Cause For Optimism: Portsmouth 0-0 Imps

Credit Graham Burrell

Thinking about today’s game, two things really struck me.

The first is all about this season, about not looking back. Ten days or so ago, I was apprehensive about the season. The lack of showcase new signings, evident even today, had me worried, but also the fact I was listening too much to other people about our Head Coach. As you know, I met Mark, interviewed him and was impressed, but pundits have already written us off because of his experience. Sitting here writing, I can feel a degree of comfort from the fact the early signs from him, and the staff he went to great pains to credit for the team’s performance, are positive. We don’t look naive, we can change our approach to fit the opposition, and we are competitive, with 60% of the squad complete. That’s one truth to take from today; we’re five attacking players short through injury/illness (Scully, House, Mandriou, Draper and Vernam), and you’d expect at least one if not two more to come in and strengthen the side. Just think, by the time we go to Posh, we could have seven more attacking players to pick from.

For me, that gives us an ‘excuse’ if you like for our attacking prowess today. The forward players didn’t play badly; on the contrary, they put it a real shift, but we lacked that spark. It turns out Ted Bishop was essentially playing with a knock and shouldn’t have started; we’re already down to the bare bones up top. That’s not a criticism, but it is something that should be mentioned. It was our problem last season, from the get-go the likes of N’Lundulu were injured and we never got players back to fitness. The hope is we can shrug it off this season.

A chance! – Credit Graham Burrell

The second thing that really struck me about this game was the parallels between it and our game against Oxford United last season. We went there early door buffering from a lack of attacking players, and it was against a team with a bustling, abrasive forward and good players in key positions. We tried to play the same way we played every game, stuck to our principles, and were soundly beaten 3-1. Why? Because we couldn’t defend, we didn’t have the basis on which all good teams are based; I think I called us lambs to the slaughter that afternoon. Well, remember this; the plate isn’t the sexiest part of your dinner, but without it, the fine ingredients and great cooking are just a mess; that’s the same for football. You can have all the attacking prowess you want, but if you don’t have a solid back four, in the words of Aristotle (probably), you’re buggered.

That’s what we have, in my opinion; against Oxford, we were buggered (maybe it was Socrates who said that) before we kicked off. Today, even without almost all of our first-choice attackers, we were in with a chance because we have the foundations. We’ve played the same back four in consecutive league games, arguably the first choice back four. That was a luxury we didn’t have last season, and I think it showed in games like the defeat against Oxford. This season, the two central defenders are never-say-die battlers, and I think both will be huge assets to us. When you can bring a warrior like Adam Jackson on with ten minutes to go to keep things fresh, you’re not in a bad position. Remember, Lewis Montsma has to come into this group somewhere as well; if we keep our defenders fit, it gives Carl Rushworth a fighting chance at building a relationship that Josh Griffiths wasn’t given last season.

Super Lasse – Credit Graham Burrell

So, what was the narrative of today’s game? It was certainly a clash in terms of style, with Portsmouth looking much more like Lincoln City circa 2017/18 than us. They pumped it long looking for Bishop and Pigott (for me, two of the best strikers in this division), and our defenders dealt with that threat. Sure, we went there not to get beaten, and I think that’s a wise move given how easy it was to beat us last season. When we had possession, we didn’t look a threat, but can you blame us? Five players out and no headline signings (like Bishop and Pigott) will have that effect on you. However, we did create a couple of good moments, but I’d be a fool to say we were the better attacking team; we were not. Portsmouth should have scored, maybe even a couple, but fine defending, solid goalkeeping and hard work prevented that from happening.

I don’t like to keep going on about ‘last season’ as if it was terrible, because there were some good moments, but how many times did I write something like the opposition didn’t win the match as much as we handed it to them? The answer is too often; we were the architects of our own downfall too often. I guess much of my pre-season pessimism came from the fact I saw last season’s players, the ones who handed games away like sweets on trick or treat night, all being given starring roles this season. Seriously, Lasse Sorensen as a holding midfielder? I saw him at Shrewsbury, and he was awful, yet in two matches he’s suddenly demonstrated exactly why we bought him. Conor McGrandles had an engine on him, tireless energy he was praised for, and if I’d tried to tell you Sorensen had the same, you’d have laughed. I have to mention my friend Gary Sleight here because I told him in March I felt there was a player in Sorensen – I really liked elements of his game. I think Gary laughed for a solid minute. I don’t hate to say I told you so mate, so here goes. I. Told. You. So.

Turns out the fans were right after all – Credit Graham Burrell

He’s not the only one, is he? Max Sanders doesn’t look anything like the player we were told was stuck in Under 23 football, does he? He was called out after we lost 2-1 at Accrington last season (a game where Colby Bishop scored twice) for being given a chance and not taking it. He seemed to have more chances than a cat has lives, and from the sidelines, he appeared to take them. We were told he didn’t, he wasn’t doing what was wanted, and yet here he is looking like the sort of midfielder who will play 35/40 matches this season. He’s a terrier, he’s got a good range of passing and he’s playing with a smile on his face.

Jamie Robson needs a mention today as well. Pompey made two great subs, bringing on Dane Scarlett and Ronan Curtis. They’re players with pace and purpose, a different prospect to Bishop and Pigott. They should have been the knockout punch, the change of approach that finally put battling Lincoln to the sword. Instead, Jamie Robson, a defender who was left out for much of last season for not being up to speed in England, put in a terrific tackle in an area of the field he had no business in to snuff out an attack/ Robson is another like Sorensen, who some were unconvinced by last season but who I feel can be big players for this football club.

I’m going to mention Haks again, and people might start to think I have a thing for the lad, but he did something today he was rightly called out for not doing last season; hard work. He grafted for the duration of his time on the field, and whilst it didn’t work for him today as it did a week ago, I feel he’s fully justified his early football. I still fear he might be a player fighting for minutes when we get bodies back and a new face or two in, but there’s no doubting how well he’s reacted to the new man coming in.

Credit Graham Burrell

Look, there’s work to do; of course there is. We didn’t do enough to go and win the game, but we were playing a very good side. Pompey fans might be a bit unhappy at the end of that game, but with that squad, they’ll be troubling the top six. Danny Cowley is a man who improves teams and players over time, and the quality he had at his disposal will soon gel. You don’t score three at Sheffield Wednesday if you’re not a decent side, but we did to them today what they did to Wednesday. We defended well, conceded far more shots but still earned a point that was fully deserved. There’s no fear for them; I genuinely mean it when I say that I hope they go up. I do, not because they’re Portsmouth, but because the reason we’re in League One, playing in front of 17,000 at former Premier League grounds is because of Danny Cowley, and I wish him and Nicky every success.

Danny was highly complimentary of us after the game, praising our organisation and fitness. Two games into Mark Kennedy’s spell as Head Coach, and we’re better organised than last year? Just a couple of months with the players and Ross Burbeary (and the fitness team) have got us to a point where we’re fitter than opponents? I’ll take that as a starter for ten.

My optimism has been fueled not only by the result today, but by the nature of the football we’ve seen. We still try to play football on the grass, but we’re not naive enough to switch it up. We’ve battled for a point today, and last week we battled back for a point. We’re a shell of the team we can be, because we lack so much in the final third, because of injuries and these late signings. Imagine if Da Vinci had outlined the Mona Lisa, then coloured it in afterwards; we’re that outline, promising, but worth nothing until we’re finished off. The point is Mark Kennedy and Mike Garrity have a canvass to paint on; good defensive players, fitness and organisation. The spark will come, the palette is mixed, and who knows where we might go once that starts to show? Seriously, Tom Hopper (back to the Tom Hopper of 2020/21) is a shoo-in, but where do you put Ben House? How does Scully fit in the long term? Charles Vernam will surely play, he’s tricky and pacey, and you’d expect Danny Mandroiu (close to being a full Ireland international) will have an effect. Then you’ve got to add what was called the ‘wow factor’ by a club insider in an off-the-record chat last week; that’s the colour. That’s what has got to come into a team with the raw ingredients I don’t think we showed at times last season, and that is supremely exciting.

Credit Graham Burrell

After the game I listened intently to Mark Kennedy, a man criticised in pre-season for a curt interview after a friendly. That must have seemed a long time ago to anyone who did think he was going to be abrasive, because we got an engaging and insightful interview, one full of praise for all of the staff and players. He speaks with an air of intelligence I like, showing a composed and calm demeanour that will earn him respect. He didn’t take the bait and call out the referee; he wouldn’t criticise Portmsouth’s approach just because it differs from ours; he was respectful and measured. However, he also knows how to drop a headline-worthy quote as well (and this may not be verbatim as I haven’t listened back) – “I know we’re a young group, people think they’re just come and roll us over. That won’t happen.”

Ten days ago, I wasn’t sure that was true. 20 minutes into the Exeter game, I was beginning to think the opposite, but goddammit Mark, it turns out you’re right.

It’s early days to begin going over the top, but when Mark Kennedy was close to being announced, I chatted with a club contact who I think feared it might not be well received by fans. “People in football will look at this and go; yeah, that’s a great fit,” I was told. “He’s a great coach and by far the best candidate in the process.” The pundits didn’t agree in the summer; hell even I was cautious before meeting him and still worried after it. Yet, here I am, 180 minutes into the season, winless, and buzzing. We’re not going to win the league, we’re not going to be in the top six, but I’ve seen enough to think we’ve got the foundations of a comfortable midtable side, and that has got to be the first aim for this campaign.

Bring on Forest Green!

Credit Graham Burrell

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