All at Sea and in Search of an Even Keel
As a Newcastle fan, I’ve become used to my team being labelled a “crisis club“. So thank heavens for Portsmouth, who in 2009/10 – just as we were quietly enjoying our renaissance out of the spotlight during an enforced spell in the second tier – were imploding in quite spectacular fashion and stealing away all the headlines.
It’s hard to believe that as recently as November 2008 Pompey were FA Cup holders and six minutes away from a 2-0 win over AC Milan. Less than two years on and everything’s unravelled: they hold the ignominious distinction of becoming the first Premier League outfit to enter administration; the players whose crippling transfer fees and salaries brought the club to the brink have been flogged off; the hubristic excesses and farcical financial arrangements of the Mandaric, Gaydamak and Storrie era have been revealed; details of their debts have been published to widespread disbelief and ridicule; and they’re fighting seemingly weekly court battles just to secure their short-term survival. Say what you like about them, but they’ve certainly done riches to rags in style.
Quite what possessed Steve Cotterill to decide to step into the breach in the summer is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was assuming it couldn’t possibly turn out any worse than his stint with Sunderland as assistant to Howard Wilkinson, during which the not-so-dynamic duo recorded a pitiful two wins in 20 games to secure the Mackems’ relegation and their own P45s in the post. But quite apart from all the ongoing turmoil off the pitch, Pompey haven’t exactly made the most auspicious of starts on it either, finding themselves in the grim basement of the Championship table before they took on Ipswich on Saturday.
The visit of Keano’s high flyers to Fratton Park saw Cotterill parade a quartet of new signings: two new faces and two rather more familiar. Perhaps to make amends for his unsuccessful spell in charge of the South Coast side a decade ago, Stoke manager Tony Pulis generously parted with both Liam Lawrence AND Dave Kitson AND a sizeable wodge of cash in a deadline-day exchange for Marc Wilson, whom you’d describe as a promising young player at best. Kitson’s time at the Britannia Stadium following his £5.5m move in July 2008 was little short of catastrophic, with Pulis no doubt delighted to see the back of a player he clearly came to regard as a thorn in his side. But at Reading the redhead proved himself a formidable second-tier finisher, and there was enough about his link-up play with David Nugent (who struck the Tractor Boys’ bar in the first period) to suggest that once his rustiness has worn off he’ll be a valuable asset. Ditto Lawrence, a Republic of Ireland international who brought industry to the midfield and tested the reflexes of Town ‘keeper Marton Fulop on more than one occasion in the second half.
Also making their first appearances of the season, albeit not their first in Portsmouth blue, were Kanu and Ricardo Rocha, both re-signed just in time for the fixture. The Nigerian – the only survivor of the club’s ill-fated chasing-the-dream period in the first XI and a Pompey legend for his bundled winner over Cardiff in the 2008 FA Cup final – received a rapturous welcome back and operated in a withdrawn role which played to two of his strengths: his ability to pick a short pass and the unfeasible tackling prowess of his elasticated legs. Portuguese defender Rocha, though, could prove to be the more significant recruit. Unflappable and ahead of the game when Ipswich attacked, he was measured and astute in possession, particularly considering his partner was the rather less assured Ibrahima Sonko. Visibly wilting with exhaustion at the end, he’ll need to regain some match fitness but was nevertheless key in Pompey’s preservation of a first clean sheet of the season.
Equally important in that respect was stopper Jamie Ashdown, who – like our own Steve Harper – has spent much of his career in the shadows of a more illustrious first choice but, following the club’s decision to withdraw the contract offer made to David James and the ex-England man’s subsequent defection to Championship rivals Bristol City, suddenly and at long last finds himself a regular. A pair of vital late saves from Grant Leadbitter and wunderkind substitute Connor Wickham was his chief contribution, though he could do little about Ipswich captain David Norris’ fizzing low shot that rattled back off the post.
With the influx of bodies Cotterill had the luxury of being able to name a full subs’ bench, introducing John Utaka and Nadir Ciftci in a bid to grab the winner. Utaka is one of the only bad players ‘Appy ‘Arry brought to the club, and at £8m a painfully costly error of judgement, while youngster Ciftci may be a rare bright spark who scored Pompey’s only goal of the season to date but on the day infuriated with his excitability and persistence in attempting unnecessary tricks.
A final word about the fans. Taunted by having their own chant reflected back to them as “Pay up Pompey” by their Suffolk counterparts, they roused themselves to good effect as the game wore on. The scoreless draw may have left Portsmouth rock bottom but, for people used to being appalled and humiliated by the club they support on a daily basis, a measure of pride, satisfaction and perhaps even optimism had been restored – if only temporarily…