A different kind of optimism at dawn of new Pompey season

Kenny Jackett
Kenny Jackett
Pompey striker Oli Hawkins has been operating as a makeshift centre-back. Picture: Joe Pepler

Hawkins stirs Pompey memories of England man

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Seventeen seasons on the Pompey beat and 30 going down the Park.

And there’s been one omnipresent emotion at the dawn of every single campaign I can remember: Optimism.

It’s a familiar friend as we begin a new era, shining bright while the sun (sometimes) shines at the start of August – always returning no matter the circumstances.

Sometimes we ignored the often overwhelming evidence it really shouldn’t be welcomed at the end of Frogmore Road.

Take Michael Appleton having no squad on the eve of the 2012-13 season and signing 14 players in the 48 hours before achieving a 1-1 draw with Bournemouth, with the club in administration.

Appleton had just seen the rug pulled out from under him by Balram Chainrai over budget prices, yet was still adamant he could deliver promotion from League One if promises were remotely fulfilled. It was a convincing argument in that moment. Three months later, Appleton was gone and reality bit through 134 days of the club’s worst winless run in their history, however.

On other occasions, bullish conviction over what the nine months ahead had to offer chimed perfectly with what our eyes saw on the season’s curtain-raiser. The 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest following Paul Merson’s arrival on the eve of the 2002-03 season springs to mind, as the feeling permeated we were on the brink of something special.

Likewise, 12 months later with the Sky cameras in town and their theme – Elton John’s Are You Ready For Love – reverberating around Fratton, Aston Villa were dispatched in irresistible fashion at the start of a successful maiden Premier League season.

Others have flattered to deceive. Stretch your mind back to the 1988-89 campaign after relegation from Division One, for example. Three opening wins including a Leeds side containing Iain Baird, Noel Blake and Vince Hilaire being thumped 4-0 suggested great things were ahead.

Yet, by the new year Blues legend Alan Ball was gone and replaced by John Gregory, as the season ended with six losses on the bounce and the Blues just above the Division Two drop zone.

There are many other examples we could forward. A 1-1 draw at moneybags Blackburn at the start of the 1991-92 season, as Jim Smith let his fledglings like Andy Awford and Darren Anderton fly. The season, of course, ended, with Pompey a penalty shootout from the FA Cup final.

Conversely, the start of the Milan Mandaric era promised so much as an expensively-assembled side defeated Sheffield United 2-0. By December, though, Bally again bit the bullet and Pompey laboured to 18th in Division One.

Every time, though, our old friend optimism was there. Peppering our conversations over a pre-match pint. Fuelling the father-and-son chats bouncing excitedly down Goldsmith Avenue as they make their Fratton pilgrimages.

And, you can bet she makes an appearance again this weekend. Anticipation and buoyancy combining to fuel our hopes at the outset of new voyage for the club.

Yet, this time it does seem slightly different. Because along with the enthusiasm which perennially greets the big kick-off we also sense an air of realism amid expectations.

The 14,500-plus season tickets sold tell us there’s hope and the Pompey faithful are on board with the journey ahead.

Entering the first campaign of Michael Eisner’s ownership with a popular new managerial choice in situ only deepens hopes of progress.

But a pragmatic tone has been almost universally detected amid the pre-season predictions. Among supporters anyway.

There has yet to be one fan this observer has engaged with who’s demanding Pompey to fulfil their standing as promotion contenders with the bookies.

Yes, a competitive campaign of progress is expected and we could even flirt with the play-offs.

Being in a position to continue flying when this club is ready for take-off appears to be what the average member of the Fratton faithful craves right now, though.

And isn’t being at the start of a period in which Pompey can build for that day cause for real optimism?