How Pompey miss those Walcott days

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There were 619 people at Westleigh Park to witness the occasion.

The Sky cameras were also present.

It was the day Marc Wilson upstaged Theo Walcott on his big Arsenal unveiling.

February 7, 2006, to be precise.

Arsenal’s reserves travelled to their Pompey counterparts – and all eyes were on Walcott.

The 16-year-old had just been recruited from Southampton for a fee worth up to £12m.

During an era when the Blues would regularly bloody the noses of the big clubs, trust them to spoil this occasion, too.

Granted, Walcott grabbed a goal on his Arsenal debut.

But a young Irish midfielder by the name of Wilson bagged two in a 3-2 home triumph.

It ended a 13-match unbeaten run for the Arsenal second string.

Many years later, when Wilson was a Pompey first teamer, he requested a back issue of the following day’s News.

Such was his immense personal pride at what the side achieved on that night.

Scanning through the Blues team that night reveals Sander Westerveld, Salif Diao, Brian Priske, Azar Karadas, Vincent Pericard, Ivica Mornar and Ognjen Koroman.

As for the Gunners, they fielded the likes of Mart Poom, Fabrice Muamba, Armand Traore, Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner.

Those 619 fans looking on that night were treated to an excellent game of football and a glorious taste of several future Premier League stars.

That’s reserve team football for you. And that has been absent from Pompey ever since July 2010.

The result of the drive to cut costs or the desire to focus on development through alternative means?

Whatever the true reason for Steve Cotterill and David Lampitt scrapping the concept, it is missed by many.

Which is why Michael Appleton’s admittance that he wants to revamp the reserves is to be applauded.

As it stands, the existing system is highly flawed.

Ryan Williams has been a first-team squad regular this season.

Yet when he has missed out, he has been forced back into the youth set-up to maintain his development.

Lewis Tallack and Lewis Stockford, first-year professionals, have each spent two months in the Blue Square Bet South.

Hermann Hreidarsson has not made a squad since August 13.

He has been injured for some of that lengthy duration, the rest he’s been unable to find a game to play in.

All would have played in the reserves and all would have found it beneficial in different ways.

As for friendlies supposedly providing an alternative, there have been just five of them in the past 17 months.

That does not include a re-arranged pre-season game against Real Betis or a charity match versus FC Rostov.

So much for picking up the slack.

Admittedly, on the whole Pompey reserve matches were not particularly well attended.

Yet they remain essential.

Looking back, a Westleigh Park clash with Stoke in March 2010, attracted just 87 people.

Those chosen few actually managed to see a Danijel Subotic goal.

That was probably as good as it ever got for the Swiss striker

A month later he was delivered a straight red card for spitting at a Birmingham City opponent.

Subotic never played for Pompey again at any level.

There were a mighty 257 in attendance to see Theofanis Gekas’ sole Pompey start.

The prolific Greek striker had previously refused to play for the second string, much to the ire of then-manager Paul Hart.

Ultimately, he would feature as a substitute for 60 seconds against West Brom in his first and only senior outing.

But he did turn out against West Ham in April 2009.

Inevitably Gekas would net the only goal of the game with a deflected drive to give Guy Whittingham’s side victory.

Not long afterwards his loan spell was cancelled early.

Last season Gekas scored 16 goals for Eintracht Frankfurt in the German top flight.

That same season saw Pele arrive at Fratton Park to the inevitable fan fare.

The Portuguese midfielder was brought in by Tony Adams – although his only appearances were for the reserves. The 21-year-old international made his debut in a 6-0 hammering at Chelsea.

Pele’s second and final match was in a 2-2 Westleigh Park draw against Fulham in March 2009.

He scored in that match, too, along with a promising left-back called Andre Blackman.

Now Blackman was a highly-talented player whose career has been dogged by a poor attitude.

A reserve-team regular, at the season’s end, he was kicked out by Pompey and went on to play for Bristol City, Leicester and AFC Wimbledon.

Having failed to win a contract at Oldham, he was curiously signed by Celtic this month.

Of course, there is also the other side to reserve team football.

Back at the start of the 2009-10 campaign, new signing Frederic Piquionne was dropped to the second string.

A poor start to his Fratton career persuaded Hart to take the decision in a bid for the striker to discover some form.

He responded with four goals in two reserve outings.

Upon his swift return to the first team, Piquionne scored five goals in his next six Premier League starts.

Proof indeed how important football in the ‘stiffs’ can be in aiding a players confidence. Mind you, others spent far too long in the reserves.

Take Eugen Bopp as a prime example, with nine appearances in the 2009-10 campaign.

Unable to sign a contract due to the transfer embargo, he continued to remain at the club operating as something of a reserve specialist.

In fact, Bopp netted in a November 2009 victory at Arsenal in front of 682 fans.

Tom Kilbey also registered as Whittingham’s team ran out 2-0 winners.

Bopp was last heard of at German 3rd Liga side FC Carl Zeiss Jena.

Perhaps it was fitting that the reserves’ final match in league competition would end in a notable achievement.

On April 26, 2010, they took on champions Aston Villa, who went into the game unbeaten all season.

Yet Pompey produced an upset by inflicting a 3-1 defeat, Gael Nlundulu, Matt Ritchie and Nadir Ciftci the scorers.

Of that team, just Joel Ward remains at Fratton Park today.

And perhaps that damning final statistic is the real reason why reserve team football has perished at Portsmouth Football Club.

Regardless, in the interests of player development, it has to be brought back.