Out Of Control

By Jim Bonner
Last updated : 09 January 2011

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

You've got to feel sorry for Steve Cotterill.

They say you can best judge someone from how they perform in adversity, and Stevie boy has certainly encountered plenty of that this season.

Not that he's been the first manager in recent years to have to manage the Fratton Park club with one-and-a-half arms tied behind his back and the Sword of Damacles dropping ever-lower above his head.

The fact that only a few weeks ago - inadvisedly, in my view - he (and others) were talking about challenging for a play-off place is testament to the hope he had brought to the club in what is proving yet another traumatic season.

Forced - as were others before him - to recruit largely on the cheap (I still don't really understand the Wilson-Lawrence-Kitson deal that seems to have proved the exception), he has moulded a group of disparate players (judging by some individual performances, you could say desperate in some cases) into a competitive and generally entertaining bunch that is currently holding its own in mid-table.

Yes, several of them have Premier League experience, and a handful are probably still good enough to cut it at that level.

But a lot are not. Cotterill has assembled a group of players of varying ability and contrasting pedigrees.

But the one thing they all seem to have in common is commitment, a unity of purpose that I believe has carried them through many of the challenges this season.

One thing Cotterill does not have, however, is the luxury of a squad.

In terms of numbers alone, he is struggling to name a full 18 on match days. In terms of quality, there is hardly a position on the field where he enjoys like-for-like cover.

Most of that, of course, is due to the financial recklessness (at least) of those who steered the Pompey ship during some of its most exciting and successful days of the modern era.

But Cotterill has to take some responsibility for the dearth of numbers - if not quality - available to him.

Firstly, his treatment of some of the first-team youngsters is perplexing.

Pompey fans have taken a lot of punches in recent seasons as the club's decline has accelerated, but one thing they will always forgive is spirited endeavour, especially if it has come from a teenager trying to make his way at the club.

Excellent motivator

Nobody thinks Matt Ritchie, Joel Ward, Nadir Ciftci and Marlon Pack are the finished article. Some may have their doubts about whether they will ever make it.

But none of the above looked so terribly out of their depth when Cotterill was forced to field them in the early weeks of the season that they can afford to be discarded in times of trouble.

Yes, Pompey lost most of those early matches in which these youngsters appeared. But the whole team was still finding its feet - and a whole bunch of them were thrown into the first team at the same time, rather than feeling their way steadily one-by-one alongside seasoned pros.

Cotterill's record with Pompey suggests he is a decent judge of a player and clearly an excellent motivator.

So I'm not arguing with his long-term assessment that most of those players are not good enough for Pompey and may even struggle to make it elsewhere.

But I do question how we can afford the luxury of dispensing with the services of any of them when we just don't have enough bodies to sustain the squad through this most demanding of seasons.

Incredible as it may seem, we've been pretty lucky with injuries. But even the fit bodies need rest sometime, and Cotterill has not had the luxury of being able to grant that to many of them.

And when players have suffered inevitable dips in form, he has been unable to take many of them out of the first-team firing line because of the lack of alternatives - even to provide a breather in the last half-hour of matches.

OK, so he wouldn't want to start Ritchie and Pack in games, but surely they would have offered him alternatives in the later stages of some matches?

It's not as if the club has allowed him to bring in many better options, even on loan.

But those are the sorts of decisions that make or break managers, and Cotterill is big and strong enough to cope with the consequences.

But where I believe Cotterill really does have a case to answer is on the question of player behaviour.

The biggest offence he has committed in my view is in allowing what precious few players he has to spend match after match on the sidelines through their contemptible and inexcusable indiscipline - let alone the extra demands it puts on the other 10 men at the time of their offences.

Already, we have had five players sent off in just over half a season - as many as in the whole of the previous two seasons, which featured two relegation battles and a run to an FA Cup final.

And the 54 yellow cards amassed to date are only a handful fewer than the team collected in the whole of the 2004/5 and 2005/6 seasons.

Of course teams are going to pick up cards in the course of a season, particularly if they are fighting for their lives.

But as I've alluded to above, we've fought successful relegation battles in the past without picking up anywhere near as many disciplinary points.

This season's averages for both red and yellow cards are higher than at any stage since Harry Redknapp took over in 2002.

Moaners

Bookings for mistimed tackles and the occasional over-zealous challenge are inevitable, and largely understandable.

But there has been another aspect to Pompey's style this season which is not only unpleasant to watch but also counter-productive.

With very few exceptions, Pompey have become a team of moaners.

Hardly a game goes by without at least one Pompey player haranguing a referee or his assistants; refusing to retreat 10 yards at set-pieces; shuffling forward again as soon as the ref's back is turned or perpetrating some other form of gamesmanship that sullies the already declining image of the game.

No, they're not alone in such behaviour. But that doesn't excuse it.

A feature of recent Pompey teams - particularly under Redknapp, but also under Perrin, Adams, Hart and Grant - has been their acceptance generally of officials' decisions and an absence of some of the darker arts of gamesmanship.

No, they were not angels, and Hermann Hreidarsson and Michael Brown are past masters at winding up opponents.

But by and large, I would have thought the Pompey teams of the Premier League era were ones that most officials would be happy to have refereed.

But now they seem to have been let off the leash. Groups of players surround officials on occasion; the abuse is apparent, even if we can't hear it (though in Richard Hughes' case against Leicester, confirmed by the referee's consequent action).

It's as if Cotterill has given them tacit (at least) permission to do what it takes to try to win the game, regardless of - and clearly oblivious to - the consequences.

And of course, it's not just niggly behaviour.

While Hughes and Liam Lawrence were sent off for dissent - a totally unnecessary crime in football, whatever the provocation (ask Brian Clough) - Carl Dickinson was sent off after a reckless challenge as he let a sudden rush of blood rule his head, and Greg Halford and Dave Kitson were both dismissed for violent conduct.

There really should be no excuse for professionals to show such indiscipline, particularly when suspensions are the last thing Cotterill needs to contend with when injuries and a lack of numbers is causing him enough selection headaches as it is.

The Stoke City influence at Fratton Park is there for all to see, with the arrival of Cotterill, Sonko, Dickinson, Lawrence and Kitson.

Now, while the playing style is still mercifully good, the Potters' tough-guy reputation is also spreading to Pompey.

And not only is that unacceptable to all those who love Pompey and football.

It's also suicidal.

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