(Published in The Galleon, available to read online here)
Portsmouth have made a strong start to their new campaign, as they try to gain promotion from League Two at the fourth time of asking.
Last season, Paul Cook’s leadership led the Blues to 6th in the League Two table; it was the first time they had finished in the top 10 of any league since 2008, and also the closest they had come to getting out of the Football League’s basement division.
Unfortunately, despite the strong season, a devastating injury-time goal from Peter Hartley in the Play-Off Semi-Final second leg meant that Plymouth Argyle would be heading to Wembley instead of Pompey. The Pilgrims eventually lost in the final, as AFC Wimbledon were promoted to League One.
This time around, Portsmouth fans are hoping that their team can go one better than last year, and bookies made Paul Cook’s men firm favourites to finish in one of the division’s three automatic promotion places.
However, they hardly looked like a side capable of that feat after a disappointing opening day draw with Carlisle at Fratton Park. Reggie Lambe opened the scoring for the Cumbrians before the away side were reduced to ten men. Portsmouth couldn’t fully capitalise on their numerical advantage, even though a debut equaliser from Carl Baker secured the first Blues point of the new season.
Although they weren’t able to break down ten-man Carlisle, Pompey found the net twice away to Coventry in their next game. A Curtis Main penalty and Kal Naismith free-kick forced extra time in the rebranded EFL Cup, but the League One Sky Blues scored through Andy Rose to secure a narrow victory.
Unfortunately, just four days later, Pompey were frustrated yet again. Even though they dominated at Gresty Road, they couldn’t find the net against Crewe Alexandra and had to settle for a goalless draw.
After failing to turn dominance into goals became one of the most common complaints from fans last season, it was worrying to see that the Blues had failed to get the wins they deserved from their first two league games. To make matters worse, their first defeat arrived soon after.
Against Morecambe, Pompey not only struggled to break down the Shrimps defence, they also got caught out on the break twice. Ryan Edwards and Tom Barkhuizen secured a 2 – 0 win for the home side at The Globe Arena, despite Portsmouth dominating again. Two draws and two defeats in all competitions was not exactly promotion form from Paul Cook’s side.
Their season finally got up and running at Fratton Park when Colchester United were the visitors, although they left it late. Gary Roberts was the star of the show; he won and scored a penalty, and then lobbed goalkeeper Sam Walker to give Pompey a relieving first win.
A week later at Exeter City, it became two wins in two games for Pompey, and three goals in two games for Roberts. The veteran midfielder left it late again, and it was another penalty which he dispatched confidently with just five minutes left. The 1 – 0 victory was certainly a hard-fought three points, but three points all the same.
The upturn in fortune suffered a slight set-back in the EFL Trophy away to Yeovil Town, as Portsmouth ended up on the wrong end of a seven-goal thriller at Huish Park. A Michael Smith hat-trick wasn’t enough for the away side as the Glovers edged the tie and won 4 – 3.
However, the early worries about league form all but vanished after the Blues won again against Crawley Town. The Reds had clearly done their homework and ‘parked the bus’ at Fratton Park, but the hosts were in inspired form. Main opened the scoring before Roberts doubled the lead, with Main’s second of the match enough to ease past the away team.
There’s a lot of pressure on Main to keep his early goalscoring form going; teams will continue to come to Fratton Park with defensive game plans, so the 24-year-old striker will have to be clinical when chances do come his way. While his strike rate at former clubs is rather unimpressive, his goals against Crawley prove that he is a decent finisher.
Gary Roberts and Carl Baker are two other players who have a lot of responsibility to perform as senior members of the squad, but manager Paul Cook is the man who will be under the most pressure, as he aims to make this year the year that Pompey fans finally get a promotion to celebrate.