Away, The Lads!

By Jim Bonner
Last updated : 15 November 2007

Neville Dalton is a journalist with the BBC News website and a Portsmouth fan of 40 years. His expressed views are his and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Yup, Mr Cautious here again.

Regular readers of this column (thanks, Dad) might just have perceived that I get the teensiest bit worried whenever things are going well at Fratton Park.

I'm the man who was on tenterhooks watching Pompey's 4-1 demolition of Southampton a few years ago, half-expecting it all to cave in and Henri Camara to grab an injury-time hat-trick or something.

It's not that my glass is half-empty while those around me are 50% full.

I enjoy the good times - and can appreciate when I've watched something a bit special.

It's just that I tend to think Fulham 4-4; Oxford United 5-5 or 3rd place (and no play-offs!) in the mid-1980s.

This time last year, more than a third of the way through the season, Pompey were in the top half-dozen, with - I seem to recall - something like 23 points from 13 games.

Optimism was growing (even Chez Dalton) and supporters were starting to dream of a European tour.

Yet Mr Cautious was tempering his wonderment that Pompey really did have a team to reckon with, pointing out that twice as many games still had to be played.

Could Pompey last the pace?

My dose of realism was probably well-founded, with the team experiencing an inevitable dip in form and just failing to eke out that crucial extra goal that would have clinched a top-seven place and realised the fans' European dream.

Seven - Up

While I was a little disappointed that they'd failed to grasp what for so long had looked to be theirs, I was also practical enough to realise that 2006/7 had actually been a sensational season, beyond most of our dreams, and the best finish in the memory of all fans under pensionable age.

I was also aware that I had the privilege of seeing some of the best players to wear the Pompey kit in anybody's memory.

A year on, and it's deja-vu - except we've already played the "big four".

And our home form is not quite so good.

But we still managed to hit seven for the first time in a league match in my lifetime.

And we've just won four consecutive away games in the Premier League.

And we've kept six clean sheets in the last eight top-flight games.

And we've won at Newcastle.

And we have an even better squad than last season.

Yes, things are really looking up, and it's a measure of our progress that so many were disappointed at our failure to beat a very good Manchester City side (more on that below), which would have put us above both Chelsea and Liverpool.

Read that again: Had David Nugent's stunning first-time shot hit the post a centimetre to the left, or Joe Hart not managed to put quite so much power into his amazing save from Glen Johnson's sweet strike, Pompey would be sitting in third place in one of the world's top leagues, above both Chelsea and Liverpool.

A year ago, we were marvelling that not only had we managed to attract Sol Campbell to Portsmouth, but he was performing somewhere near his immense career peak.

Greatest

A year on, we're marvelling that there's actually a defender at the club who's playing even better than Big Sol.

After only a dozen or so games for us, surely Sylvain Distin must rate among the greatest defenders ever to don the blue shirt.

We have at least two decent choices for every position on the pitch, and while I'd still like us to nab another quality striker and wide man during the January transfer window, I'm more confident than I've ever been that our squad is good enough to withstand the inevitable injuries and suspensions (not to mention the African Cup of Nations) like never before.

Benjani Mwaruwari, someone who in my opinion didn't need to score loads of goals to justify his place in the side, is currently the league's top scorer.

Kanu struggles to get in the team, though he struggles even more to stay fit.

And £6m-plus of exciting strike potential sits on the bench for most of the time because there are currently better, more productive options available.

I have to say, I still have a nagging doubt about David Nugent's ability to make it at Pompey, but I really do believe he will score goals at Premier League level. I sincerely hope that will be at Pompey.

But for me one of the most enjoyable differences from last season is that we are playing some of the most dazzling football I have ever seen - and certainly from my own team.

We've done it sporadically at the top level, punching well above our weight on occasion.

But now we're doing it consistently. Not every week, but pretty frequently.

It is a real privilege to be watching the current Pompey team - and particularly my current personal favourite, Niko Kranjcar, who is probably as skilful as any Pompey player I've seen - and more effective than most.

Transformation

The one-touch play that so often takes us from defence to attack in an instant - or maybe the more deliberate passing fest that achieves the same via a longer, more circuitous route - has the admirable quality of being not only an artistic masterpiece but also an incisive, effective weapon.

Few teams over the years manage to perfect either, let alone achieve both at the same time.

And surely credit for that goes (in varying proportions, which are difficult to assess without knowing exactly what goes on on the training pitch) to Harry Redknapp and Tony Adams.

They have devised a fluid playing system that enables us to switch from 4-4-2 to any number of permutations of 4-3-3, changing the emphasis between attack and defence as required.

Best of all, it has seen our away form transformed, with more victories on our travels in the first seven journeys of the season than in the whole of the last.

It's that link which I moaned at annoyingly regular intervals last season had been missing - the courage to play to our strengths against even the best teams, on their own patches as well as at Fratton Park.

Yes, I know nominally we still have only one striker, but it is more about attitudes than formations.

Games are won often as much in the head as on the pitch.

The players now have the licence to attack; the freedom to make mistakes and rely on their superior playing skills to prevail more often than not.

So to all those who have been volunteering to eat humble pie after voicing similar concerns about our approach to away games last season, I say: no need.

Those concerns were justified and the sentiments behind them fair.

You're not comparing like with like. Something has changed this season.

And it's Harry's approach.

For which I - and thousands of others - are immensely grateful.

My other regular reader will also be aware that I have been less than complimentary about Manchester City in recent years following the two contemptible fouls perpetrated by City players on Pedro Mendes.

But they deserve much credit for shrugging off the negative image that a few over-zealous individuals helped create for them.

Although I did have respect for Stuart Pearce's outlook, his failure to condemn the assaults by Ben Thatcher and Joey Barton cost him much credit among many supporters.

So I suppose it's no coincidence that City's image has changed dramatically since he left and Sven-Goran Eriksson arrived.

The team he fielded against Pompey on Sunday was a good one, hard to break down, thanks not least to Micah Richards and Richard Dunne, one of the best central-defensive pairings in the division, and dangerous in attack - with a flowing movement between the two, rather like what we now see in our own team.

Congratulations, too to Mark Hughes.

He still moans too much for my liking. Just because managers used to play for Manchester United doesn't automatically mean they are the only ones to have bad luck.

And it certainly doesn't mean they are singled out for bad treatment by referees.

In recent years, the reason that Blackburn have been at the wrong end of the disciplinary table is that they have been dirty. Not only dirty, but antagonistic.

They have Robbie Savage for one thing, and boy, does he lead by example.

But gradually, over the past season or two, they have worked hard to shake off that image.

The result is a very impressive side, who deservedly knocked Pompey out of the Carling Cup at Fratton Park, and who represent one of the many threats to our hopes of a European place this season.

But if we play to anything like our capability for the rest of the season, we should still reap the rewards that anyone who finishes above Blackburn should be enjoying - altitude sickness… and a place in Europe!

Portsmouth Match Reports

Sky Bet League One Sat 11th November 15:00

Blackpool 2 - 3 Portsmouth

Last game - Match Centre


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