Almost four years ago, Portsmouth took 5,000 followers to Lancashire as they bid to cap off an unlikely Great Escape by beating Wigan on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Fast forward from that day on April 29, 2006, to Wednesday’s corresponding game and the scenes couldn’t be more different.
Backed by just over 100 devoted followers, Pompey battled to a dour goalless draw on a murky Wednesday evening. But while the differences are endless, one similarly from both games stood out – an undying spirit. Just like that run back in 2006, where Pompey overcame an eight-point deficit to stay in the top-flight, this Blues side has done nothing but endlessly fight for their cause. With relegation confirmed last Saturday, the underlying truth to every league game from now until mid-May is that it is rendered meaningless. So what better time to give a run-out to some of the club’s highly-regarded Academy players. Indeed, two of the youngsters – Matt Ritchie and Joel Ward – were both handed Premier League debuts, and both showed encouraging signs. Ritchie was probably Pompey’s best player on show last night. At just 20-years-old, he showed composure and calmness way beyond his tender years as he delivered a quality performance. His assuredness on the ball really shone through, as did his belief in his own ability as he showed in a few jinky runs, showing some nice footwork.
Ward’s performance too showed plenty of promise as he contributed to Pompey’s third straight clean sheet. Starting the night at left-back, and up against the tricky Charles N’Zogbia, Ward, 20, acquitted himself well before switching to centre-back for the second half where he looked far more comfortable. Like his fellow debutant Ritchie, Ward looked wise beyond his years and although his youthful exuberance inevitably shone through, he was level-headed and mature enough to keep a steady partnership with Marc Wilson. For the second half, another Academy youngster was thrust into the action as Lenny Sowah made his second Premier League appearance in just over a week, as he relieved Wembley-hero Ricardo Rocha at half-time to take up his spot at left-back. Sowah looked a little less assured than his fellow Academy teammates, but who can blame him, considering his tender 17-years of age. That’s not to say he played badly, but he’s still got plenty to learn, and his two recent outings will only help in his progress.
After such a dire Premier League campaign, to see two local lads, Ritchie and Ward, don the Blue of Pompey can only lift spirits and as the club looks to rebuild for the future, seeing bright young talents coming through can only bode well. Although for now, Pompey, and Avram Grant may – ridiculously – have to answer to the Premier League after the eight changes (from the FA Cup semi-final) seems to suggest the club fielded a weakened team on Wednesday night, as they have nothing left to play for in the league. The fact the team grabbed a point will help matters, but the very notion of any punishment is frankly outrageous. Firstly, the team on Sunday was made up of numerous players who were barely fit enough to last a full ninety minutes, let alone 120, so for them to be thrust back into action three days later would’ve been, for want of a better word, stupid.
Whether anything comes of it remains to be seen, but to deny youngsters a chance of genuine top-flight experience just to satisfy some Premier League suits would be silly. With four league games still left, don’t expect Grant to stop his chopping and changing as he tries to juggle giving his youngsters further opportunities, while keeping his stars fit and match-sharp for May 15.
But Wednesday belonged to the youngsters – although there were worthy mentions elsewhere – and through the murky, muddy waters of the last year or so, the last few weeks has given the club plenty to be proud about. From the character and spirit the squad has shown since administration was confirmed to the influx of a few local lads, things are starting to look up for the beleaguered south coast club. They might even have a European campaign to look forward to next term.