Twenty years on from the height of his powers, and 15 since he last wore a Fleet shirt, you cannot recall the 1990s without mentioning the name of Steve Portway in the same breath.
On the eve of the first Fleet-Gloucester clash since 1997, FleetOnline looks back at the career of the record-breaking Fleet goalscorer who also played for Gloucester and there saw his dreams of playing at the top of non-league football shattered by a serious injury.
The Steve Portway that became a Gravesend & Northfleet legend landed at Stonebridge Road in the summer of 1992, fresh from a 36-goal haul at Barking, thanks largely to the efforts of the club’s then assistant manager Peter Coffill who had persuaded Portway down to Kent. At least that’s how his signing was put in motion. What really clinched the deal was Stonebridge Road.
Then Fleet secretary Steve Jones remembers how the club wanted to put Portway on an immediate contract given his reputation. In those days and at that level, contracts were something out of the ordinary. Portway had never had a contract before signing for the Fleet and he ummed and ahed about putting pen to paper on arrival.
“Me and [then manager] Garry Aldous got him to come down to the ground one May or June evening in 1992,” recalls Steve Jones. “We showed him the ground, then turned the floodlights on and he was so impressed by Stonebridge Road he signed there and then. We’ve all complained about what a dump Stonebridge Road was in the past, how it was a crumbling edifice, but that’s what swung it and how we got Portway.
“Though in fairness we had just had the roof repainted. It was before the Truman Beers sign started showing through on the Plough End!”
Portway began his distinguished Fleet career slowly – considering he scored nearly a goal a game in 164 starts, the four goals he managed in his first nine matches was ‘average’ by his own standards.
By October 1992, however, things were starting to happen and he’d scored his third hat-trick in four weeks by Christmas. “Ole Ole Portway” became his trademark song. He built up a wondrous partnership with strike partner Micky Cotter by then, and in the early part of 1993 scored an amazing six goals in 20 minutes against Bury Town as Fleet triumphed 7-2, having been trailing 2-1 after 70 minutes! When Saturday Comes magazine called him the Marco Van Basten of non-league football. In his first season his haul was an incredible 61 goals in all competitions, marred only by Fleet’s failure to clinch promotion after an abysmal run-in.
The following season saw more of the same, Cotter providing, Portway finishing everything with a clinical precision. An excellent goal at Brisbane Road against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup – a career high, Portway later reflected – got him noticed, with trials at Charlton and Barnet looking like they might lead to a full-time career in football. Chelsea and Spurs were also rumoured to be interested and 15 clubs turned up at one game to scout him.
It came to nothing, however, and Fleet finally celebrated promotion in May 1994 – Portway, however, had been controversially dropped by manager Garry Aldous in April, though returned on the last day of the season to come off the bench and score the final goal in Fleet’s championship-winning season – his 52nd of the campaign.
The wrangling over trials with league clubs and a potential transfer saw the Portway-Fleet love affair sour behind the scenes. Portway himself claimed that Charlton’s management team – then including current Fleet assistant manager Steve Gritt – had offered to sign him but that the Fleet had slapped a hefty transfer figure on to any deal, more than had been agreed between the club and player earlier on.
The following season, and despite six goals in 14 starts, the striker found himself unmotivated and on the bench for a spell. He netted a 30-yard screamer to equalise in the last-minute in a 3-3 draw at Gloucester in August 1994, but played his last game for the Fleet at Halesowen in November before the shock news came through that then-ambitious Gloucester’s bid of £17,500 for the striker had been accepted – substantially less than the Fleet would have received had they sold Portway to Charlton.
Portway’s record at the Fleet during his first spell included a double hat-trick, 10 hat-tricks and 25 braces! A truly phenomenal set of statistics.
For the player, things went wrong after an initial flow of goals (he finished his City career with 15 in 28 games). In a league match for Gloucester against Rushden, he was struck in the face by the ball – a freak accident – and later discovered to have lost the use entirely of one eye. He made a stab at resurrecting his career, but he wasn’t the same and struggled, especially under floodlights. But refusing to give up the game, Portway dropped down to the Essex League and rediscovered his goalscoring touch at Romford (25 goals, 31 games) and Purfleet – and astonishingly suffered an injury to his one good eye, this time thankfully not as serious.
To the delight of Fleet fans, he became one of Andy Ford’s first signings in October 1997, typically scoring in his first game back against Carshalton. He went on to bag 31 goals in total in 1997-98 from 41 games, equalling and then passing by some way Bert Hawkins’ 45-year-old goalscoring record in 100 fewer games!
Despite signing a year’s extension to his contract, Portway featured in only eight more games in 1998-99, his chances restricted by injury, and the curtain closed on his Fleet career on 20 February 1999.
He first signed for Billericay, and later graced numerous clubs including Chelmsford, Fisher Athletic, Tonbridge, Erith & Belvedere, Heybridge Swifts, Maldon Town and Burnham Ramblers, scoring goals wherever he went. He was still playing, at the age of 40, as player assistant manager of Harold Wood Athletic in the Essex Olympian League Premier Division before a foray into full management with Redbridge in 2012-13 (pictured) – and even then he couldn’t stay away from the playing side, turning out for his side on several occasions during the season. He departed Redbridge in the summer.
Portway now has various coaching badges but of more to the point, he has three sons. One is in his early teens. With a Fleet youth development on the cards for next season, they could probably do worse than signing another Portway.
Could another generation of Fleet fans yet hear the strains of the old classic “Ole, ole Portway”…?!