Ask any Pompey fan what they think of John Utaka and the response is mostly unflattering – and largely unprintable. However, for all the disgruntled looks and outpouring of fury in the direction of the Nigerian, there always seems to be a ‘but’ at the end of it all.
Since Utaka’s £7m move to the south coast, he has shown sublime pieces of quality on some very rare occasions, although far outweighed by his lazy, disinterested performances which has seen much of Fratton Park boo their no. 17 and in general get on his back. If there’s one thing appreciated on the south coast, its honest, hard-working players, willing to put a shift in for the team. A great example of this is the love and warmth felt for Linvoy Primus, who, despite a universe behind Utaka in terms of ability, his determination, never-say-die attitude and hard-working spirit endeared him to the Fratton faithful. This is in direct contrast to that of Utaka, whose ability can turn games on their head, but whose attitude continues to see him not only overlooked by a string of managers since his 2007 arrival, but also by any tempted admirers. The fact he sits on the Pompey bench earning a reported £70 000-a-week does him no favours – just another reason why he is so maligned and so difficult to shift on to pastures new.
However for all his downfalls – and there are plenty – he is an ingredient that Pompey currently lack. Indeed it is an ingredient so many clubs crave. That ability to single-handedly turn a game, score a goal out of nothing – and that is priceless. And because of this, he has been granted numerous second chances by the Pompey faithful. Just how many chances one player should be allowed is up for debate, but the Nigerian is potentially a class act. Anyone at Fratton Park on August 18, 2007 will back this up. Utaka’s stunning pitch-length run and finish was a phenomenal show of pace, quality in front of goal and a frightening amount of confidence. Three qualities that would scare the living daylights out of any centre-back, but the same three qualities that have come to the forth once in a blue moon. But now, with Pompey in such a perilous state, perhaps a gamble on the forgotten man could be a season-saver. Utaka’s second half introduction in midweek at Coventry changed the face of the game, with the Nigerian carrying more of a threat in 10 minutes than the whole team had shown in the previous hour. He couldn’t quite turn that threat into goals but the promise was most certainly there and Avram Grant has definitely taken notice.
To be fair to the Nigerian, his chances at Pompey have mainly been on the right-flank. Harry Redknapp – the man who brought Utaka from Rennes two and half years ago – preferred to use his pace on the wings. However, Utaka looked slightly lost at times and he clearly does not favour tracking back. He is much comfier lurking on the shoulder of the last defender and using his pace to get in behind a defence – which the central striker role offers him. The former Rennes man hasn’t really been given the chance to show what he can do when played through the middle – like on Tuesday night – so perhaps another chance is on the cards for the enigmatic forward to show what he can do when played in his preferred position. Besides, the other options Grant has at his disposal don’t exactly set the pulse racing so there would probably be plenty of backers in the stands for the Nigerian to be let loose.
If Utaka does get his chance, he needs to grab it with both hands. Another lackadaisical display could be the final straw but for a man who looked certain for the exit door this month, his midweek display could prove a turning point – for the player himself and Pompey’s season. It will be a gamble for sure, but risks are the order of the day with the Blues in a nothing to lose scenario at his stage of the campaign. Premier League safety becomes more of a long-shot by each passing day with transfer embargo’s, financial devastation all looming large, as well as the fact the club sit four points of 17th place. Its time for Grant to place his bets and spin the wheel. If Utaka returns what we all know he can, the Israeli could find himself counting a large pile of chips in no time.