty shoot-out.
A year after that, those same players took Pompey to within a single point of promotion to the Premier League.
And one by one those stars were plucked away. Darren Anderton, the eldest and brightest, joined Spurs for £1.75m immediately after the Cup run.
Kit Symons went to Man City, Darryl Powell to Derby. Awford, an England Under-21 international, was the last, and the scouts peppering Fratton Park suggested the Premier League was an inevitability.
But in the split second it took Strodder to mis-time his challenge, it became an impossibility. It was 1996 when Awford eventually returned, his pace diminished and mobility gone. And in 2000, he quit the game aged just 28.
“There were four of us back then who had all had a bit of a nibble from Premier League clubs,” he says.“It was a special crop that earned the club millions. They were all sold for fortunes and I’m the only one who ended up costing the club money!
“In the end, I didn’t retire or take an insurance pay-off. It was just my body telling me it had had enough. My right knee was a mess and I’d had a neck problem since the start of the season. Truth is, if I had gone to another club I doubt I wouldn’t have passed the medical.
“It is a regret giving up playing. It has been a great life and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
If there is a saving grace, it’s that Awford at least started early. A trainee at Pompey, he played part-time for Worcester City and in 1987, aged just 15 years and 88 days, came on as a substitute against Boreham Wood to become the youngest player in FA Cup history – a record that stands to this day.
“I was a schoolboy playing against men, but I think I held my own and it was good experience,” said Awford. “It taught me very early what the game is really about.” Less than two years later he was at it again, Pompey boss John Gregory making 16-year-old Awford the club’s youngest-ever player when he started a Division Two match against Crystal Palace.
But it was under former Oxford and Derby boss Jim Smith that Awford made the majority of his 400-plus Pompey appearances.
“He was a tremendous defender, one of the best I’ve worked with,” said Smith, who would later appoint Awford as his assistant at Oxford United.
“Even though he was very young he read the game brilliantly and was more than strong enough.The year we missed out on promotion he and Kit Symons only conceded nine goals at home. He should have played higher, no doubt.”
After retirement, Awford became Pompey’s chief scout and later reserve-team manager under Harry Redknapp.
“I retired early and at 28 thought I was going to be the next England manager,” said Awford. “Then I met Harry Redknapp and realised it would be a lot harder than that.”
So Awford set about doing every badge he could find, as well as working with Oxford and later as an assistant at lowly Bognor – all while working as a teacher.
By the time he returned to head up Pompey’s academy during the dark days of 2011, he was rapidly becoming one of the most respected youth coaches around.
Though straightened circumstances hastened their passage, the likes of Jed Wallace, Ryan Williams (now at Fulham) and countless others have been moulded into first team regulars by Awford, whose work was recognised in 2013 by an FA outstanding contribution award.
Since then, he has become one of just 16 coaches hand-picked for the FA’s elite coaching course.
“The lads take the micky and call me ‘Mr Course’ and to be fair I have invested a bit of time in them,” he admits.
And it shows. Since being elevated to caretaker manager when Richie Barker was sacked in late March, Awford has won three straight games to power Pompey away from danger.
“It was a gamble to give up teaching, which he’s worked very hard at,” said old pal Symons, now academy director at Fulham.
“But he’s a great coach with a lot to offer and Pompey through and through. He’s perfect for the job.”