Sunday, 10 June 2007

Porterfield the miracle worker on and off pitch

He is the FA Cup hero who is battling cancer but managing to create history in Armenia


Simon Turnbull reports
Published: 10 June 2007

For all the countless words that were said and written about David Beckham's contribution for England in Tallinn on Wednesday night, the most uplifting story of rehabilitation on the international football stage was unfolding 1,580 miles away, beyond the other side of Russia. At the Republican Stadium in Yerevan, Ian Porterfield stood next to the home dug-out, urging and inspiring Armenia to the most famous victory in their football history - a 1-0 success against Poland, the leaders of Group A in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

Today, Armenia's head coach undergoes six hours of chemo-therapy at the Saint Grigor Lusavorich Medical Centre in Yerevan, the country's capital. He is booked for another six-hour session tomorrow.

On 7 March Porterfield had an emergency operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon. "I'm still having treatment," he said on Friday, speaking from the Yerevan apartment he shares with his wife, Glenda. "I've got two chemotherapy sessions left, on Sunday and Monday. I'm trying to keep things low-key because I think I'm going to be OK. I'm going to get through this. Bobby Robson's had it three or four times and he's still kicking around."

Sir Bobby, in fact, has had cancer five times and is still alive and kicking at 73. Porterfield is 61, and he has survived a life-threatening scare once before.

Back in 1974 - the year after he scored the Wembley goal that caused one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup final history, securing Sunderland's 1-0 victory against Don Revie's mighty Leeds United - the gifted midfielder came perilously close to losing his life in a car crash. He suffered a badly fractured skull and a broken jaw. "I was very, very lucky to come out of it," he reflected.

The accident cost Porterfield an international playing career - he was on the brink of a Scotland call-up at the time - but he was back in training within two months and helped Sunderland to the Second Division title the following season. Thirty-three years later, his fighting spirit is shining through once again.

As a head coach, the Fifer has made his mark before. He happens to be the last man to replace Alex Ferguson in club management, at Aberdeen in 1986. He was also Chelsea's first manager in the Premier League and became a national hero in Zambia when guiding the African nation to within a goal of the 1994 World Cup, after the previous head coach and his playing squad had perished in a plane crash.

Armenia is Porterfield's fifth overseas posting as a national coach. Since August last year, the man who won the cup for Sunderland has been nurturing the international underdogs from the smallest of the former Soviet republics - a country recovering from the devastation of genocide, earthquakes and mass migration. In the most trying of personal circumstances, he has managed to gain international respectability for Armenia.

In the European Champion-ship qualifiers, there was a draw against Roy Hodgson's Finland and unlucky one-goal defeats against the Finns, Belgium and Poland before the heroics of the last eight days. With Porterfield back at pitchside and half-a-dozen first-choice players unavailable, Armenia won 2-1 in Kazakhstan a week yesterday and then beat Leo Beenhakker's Poles 1-0 in Yerevan on Wednesday, thanks to a second-half free-kick from a veteran striker called Hamlet Mkhitaryan.

"This is history for Armenia," Porterfield said. "They have never ever won two games in a row. They've beaten teams like Andorra but never a big team like Poland before.

"It was incredible in the stadium. We were playing a team who lost their first qualifying game but then won their next six matches. Poland have got some great players. They're an outstanding team. And as the game went on, Armenia got better and better and better. We were far, far the better team.

"We scored a wonderful free-kick. Hamlet, the guy who scored, is 33. He was quite magnificent. So were the rest of the team. We've played some really good football in the qualifiers but we've not played as winners - until now.

"I changed the mindset. I sat the players down and explained what they had to do to win games. Give them credit: they were inspirational against Kazakhstan and against Poland.

"It's wonderful for the people here. The flags are out in the street. The president came to see me. Och, it's lifted this country so much. It's just what this country needs.

"And I have to say the people here have been marvellous to me. The football federation have been tremendous. They've given me the best medical stuff you can buy. They're not shirking anything, no matter what the cost."

As well they might. As the good people of Sunderland would testify, you can't put a price on Ian Porterfield, the worker of football miracles.

*Source of pictures: AP (Armenia's coach Ian Porterfield celebrates his team's win against Poland ) and BBC (Porterfield scored an unstoppable volley to secure Sunderland win against Leeds 1:0, FA Cup final, 1973)

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