Twenty minutes in to last night’s match between Portsmouth and Reading at Fratton Park, I had made my conclusions. Far from the basket case of lore, the home side were actually looking pretty damn resilient – yes, they are a typically muscular Steve Cotterill side, unfraid to employ a height and weight advantage; but also one with a waggon load of experience and a lashing of dash.
I’ll start with David Norris. Quite simply, “Chuck” looks like a footballer – squat, compact and tidy in possession, and yet possessing bite and leadership – he’s the kid you remember from the playground who would hold a team together – the archetypal hard working English midfielder – voluble and insistent – and perhaps the kind of player who, through being eulogised so persistently, has led us into the problems we have encountered as a footballing nation – prosaic graft rated more highly than pace or skill. Certainly, his time at Ipswich suggested a man whose powers were in decline, so this performance was a revelation to me. Previously, I had seen in him a man uncomfortable above tenth position in the Championship; here, he led – Hayden Mullins content to play a supporting role alongside him.
Equally impressive was Liam Lawrence, who once turned out 136 times for Mansfield Town. “What a player!” proclaimed our seasonal preview correspondent Rob Calver on his arrival at Fratton a year or so ago and how he’s right – flitting from flank to flank, bending in dangerous crosses and looking a thoroughbred in possession; the ex-Stoke man tugged the strings effectively, causing no end of problems for the hapless Andy Griffin, an ex-team-mate. Ditto Luke Varney, reminiscent of Lawrence in looks and vehemently denying his journeyman reputation here.
At the tip of the diamond – Kanu – he may be 162, but the touch that tormented Javier Zanetti and Roberto Ayala all those years ago in the Atlanta olympics was in plain view tonight – belying his wikipedia entry that describes him as a retired footballer. The Nigerian operated behind Dave Kitson here and almost allowed Pompey fans to forget about the presence of returning hero and fellow African Benjani, reduced for all bar ten minutes to the sidelines tonight. Reading, £10 million+ banked, but relying on existing resources, struggled to cope.
That Jimmy Kébé provided Tal Ben Haim with a difficult evening was no surprise though – the Israeli was one of four centre backs strung across the back line. Jason Pearce – near namesake of a shoegazing hero – in particular enjoyed a strong debut – Bournemouth’s Terminator adjusting to the negotiation of the Dorset-Hampshire border very well indeed. Aside from a handball that probably should have resulted in a penalty and provided Reading with an undeserved tie, the newcomer floated in space – his height, together with that of Greg Halford, was a commodity their opponents could have done with in greater supply. To his right, utility man Aaron Mokoena also let nobody down with some testy tackling – the threat of Jobi McAnuff wholly negated.
Which leaves two further ex-Royals to assess. Dave “Agent” Kitson missed some attractive chances at the Mad Stad in March and his time seemed limited with the aforementioned Zimbabwean on the bench. An early test of a one-on-one at an angle was failed; Adam Federici smothering well – but then the flame-barnetted marksman pounced – leaving Reading to organise a search party to hunt for the markers. A hundred yards or so behind him, Jamie Ashdown occasionally looked nervous under the high ball but caught all – perhaps mindful of the looming presence of Stephen Henderson, recently arrived and featured in the Match Day magazine.
So the sum of Pompey’s parts was well balanced on this occasion. With Vladimir Antonov and Roman Dubov in place, the club can look forward even if question marks remain as to how they clung on to such riches over their troubled recent times. The wage bill cannot be slight although the squad is miniscule – injuries would present major problems – and it’s also lacking in youth – Joel Ward looked combative when he came on but other options include the positively ancient Ricardo Rocha, Hermann Hreiðarsson and Christian Dailly. I’ll stand by my Springtime assessment that greater organic growth is needed.