Mark Docherty looks ahead after play-off despair for Pompey.
From the day Pompey boss, Paul Cook, took over at the club in May of last year, he identified promotion from League Two as his primary target for the season. Unfortunately, after Sunday evening’s 1-0 defeat to Plymouth Argyle, Pompey’s promotion dream is now ended for another year.
A late Peter Hartley header from a corner consigned Paul Cook’s men to another season in the bottom tier of the Football League, meaning Pompey have now failed to secure promotion in three consecutive years. However, with the exception of a few fans, Pompey supporters seem to be united in the path they want the club to take: Paul Cook has to stay!
The common opinion is that Cook is the best manager Pompey have had since the departure of Harry Redknapp in 2008. Despite the scouser’s failure to achieve his aims this season, the Fratton Faithful have seen enough of the ex-Chesterfield manager to convince them that he is still the right man for the club.
For me, it is of paramount importance that Cook continues his work at Fratton Park. When he took over at the Spireites, he guided them to eighth position in his first season, before winning both promotion and the league title in his second season. As far as I am concerned, this proves that, given enough time, Cook has both the experience and the ability to get Pompey out of League Two.
In his first season at Pompey, he has taken a club that finished 16th last season to a 6th place finish this season. And when you consider that only five senior players currently on Pompey’s books were at the club last season, you realise how well the Pompey manager has done to blend a new team of players so quickly.
In terms of the individual quality in the side, the players’ ability cannot be questioned. Throughout the season, the vast majority of the squad have been able to pull their weight, and most of them have had several games in which they have played at a very high level, and have justified Paul Cook’s decisions to sign them. Whether it’s Adam Barton excelling at centre half, or Kal Naismith showing flashes of brilliance in the final third, the players have all showed glimpses of their true ability.
The problem has been producing their best performances on a consistent basis which, in my opinion, can only happen when players feel comfortable playing with their teammates, and buy into how the manager wants them to play.
In short, consistency only comes with familiarity, so a squad of players which is thrown together over the course of one summer will find it very difficult to push themselves towards the top end of the league table. Despite this fact, Pompey managed to get into the promotion play-offs, only losing out by a single goal to a Plymouth side who look favourites to get promoted, and spent much of the season in the automatic promotion places.
Surely this has to convince fans that next season has lots of potential under Paul Cook. Even in the hours since Pompey were eliminated from the play-offs, Cook has hinted of a summer clearout commencing at Pompey, as he looks to free up space and funds to bring in higher quality players needed to challenge for promotion next season.
There are currently four senior players whose contracts expire in the summer, with a further two youth players. Ben Davies, Danny Hollands, Ben Tollitt, and Brian Murphy are the senior players, while Snorre Nilsen and Chad Field are the youth players in question.
There are also several contracted players who are likely to leave the club in the summer. Matt Tubbs has spent the second half of the season on loan at local non-league side, Eastleigh, and looks very likely to be leaving Fratton Park in the coming months.
From the above names, I would renew the contracts of Tollitt, Hollands, and Davies, release Murphy, Nilsen, and Field, while also letting Tubbs try and find himself a new club. I would also be open to letting Adam McGurk move on to a new club, after he has struggled to make an impact at Portsmouth.
This would make space for Cook to bring in a goalkeeper, a position in which Pompey have had several problems over the season, along with an advanced midfielder and a couple of strikers, one of which could be a powerful forward.
With Jack Whatmough having returned to fitness, there would be no need to bring in a centre half to replace Matt Clarke when his loan expires. It would be prudent to bring in a right back to act as cover for Ben Davies, possibly on loan, while left back already seems to be well catered for, with Brandon Haunstrup able to act as backup for Enda Stevens.
The central midfield pool would also seem to be fairly well accounted for, with Doyle, Close, Hollands, and Barton all having proved their worth over the course of the season. The departure of McGurk would free up a space in the squad for a new advanced midfielder as Pompey have, at times, appeared to be too reliant on Gary Roberts this season.
Meanwhile, it would also be good to see the return to Fratton Park of one or both of Caolan Lavery and Marc McNulty, who were among the top performers this season. Pompey could also do with a powerful striker, which would give them another option going forward, rather than the small, mobile strikers Cook seems to favour.
In my opinion, Pompey aren’t too far from having a squad capable of not only competing for promotion next season, but going on and challenging in League One in future, with the correct additions. The most important thing that needs to happen for Pompey to gain promotion next season is that the fans must stick together.
The support this season, as it has been since I started supporting the club, has been brilliant. The average attendances at Fratton Park this season were almost double that of Plymouth, the second highest in the division.
Every week, Pompey attract great crowds, both home and away, and those crowds bring in huge amounts of money for the club through gate receipts. The crowds also give the players lots of encouragement when they play and, over the years, we have seen many occasions on which the atmosphere of the crowd has acted as Pompey’s 12th man and got the team over the line.
That is why it is so important that the fans continue to get behind the team next season, as the fine margins between achieving promotion and falling short are the kind of things in which the backing of 16,000 roaring supporters can make all the difference.
In conclusion, Pompey came close to achieving the promotion they so craved this season, but just fell short. However, the team, the management, and the infrastructure in place is one which is not too far away from being good enough to win promotion next time around.
Therefore, it is important that Pompey fans do not despair, and instead give their full backing to Cook and the team, put their play-off exit behind them, and just remember how far the club has come since last season. With a fully settled backbone of the squad, along with some shrewd additions and the removal of some deadwood, Pompey have everything in place to finally escape the Football League’s basement division and start their climb back up to where they belong!
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Photo: Official PFC