Pompey's Revival is Likely to be in Vain
On the qualified basis of the League One table alone, Portsmouth Football Club are upwardly mobile enough to consider survival a possibility as the season enters its final months.
On Good Friday, I had the pleasure of witnessing the new Pompey in the flesh on a skin-chafing afternoon at Deepdale. Gone of course are the bonanza boys of yore, those cocky displayers of the FA Cup, mugs staring outward from the pages of the programme – Crouch, Defoe, Diarra.
The aftermath of that period of excess is one of the most chequered squads this level will have seen – bargain buys from local non-league lining up beside wizened lower leaguers and the odd international bright old thing.
The south coasters appear superficially to be in a three way tussle with Scunthorpe and Oldham – a wrestling match from which just the one club will emerge victorious although a dreadfully inconsistent Colchester United might yet be dragged in.
Next up are Stevenage who, until the arrival of Graham Westley, were doing their best skydiving impression, while a run of results that has seen Brian Flynn’s high flying Donny Rovers held and Coventry and Tranmere sent scuttling back into the undergrowth has seen the first parps of The Great Escape theme intermingling with those dreaded bells.
Stern fixtures lie in wait including a visit to Brentford and a hosting of a Sheffield United with strong ambitions of their own but this outcome hadn’t seemed possible back in February when the club were humiliated by local rivals to whom, hitherto, they had extended nothing but disdain – AFC Bournemouth gaining local bragging rights with a 2-0 win.
That reverse came at the back end of a diabolical 23 match run without a win and was far from the most galling defeat – doomed duo Bury and Hartlepool both gathered three points at Pompey’s expense.
Short term deals earlier in the season have given Portsmouth as much chance of fielding a settled team as the back-to-basics era Conservatives. Experienced campaigners such as still top scorer Izale McLeod, Lee Williamson, Brian Howard and Ákos Buzsáky have long since departed – the fleeting nature of their time at Fratton perhaps justifying the self-defence Pompeyites put up to a post that was highly critical of the club back in August.
That leaves a rump of odd and ends – the unholy blend referred to at the start of this piece and yet somehow one that functioned quite well in the teeth of a Preston northwester.
For sure, the Lilywhites largely pummelled Portsmouth this Easter afternoon, with only the lack of marksmanship that has hampered the Lancashire men all season the barrier to comfortable victory.
Still Gábor Gyepes and Ricardo Rocha constitutes an eyebrow raising central defence for the lower reaches of the third echelon. Both internationals in red, white and green – Mitteleuropa internationals and Champions League appearance makers are not readily available to Kevin Blackwell over at Gigg Lane of course.
That seasoned duo provided the bedrock for a solid performance in which the Hampshire team kept the ball smartly for the most part, although the steadiness of Simon Eastwood under the lofted ball was equally as crucial a factor.
Having been released by Halifax in the close season, Eastwood had, almost incredibly, been on the point of signing for Bradford Park Avenue but instead turned up at Portsmouth for a trial – you would never guess such humble antecedents given the assuredness of his keeping here.
Ditto two more non-league poaches – Jed Wallace from Farnborough via a loan spell at Whitehawk and Gibraltarian Liam Walker, plucked from the obscurity of Andalusian minnows San Roque – whatever Portsmouth’s chief scout is on, I want some of it.
Wallace in particular was impressive – raiding from the right intelligently and picking out passes with uncanny perception – his goal may have owed something to a howler from on loan Preston keeper Declan Rudd but he was constantly in the thick of things.
Ditto the lower league journeyman centre midfield pairing consisting of two players hoping to refashion good reputations after notable moves went awry – the hitherto lumbering Johnny Ertl seems to have put his Sheffield United days behind him and is taking a new responsibility for the kids around him (even if some cruel wikipedia editor is having fun at his expense) while Therry Racon, once full of daring-do in a Charlton shirt, has cast memories of a lone appearance at Millwall to one side.
Up front, the blue shirted side are no less well served – that buzzy wasp of a player David Connolly has perhaps never recovered from an ill-advised move to Feyenoord from Watford as well as the lingering bad influence of agents, but here he was a constant outlet while ex-North Ender Patrick Agyemang made for a hard working strike partner.
It was perhaps therefore only at full-back that the blend worked less well – Yassin Moutaouakil, until recently of Hayes and Yeading United, struggled in particular on the right and had to be constantly bailed out by Wallace while his counterpart, Isle of Wighter Shaun Cooper did his best within the limitations evident from being unwanted by Crawley Town.
There was a spot of good fortune about the draw even if Keith Keane’s screamer came late – Simon Grayson cleverly moving the full back into midfield to replace a John Mousinho receiving serious bird from the home audience. But Pompey do look like they might get out of it after all.
That would be, of course, if the Sword of Damocles resulting from the continuing off-field malaise were not still hovering over the peninsula – even if the possible date for a hearing to wrest control of Fratton Park from Balram Chainrai is imminent now.
That might signal an exit from administration and the long wished for takeover of the Pompey Supporters Trust – but the Football League have warned that a ten point penalty will be imposed should these events come to pass.
So, in reality, the admirable fight shown by the players in recent weeks will likely come to nought – and Guy Whittingham is surely right to emphasize the promise youngsters such as Wallace and Miller can bring as a League Two sohourn is contemplated. Scunthorpe, Oldham and Colchester can probably feel assured that only one relegation place is at large.