Here We Go Again

Neville Dalton is a journalist and a Portsmouth fan of more than 40 years.

Well, it didn't take long.

No sooner had the ink dried on Sasha's much-discussed agreement to save the club than Pompey were setting their sights on a return to the Premier League.

Less than a month after we found ourselves languishing in the relegation spots, with the focus very much on survival, suddenly we're targeting the play-offs - and an instant return to the league where only six months ago we finished bottom.

Have I missed something? Have we suddenly added a load of seasoned stars to our dwindling ranks, with the promise of a January spending spree in the offing?

Are we suddenly awash with money, and no longer worried that we cannot pay our future debts.

Must have missed that one.

Actually, of course things have changed.

Our two astonishingly astute deadline signings, Liam Lawrence and Dave Kitson have not just bedded in but hit the ground running.

Ricardo Rocha has added a touch of class and composure to our defence. Greg Halford's free-kick genius has been added - for a month, at least.

And consequently, the whole team has been rejuvenated, digging out some excellent results and at last enjoying some overdue luck along the way.

It's amazing what a few wins can do to morale - and to people's expectations.

And here I go again, worrying about over -ambitious expectations.

Only this time, glancing through Pompey fans' message boards, I detect a touch of realism among many supporters.

It's the manager who seems to have raised the bar.

Of course, in many ways he's right.

Pompey have proved that on their day they can compete with what the Championship has to offer.

We have individuals who would walk into most teams in the division.

And he's absolutely right to set ambitious targets for the players.

It's just a pity, in my opinion, that he couldn't have done so in private and chosen his public words a little more carefully.

Small squad

For all the evidence of a revival, there are still shortcomings that suggest that the prospect of a play-off place is an uncomfortable burden to load on to the players.

For one thing, I don't think it would hurt for Pompey to enjoy a year or so of stability: get used to the division again, identify the areas most in need of reinforcing; then build within the club's means rather than gatecrashing the Premier League with a wholly inadequate squad and a need to splash the cash just to try to stay there.

More immediately, I have serious doubts about our ability to last the pace even this season.

Our squad is still worryingly small. Our bench is still not full - and certainly not replete with like-for-like replacements.

We are a key injury or suspension away from big problems.

And that's assuming we can sustain our tremendous form with the current incumbents.

I'm taking nothing away from our recent achievements. Steve Cotterill has got his players performing heartily in every game, not only looking like scoring, but more often than not doing just that.

There's a confidence and commitment that reflects what an excellent job he has done.


The defence still looks worryingly inept to me. Yes, it's tightened up a little, but even during our six-game unbeaten run, we have conceded seven goals, at more than one a game.

Mokoena and Rocha look to be our best central-defence pairing, but we've still been at sixes and sevens on the back foot so many times in those matches.

Dickinson has undoubtedly improved, but has yet to provide the reassurance in defence that would make me breathe more easily during opposition attacks.

Ward has interspersed his decent performances with key mistakes that often lead to goals.

And behind them all, we have the enigma that is Jamie Ashdown.

I've always been a supporter of his, and ironically, I believe that if David James had not come to the club, Ashdown might have matured into the kind of consistent, reliable goalkeeper every successful team needs.

Instead, he has been in and out, was relegated to third choice behind Asmir Begovic, and has had to relearn much of his trade in an environment of uncertainty and general turmoil.

Some of his saves this season have been outstanding, and he has undoubtedly saved us points already.

But he has also cost us some, either directly or indirectly, through his decision-making on crosses.

He's not alone in this. James himself found this area an achilles heel when his confidence was a little fragile.

But the uncertainty Ashdown exudes at such moments must have an effect on the rest of the defence, as can be seen by the number of goals or near-misses we've faced from set-pieces.

It's not a big problem all the time our forwards and midfield players are scoring, but it's hardly a recipe for promotion.

As for much of the season - even when we couldn't buy a win - our attacking midfield has been admirable.

But that same midfield's defensive ability continues to be inconsistent.

And our forward pairing has been outstanding.

What Pompey have achieved in incredibly difficult circumstances this season has been brilliant.

And long may it continue.

I just hope that the prospect of a play-off place does not prove to be the burden that weighs down their performances to such an extent that it actually has the opposite effect.

A quick tribute to one of the unsung (or at least, lesser hailed) heroes of our revival in the past five or six weeks.

Yes, Liam Lawrence and Dave Kitson have added an extra dimension to our attacking performances (indeed, Kitson's dogged tenacity as well as his bright footballing brain, have helped improve our defending from the front, too).

But in my opinion, the emergence of David Nugent from the shadows has been a significant contributing factor to our recent success.

One match apart, I believe he was performing admirably even before the arrival of the dynamic duo from Stoke.

Admittedly, he wasn't scoring, but his all-round game was a class above what I had seen previously from him. (Yes, maybe the drop in standard of opposition was the difference, but it was there, none the less).

The chance to play alongside another quality striker appears to have brought the best out of him. The two Daves complement each other and have looked most threatening.

And their determination not to give up lost causes, and to chase and harry goalkeepers and defenders is going to lead to a few more goals this season.