The fourth in the series of pre-season blogs has Dave Loren pondering whether Cook can oversee an improvement to Pompey’s notoriously patchy away form.
On January 30th, 2002, in the midst of a striker shortage caused by injuries to Lee Bradbury, Mark Burchill, and Peter Crouch, Graham Rix’s Pompey side travelled to Notts Forest, more in hope than expectation. There was pre-match talk of Thomas Thogersen being pressed into service as a striker, but ultimately Steve Lovell took his place at the top of a 4-5-1 formation.
Pompey were bright early on but faded, and Forest wasted chance after chance as the match progressed. Eventually though, with ten minutes left, Pompey won a free kick on the edge of the Forest box. Prosinecki territory. Unusually for the Croatian genius, the free kick was poor and hit the wall, but as luck would have it, the deflection completely wrong-footed the Forest keeper and bounced into the net to give Pompey a scarcely-deserved lead.
The rest of the match was a blur of Forest attacks and chances spurned, before ultimately the ref blew for full time and Pompey had three precious away points. For most people, a forgettable match in a forgettable season. For me, the first (and to date only) time I’ve managed to see Pompey win a league match on the road.
I’ve seen us lose all over the place, and even get the odd memorable point on rare occasions, but that night in Nottingham is the only time I’ve tasted away victory. I feel like a massive jinx on Pompey away from home – thankfully for all concerned I only really have the time and money to do home games these days.
Of course, last season Pompey’s dismal away form was one of the main reasons a play-off challenge never looked likely and we ended the season still in League Two and with another sacked manager. According to statto.com, Pompey’s away results last year were the 19th worst in League 2, while our home form was 9th.
In fact, to be more specific, our goalscoring on the road was the main problem – only 18 goals in 23 matches, a statistic that becomes seriously awful once you take into account that a full third of those goals were from one brutal dismantling of Cambridge United. Defensively we were more solid, though towards the end of the season that too fell away, as we seemed to pick up the nasty habit of letting in a goal in the opening minutes of away matches.
In general, Pompey fans would probably say that we’ve always been a decent home side, but have had many a season where we looked fragile on the road, but it’s not as uniform a picture as you might think. In several recent seasons we have had a higher ranking among away performances than those at home, but then given that we’ve been relegated three times, I’m not sure that’s saying much. Nevertheless, this was a massive problem last season, and new manager Paul Cook’s hopes of achieving promotion in his first season in charge rest in no small part on turning around Pompey’s dreadful away form.
The boss himself recognises it as an issue – asked by a fan on Express FM’s Football Hour this week about how to fix it, Cook was reluctant to name causes and, characteristically, refused to point the finger at the previous coaching regime. What he did say though, was that he and his coaching staff were looking at it in some detail and trying to figure out why we’d performed so poorly on our travels last season. Cook even speculated about changing travel arrangements for Pompey’s away games in the coming season, to give the players more time between long coach journeys and kick-offs.
Hopefully Cook will have more luck than Andy Awford, who said much the same things in November last year (after the defeat at Aldershot) about considering it from every angle, and looking at travel, food, and even sleeping arrangements. Awford’s Pompey won just one away match from the twelve they played after he made those comments.
So my guess is that Cook, as much as I rate him as a manager, is unlikely to find a specific cause that he can just change and suddenly make Pompey a better side on the road. More likely (hopefully), we’ll just be a better side next season.
To go back to my solitary taste of away success – that season under Rix we won only four away matches. The next season, with a new manager, and a whole host of new (and better) players, Pompey won promotion and were brilliant home and away. I’m guessing Mr Redknapp didn’t spend the summer months wondering whether a more nutritious pre-match meal was the answer to our problems.
To the extent that there was an explanation for last season, I think it comes down to two things; firstly – simply being a poor side with a lot of inconsistent players; and, secondly, the fact that it became ‘a thing’. What I mean by that is that perhaps it became a confidence issue for the players. They were aware of the stats, aware of the media discussion around it, and aware of the fact that their manager seemed to believe that there was some underlying reason why they couldn’t win away from Fratton Park. Opposing teams, too, will have known this, and it’s not hard to imagine the home manager’s teamtalk including plenty of encouragement to his players to go for Pompey early because ‘they’re rubbish away and their confidence is shot’.
Hopefully that’s all in the past now. Paul Cook won’t find some fatal flaw in Pompey’s pre-match routine that will turn things around. What he’s already done is bring in better players, a coherent tactical philosophy, and the confidence of a man prepared to say that he’s going for promotion and anything else is failure. That will fix our away form more than any tinkering with travel or eating arrangements. Just to make doubly sure, I’ll be staying at Fratton.
Play up Pompey!
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Photo credit: Colin Farmery