Saturday’s goalless draw with Ipswich will go down in the record books as just another winless league game for Portsmouth at the start of this season, but for manager Steve Cotterill, and the thousands that pack Fratton Park each week, there was a sense of renewed optimism following the side’s best display of the season.
If Pompey are not careful, they could well equal the seven game winless run which they began last season with, and we all know what that led to. However, they were all defeats, and off-field shenanigans had begun to completely overwhelm the club before they eventually scraped a narrow win at Wolves. Despite that win over Mick McCarthy’s Wanderers side, Pompey were still rooted to the bottom and four points off safety – a margin they never managed to overturn. But now, a single win would drag them out of the drop-zone, and with the quality the squad now has, it could well be the catalyst for a swift move up the table. Not that anyone should be looking above a healthy league finish just yet, but the mood following the dreadful performances against Preston and Cardiff has now been lifted, thanks in large to new blood, and a far better display on the pitch.
Liam Lawrence was eventually given clearance to play at the 11th hour and put in an explosive Man of the Match show which had the Pompey faithful in raptures. Had it not been for some wayward finishing from his fellow teammates, the Republic of Ireland midfielder could have single-handedly secured a vital win for his new team. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, but the 28-year-old showed enough quality and fight to suggest he could be the side’s new talisman. Fellow Stoke recruit Dave Kitson also showed flashes, but the former Reading man is clearly lacking in match sharpness, so it might be a few weeks yet before he begins to show his best for his new club.
The return of two favourites too added impetus to Pompey’s play as Kanu and Ricardo Rocha were finally cleared to play. Kanu was perhaps lacking match practice but even then his clever feet and vision caused numerous problems. But Rocha was the most impressive of the duo, bedding in brilliantly alongside under-fire defender Ibrahima Sonko, who enjoyed his finest game in a Pompey shirt with the calmness and assurance of Rocha at his side. Indeed the two seemed to play off each other extremely well, with Sonko attacking the high balls and Rocha acting somewhat as a sweeper. The Portuguese’s assurance on the ball was also an added bonus, as long thumps up field were in the minority for the first time this season. The fact Hayden Mullins was moved to midfield was also a major factor in the shorter passing that was on show, as the former West Ham man showed the kind of authority and calmness on the ball that has been lacking when the likes of Richard Hughes and to a lesser extent Michael Brown hurriedly thrash the ball down field at the first possible opportunity.
Perhaps the one questionable ploy by Cotterill was to employ Aaron Mokoena in midfield alongside Mullins. The former Blackburn man started his career on the south coast in the central midfield position but fans were quick to jump on his back following his horrendous distribution of the ball. He won them round in the second half of the season, but that was playing at centre-back, where he formed a very decent partnership with Rocha. When the South African was stretchered off in the second half for what seemed a nasty leg injury, Pompey’s play did seem to improve as Brown’s energy and drive offered far more to the team. It remains to be seen if Cotterill fancies Mokoena more as a central midfielder but you get the feeling it is more the player himself who prefers the more advanced role than any of his coaches. Considering Pompey were desperate to keep hold of the player in the summer, perhaps a midfield role was part of the persuasion to stay. We may not have the answer to that in the immediate future as Mokoena could well face a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Pompey now have the chance to turn their improved performance into the win that could potentially kick-start their season. They travel to Crystal Palace tonight, who themselves haven’t enjoyed the best of starts, so there will be plenty of optimism amongst the travelling hoards in south London.