He was facing the Axe - but Mok has fought back

Aaron Mokoena beats Brighton's Liam Bridcutt to a header

Aaron Mokoena beats Brighton's Liam Bridcutt to a header

Pompey striker Curtis Main Picture: Joe Pepler

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His days at Pompey looked numbered – and in Steve Cotterill’s own words, he had ‘the hump’ with Aaron Mokoena.

The friction between the pair was palpable at times, and it seemed that the South Africa captain would be on his way out of Fratton Park this summer.

The man known as the Axe went from captain to facing the chop as his standing dropped away throughout the campaign.

Talk of a move to the Middle East and Russia, among other places, circulated – and it appeared Mokoena had no future at the club.

But Mokoena has quietly gone about his business in pre-season and pulled himself into impressive physical condition.

His attitude has been right and the South African international defender has knuckled down in a professional manner, despite the transfer talk.

Those facts haven’t been lost on his manager, and the response has been to see Mokoena start the first three games of the new campaign.

The majority of these outings have seen him utilised in defence, with the 30-year-old moving back from midfield late on at Boro and featuring at right-back against Barnet.

Then came a man-of-the-match performance for his team against Brighton on Saturday, as he revelled in a central-defensive role.

Cotterill may have had his doubts about the player in the past but he feels Mokoena has deserved his spot in the Pompey side.

He said: ‘I think Aaron has had a decent pre-season.

‘There were times last season when he messed up. I was unhappy with him numerous times but he has worked hard in pre-season. Very hard.

‘He’s played okay wherever we’ve put him, so I am pleased with him.

‘Fair play to the crowd as well because they’ve recognised that. They haven’t given him too many moans or groans.

‘It may have been a kick in the teeth to have had the captaincy taken off him, but he’s gone in there and got on with it.

‘I’ll only pick the team on merit – I won’t pick someone because I like them.

‘So he’s got into the team on merit this season and he’s done okay.

‘It looked like he was on his way but football can change like that.

‘He knows I had the hump with him last season. He knows that and the reasons why.

‘To be fair to him, he’s come back, got his head down and done well.’

With Mokoena, again, likely to start against Reading tonight, the big question for Pompey fans is what part will returning hero Benjani play in the clash.

The 33-year-old is finding his fitness after playing catch-up across pre-season.

Benjani had been training with Stockport recently but is still behind in terms of where he needs to be.

And Cotterill is still weighing up whether to throw him in at the deep end.

He said: ‘It will take time to get him up to speed.

‘You want to get players up to speed who haven’t had a pre-season, but then you risk an injury getting them up to speed quickly if you are tempted to play them.

‘We all know what he will bring.

‘He has a big heart and lots of energy. He’s strong, too.

‘I think he has done nine or 10 days with Stockport, but he is a naturally fit boy.

‘He can run all day long and he will bring that to the team.

‘We won’t get two games out of Kanu close together. We’ll have to wait and see.’

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