Club Focus – Portsmouth – All change on the south coast

There was an air of inevitability surrounding Paul Hart’s dismissal. His post match interviews were beginning to sound like a stuck record and his “we deserved more” line has become something of a catchphrase for the former Nottingham Forest boss. It must be said that Hart has served the club extremely well, as under the circumstances he did a steady job. With all the departures and money troubles, he managed to build a decent team who have shown some real promise.

However, the facts don’t lie. Since taking over in March – initially as caretaker manager – he has lost half of his 30 games in charge and won just 30% of those fixtures. It should not be forgotten that Hart’s rescue act at the back-end of last season went a long way to keeping the club afloat, but after the seven straight losses at the start of this campaign and a return of seven points from the opening 13 games, Pompey are now in danger of being cast adrift. Whether sacking Hart proves to be the right decision, only time will tell, but few could argue with the dismissal and with the experienced and highly-regarded Avram Grant confirmed as his replacement, it seems a well-formed judgment.

It will be interesting to see how the players react – starting this Saturday with the visit of Premier League champions Manchester United. Hart brought in nearly all of the current squad and there can be no doubt over the players’ commitment to their former boss. No-one has come out with the typical derogatory remarks on the departing manager, showing the respect they had for the former Leeds youth coach. Instead, Kevin-Prince Boateng – the player who ultimately cost Hart his job – spoke of his distress at the sacking: “I am very upset because it is easy to blame the manager. If we lose a game, we get changed and go home and life goes on but he gets sacked. It’s not fair.” But while the effort and endeavour couldn’t be questioned, Hart failed to instil a winning mentality the side which was so desperately needed. The belief was gone, and the manager’s constant remarks of his luckless team looked to have carried to the pitch as the players believed their own hard luck story and began to feel sorry for themselves.

And because of this, it was time for Hart to make way. Indeed, Grant’s time at Chelsea saw him grind out numerous results in a kind of mechanical way – a mentality Hart failed to instil in the Blues. In Grant, Pompey have appointed a successful, experienced manager who knows the club inside out. The Israeli has spent time at Portsmouth before when he was technical director while Harry Redknapp was in charge. Redknapp – a manager famous for refusing any interference elsewhere in the club – took a big liking to Grant, as did the players, at both Portsmouth and Chelsea. Whether Grant can transfer his abilities to the foot of the table still remains a question however, as he is yet to experience a Premier League relegation dogfight.

Many had called for Alan Curbishley to take the reins, following his heroics in saving West Ham’s skin just over two years ago. Croatia Coach, Slaven Bilic, was also in the running but the club have acted swiftly and it is probably fair to say Grant was being lined up months ago. Ali Al-Faraj brought in the former Chelsea boss shortly after he acquired the club in a director of football role, clearly with the intention of installing him as manager once he’d seen enough from Hart.

First up for Grant is Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils – ironically his first opposition when he took the reins at Chelsea this time two years ago. It will certainly be an interesting one as Pompey fans wait to see what system and which players their new boss favours. Indeed, Hart’s 4-4-2 diamond formation came under close scrutiny as the season went on – and the losses piled up – meaning Grant’s first big decision will be whether to stick with the tried and tested or to overhaul the system completely in an attempt to turn things around. Whatever Grant tries, a positive result on Saturday would be a huge boost to the whole club.

It really is a baptism of fire for the Israeli as the visit of United is followed by games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal all within a month. If Grant is going to keep Pompey in the Premier League he needs to hit the ground running, or the Blues could well be staring down the barrel come 2010.

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