A third of the way through Pompey’s first season as a fans-owned community club and it’s time to take stock of what I’ve discovered about this exciting new era.
It’s a long-term project
I run a predictions league for friends and family. Eighteen of us are taking part this season – by no means all Pompey fans.
Yet every participant put Pompey to finish in the top three. Except me.
Is it the aura of Portsmouth Football Club? Is it the fact that we were so recently in the Premier League? Is it our recent FA Cup success?
What on earth prompts people with considerable knowledge of football to predict that a club that has endured three relegations in four seasons – with a different ragbag of hopefuls and has-beens each time – financial restrictions and a budget sensibly limited not only by the enforced constraints but by a refreshing new management approach – would bounce straight back at the first time of asking?
There were positives, admittedly
The frightening and embarrassing debts of previous regimes had largely been written off, so while not quite on a level playing field, Pompey began the new season in a better place than in each of the preceding four.
Well, apart from being in the bottom tier, of course.
They had, for the first time in ages, had a proper pre-season, with a fresh bunch of faces already in place.
And what’s more, Guy Whittingham, Mark Catlin and co had managed to retain the services of David Connolly and Patrick Agyemang, who had tortured most of the League One defences they had encountered. So surely they would do the same in League Two?
But football is not quite like that. Whittingham also brought in personnel who had a decent track record in the bottom rung of the Football League.
Surely that meant they were sure-fire certainties for promotion?
Just as every quality player does when he joins a new club in the Premier League?
Nope. That’s not how it works.
And Pompey have proved to be every bit as inconsistent as the more realistic among us expected us to be.
No harm in having high hopes, but there is a very real danger that when over-expectation turns into unjustified despair and anger, that seeps across the stands and on to the pitch, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Like it or not, stabilisation in League Two would represent some sort of achievement – not a great one, mind – in this vital watershed season.
Fans’ impatience doesn’t diminish with ownership
They might now own our club, but it doesn’t stop fans having a go.
We pay our money, we’re entitled to our opinions. To be honest, even if we don’t pay to actually attend, we can still have views on what we read, hear or interpret merely from looking at the league table.
And while the likes of Guy Whittingham might have enjoyed a little more of a honeymoon with the fans than, say, Steve Cotterill or Paul Hart might, it is clear that the Pompey legend – for that is what he is – is not immune from a campaign to have him sacked.
To be honest, nor should it be. But maybe we should all wait for all the reasons I outlined in the previous category, above.
A former player’s reputation will only get him so far as manager
As I said, just because Guy was a wonderful player, who thrilled those lucky enough to be watching Pompey when he and Paul Walsh were tearing defences apart rather more effectively than Connolly and Agyemang, does not make him immune from criticism.
And that seems to be the view of a vociferous number (it’s hard to determine the proportion) of fans.
The “Whittingham out” tweets have been surfacing for weeks. The remarks on football comment websites have been rather harder-hitting and even more to the point.
Fans want success. Guy hasn’t (yet) brought any. Whittingham should go.
Say the noisy ones.
Guaranteeing a player his place is not good management
And here’s an example. Guy has struggled with his goalkeepers all season.
Blunders in the opening fixtures cost John Sullivan his place. Paul Smith lost the job even more ruthlessly.
And when Sullivan’s form began to waver again, Guy acted, bringing in the talented Trevor Carson from Bury.
But here’s the thing: unlike at the beginning of the season, when he announced Sullivan and Smith needed to keep on their toes to stay number one, Whittingham realised that as his ‘keepers were not of the required standard, he had made a rod for his own back, and declared that Carson would be his first choice come what may. Or more or less.
It began well enough, and to be fair, he has probably offered a degree of confidence that neither of his predecessors ever did.
But then came Bury. Carson was not permitted to play against the club who were loaning him to Pompey.
Sullivan was overlooked, and Smith came in. He performed extremely well, pulling off one save that I still reckon has been underplayed by everybody. It was world-class.
Yet even as he was making it, Smith knew Carson would be back for the next match.
Ever since, Carson has produced a combination of decent stops and costly errors.
A little like Sullivan and Smith before him.
The difference is, he remains in goal. Perhaps justifiably, as he is probably the pick of the three. But I wonder what the other two really think when they watch Carson’s spills and slips punished on the pitch in precisely the same way as theirs were – except for the banishment to the bench bit. Or worse.
The owners are likely to be facing one of their hardest decisions by Christmas
If you really want to believe it, it’s not too late to be talking about promotion via the play-offs.
But aiming for mid-table security might be a more sensible aim.
However, with each heavy defeat, with each unacceptable performance on the pitch, the pressure on Guy grows.
And the pressure on the board to get rid of Guy grows even more.
It’s happened more rapidly than I imagined, not because I expected a better start but because some of the fans have turned on him more quickly than I could have foreseen.
The noise is already rising. Will Catlin and co have the guts to stick with their man?
The new owners have made an impressive start
Yes, I had my doubts, and no, they have not yet totally proved themselves.
But the board put in place by the supporters’ trust has made an impressive start in my opinion.
They listen to the fans, have come up with innovative ways to provide a service beyond what we see on the pitch and have been ready and willing to adapt their approach, with customer service to the fore.
To me their most important feat is declaring a realistic business plan, which they appear to be sticking to. Avoiding going out of business or running up more debts to innocent customers is the number one priority.
But the whole approach has been refreshing so far – and I’ve even spotted some outspoken criticism in The News.
That’s the time when clubs start banning the local newspaper, isn’t it?
Not this one, I think.
They own our club, but some of our fans are struggling to live up to their self-styled best-in-the-land tag.
There were the inexcusable smoke bombs at Newport; the merciless condemnation of Johnny Ertl on the pitch and on the worldwide web; the inexplicable targeting of Jed Wallace after the first couple of games of the season, and the ever-louder “Whittingham out” demands that we read of.
Yes, we have bought season tickets at an impressive rate. Yes, we break all sorts of divisional attendance records on our travels.
Yes, with the exception of the unaccountable Wallace tirades back in August, the fans are entitled to have a go.
But, as I’ve said before, don’t pretend that makes us the best in the land.
Young does not necessarily mean not good enough
Apart from the immensely talented Jed Wallace, Pompey’s younger players have struggled to convince Whittingham that they are up to the task of hacking it in League Two.
Guy has spent much of the season trying to ship out virtually all the youngsters to lesser clubs on loan.
Some moves may well pay dividends, as there is no doubt the lower divisions take some acclimatising to.
But others have backfired, either because of change of management at the borrowing club or, in strikers Ashley Harris and Ryan Bird’s case, because they couldn’t even get in non-league Havant & Waterlooville’s starting line-up.
While Bird’s fortunes took a turn for the better when injuries to others elevated him to the first team, where he scored three goals in two games, Harris suffered the indignity of being sent back by his next club – Chelmsford – when they sacked their manager, only to be recalled amid claims of a misunderstanding.
No wonder the poor lad doesn’t know where his future lies.
Meanwhile, two of the most talented young players, who impressed in Pompey’s depressing League One season, are as far away as ever from getting a place in a defence that has conceded more goals than all but two of their rivals in League Two.
Adam Webster is, by all accounts, faring well at struggling Skrill Premier side Aldershot Town, but Dan Butler, who – with Wallace - is surely one of the most talented youngsters to emerge from Pompey’s academy in recent years, has become a football outcast.
A wicked waste of the boy’s talent.
If Whittingham’s decision was based on his performance in Pompey’s league opener against Oxford United, where he struggled after losing the pacey Smalley for one of the four goals Pompey conceded, he set a daunting precedent for other players whose form falls below top-notch.
And many of those guilty parties are currently in the first-team, while Butler is nowhere near the squad.