Champions! – How Pompey won League Two

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This article is not going to be divulging any groundbreaking new ideas or reasons for Pompey’s title win against the dads at the weekend: it is simply going to reinforce what everybody already knows about the city’s newest legends. This is more of a tribute to the men who made promotion possible for Pompey and, I think it is fair to say, everybody played their part.

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The man who has to take the most credit for the achievement is Paul Cook. He was brought in two summers ago with the job of taking the Blues up to League One, having recently won the league title with Chesterfield before taking them into the play-offs in their first season in League One. His past achievements, as well as the expectant crowds and the fact that Pompey’s budget was the biggest in the division, meant that Cook came in under immense pressure and that nothing but success would be acceptable. That was typified by the fact that, even though Pompey only lost out in the play-off semi-final to a last minute goal at Home Park and that they made it to the FA Cup fourth round, knocking out Championship Ipswich before eventually going down 2-1 to AFC Bournemouth at Fratton Park, Cook still came under heavy criticism from sections of the crowd and not all the fans were ever content. However, he has proved all his doubters wrong by winning the League Two title for the second time in his career; mirroring what he did at Chesterfield by winning the league in his second season at the club.

Cook has constantly faced questions about his management style: why does he play just one man up front? Why does he put so little faith in Conor Chaplin? Why does he persist with Gary Roberts, Michael Smith, Eoin Doyle? You just can’t win when so many people are holding you under scrutiny for such a long period of time, yet somehow Cook has managed it in dramatic circumstances. If anything, it is the small things that have made the biggest difference, rather than the formation or the inclusion or exclusion of one particular player. The decision for the players not to train the day before matches in the latter weeks of the season, the instruction to the groundsmen to water the Fratton Park pitch vigorously before kick-off to allow the ball to skid quickly so that it suits Pompey’s possession football. These things tend to go unnoticed when supporters are watching games, but I wonder if those seemingly trivial details were the reason for the Blues being able to creep over the line at the final hurdle.

Another group of people who have been instrumental in the club’s success is the back five of David Forde, Gareth Evans, Christian Burgess, Matt Clarke, and Enda Stevens. Where he has had the choice, Cook has hardly ever emitted these from his starting eleven and the consistency in team selection has paid dividends with the Blues having the best defensive record in the league; a key reason for their superb goal difference which ended up winning them the title. While it is the regular back five who have had the biggest impact, the likes of Jack Whatmough, Tom Davies and Drew Talbot have also played their part, offering useful options to come off the bench and cover for injuries when any one of the regular defence has been unavailable. The manager has also experimented with a 3-5-2 system on a couple of occasions, and the versatility and depth of the defenders in his squad have been paramount in offering the manager that option.

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The midfield is undoubtedly one of the key components of Cook’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the two sitting central midfielders have both excelled over the course of the season. Michael Doyle has once again been integral to the club’s success, playing every single minute of the league campaign despite being 36 years old. While Doyle has been the consistent one in the engine room, his partners have rotated places a few times over the season, with Danny Rose and Amine Linganzi having to share playing time in the early season before Stanley Aborah came into the first team picture in the closing couple of weeks. They arguably have one of the most difficult roles in the side as they need to balance protecting the defence with being a creative influence in the centre of the park. Doyle is the midfield enforcer and you know exactly what you are going to get from him when he walks onto the pitch (lots of bruises!) but his partner always has to offer a little more going forward. This has been seen with Danny Rose getting on the score sheet several times since he returned to the side for Pompey’s visit to Crawley, while Linganzi acts as more or a physical presence in the middle. Both have been responsible for the team picking up vital points at various stages.

The advanced midfielders have really had to pull their weight this season as, with no truly prolific striker in Pompey’s ranks, they have needed to keep their goal tallies ticking over. Kal Naismith finished the season as the club’s top scorer after a great end to the season with thirteen goals, while the likes of Carl Baker, Gary Roberts, and Kyle Bennett have also popped up with some important finishes. Paul Cook does like a flair player, and the attacking midfield three are allowed more licence in a 4-2-3-1 with the two sitting midfielders covering for them, and Milan Lalković, Jamal Lowe and the aforementioned midfielders have all enjoyed runs in the team at some point in the season. It is noticeable how much faith Cook puts in his players, and the attacking players are always given a chance to play their way through a bad patch rather than just being axed from the side. Roberts, Lowe, and Baker have all been given the chance to play through bad form and have all come out the other side looking rejuvenated, yet more examples of Cook’s exemplary man management skills.

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The striker arguably had the most difficult role within the team for Pompey this year and that is evident through the fact that none of the pool got more than ten goals. Conor Chaplin, Curtis Main, Noel Hunt, Michael Smith, Nicke Kabamba, Kal Naismith and Eoin Doyle were the men to try their hand in the position this season and all of them made worthy contributions to the team’s cause. Although the role of the traditional striker is to score goals, I would argue that the forward in Cook’s team has more of a creative role. Their job is to create space with their movement and draw defenders out of position, leaving the advanced midfielders free to score the goals. Sure, there is the odd header or rebound that needs to be put away by the main striker, but you only need to look at Kal Naismith’s recent performances from the number ten position to see that the main striker isn’t where the bulk of the goals will come from in Pompey’s team. It’s just a shame that the majority of Pompey fans can’t see that and continue to direct abuse at Smith and Doyle for their perceived goal droughts.

The last area of the club which needs to take credit for winning the league is the supporters. Of course, the Pompey Supporters Trust made everything possible by saving the club from extinction, but I am talking more recently. The Blues fans have had a rocky couple of years, with a considerable amount of infighting and disunity, particularly early in the season. However, during the last third of the season the fans pulled together in earnest and acted as the ‘twelfth man’ for the final few games as Pompey made it over the line. That is summed up by the 4,500 fans who made the journey to Notts County to see their side mathematically guarantee promotion and the 18,000 plus who came to the sold-out Fratton Park for the final few home matches. During the closing weeks of the season Pompey fans showed exactly why they are famous and provided the decisive lift to the players. If Pompey can continue to give the manager and the squad the level of support that was seen in the last third of the season they will have truly earned their reputation as one of the most loyal groups of supporters in world football.

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Basically, what I am trying to say is that every single member of the squad played their part in this season’s success. Whether it be by scoring goals, keeping out the opposition, or simply being around the club to give young players advice and ensure they do not have to waste their energy in the Checkatrade Trophy, they can all be proud of their achievement. Now Pompey fans have finally had a taste of the success that can be gained by staying behind the team, so Paul Cook should hopefully have an easier job in League One next season; it can’t be any harder, anyway! Cook has now done what he came to Pompey for and can now tick one promotion off his Blues bucket list and turn his attention to League One next season. As with this term, patience is key, but I have faith that the current management team will deliver.

Portsmouth fans, do you share these thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!