The extraordinary Pompey fall and rise of comeback kid Kal

Kal Naismith. Picture: Joe Pepler
Kal Naismith. Picture: Joe Pepler
Pompey boss Kenny Jackett. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey can profit in play-off shake-up

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The opposition had a foreign flavour. Similarly, Kal Naismith didn’t naturally belong in those Furze Lane surroundings.

Norwegian side Ranheim provided the pre-season test on that Friday afternoon, another pin in the map of a footballing trek across England.

The Scandinavian club’s under-19s had already ventured to QPR and AFC Wimbledon in the desire to broaden their education.

Now it was the occasion of facing counterparts from Pompey – plus the discarded Naismith.

Such was the focus on youth experience in that July 2016 fixture, Mikey Harris’ side employed six players from the under-16s.

Also among their number was Naismith, a month-long resident with the Academy set-up having been informed he had no Fratton future.

Transfer-listed, excluded from first-team training and then left home alone while Paul Cook and his squad jetted off for a week of bonding and friendly fixtures in Ireland – the situation was made abundantly clear.

Now the midfielder was locking horns with teenagers from a Norwegian First Division side.

Yet that 4-1 victory represented a farewell appearance alongside the kids as Naismith’s Pompey season was about to transform.

Today the 25-year-old is the Blues’ leading scorer, emerging as a talismanic figure to provide inspiration during the club’s sprint finish towards promotion.

During his last 23 appearances, he has netted 10 goals and supplied four assists, most recently contributing on both fronts in the 2-0 success at Hartlepool.

Undoubtedly, the case for recognition in the player-of-the-season stakes is growing ever-irresistible.

This from the player who had the exit door held open for him with two years remaining on the deal he signed following a May 2015 arrival from Accrington for an undisclosed fee.

Yet Naismith has demonstrated admirable resilience and bloody-minded determination to succeed.

And don’t Pompey fans relish a successful underdog.

Lesser men would have sulked, feigned injury or inflicted poison within the dressing room as retribution against those who have wronged them. Fratton has seen their like.

The former Rangers man’s response has been to drag himself to his feet to serve as an instrumental member of a side which can enter folklore as promotion heroes.

Except Naismith isn’t merely a foot soldier, he’s presently leading the charge.

It was on May 18 when Pompey announced his transfer listing, alongside Adam McGurk and Matt Tubbs, during Cook’s summer overhaul.

Pompey’s boss had become exasperated with the Scot, restless over the midfielder’s struggles to fit into a team plan constructed upon a high-tempo approach and ceaseless work-rate.

Admittedly, Naismith was injured at the 2015-16 campaign’s beginning but by its end had earned only 10 starts, largely thanks to a flurry of outings in the final month.

In the agonising play-off semi-final defeat at Plymouth, he remained grounded as an unused substitute.

It was never a question of the manager losing faith in Naismith’s ability, just belief he could conform to the requirements of his team.

The Blues returned for pre-season training with assistant manager Leam Richardson putting 22 players through a running session along the picturesque Fareham Creek Trail.

Meanwhile, Naismith, McGurk and Tubbs had been instructed to sign on with the youth team.

Then there was omission from the squad’s week-long team-building stay at the Johnstown House hotel in County Meath, Ireland.

Those in attendance included triallists Michael Crowe, Eric Grimes, Chris Sessegnon and Elyse Boris Konsiembo, three of which didn’t see out the trip.

By July 23, Naismith was the last man standing of the out-of-favour trio and lined-up for the Academy in a friendly at Dorchester. Theo Widdrington skippered the side.

That same day, Fratton Park hosted Bournemouth, a crowd of 5,153 witnessing a 3-3 draw in which 22 Blues players were utilised.

The sole fit senior player not part of proceedings was instead 76 miles away facing a Southern League premier division side.

Then Ranheim visited the south coast – and 24 hours later Naismith’s climb back to the summit began.

Reintegration with the first-team arrived in the form of Pompey’s eighth and final pre-season fixture at Bristol City the following day.

Glowing reports of Naismith’s upbeat attitude and positive influence during his youth-team residency had not gone unnoticed by Cook.

This was no bad egg.

Of the nine substitutes used in the Ashton Gate goalless draw, he was the last to climb off the bench, featuring for the final three minutes at left-back. All the same, it offered hope.

Naismith has trained with the first-team ever since and – on September 8 – was removed from the transfer list.

During that first-team sabbatical, it is understood Pompey received up to five bids for the 25-year-old from clubs located mainly in League One.

Intriguingly, on each occasion, Cook personally rejected them in favour of retaining the Whiteley-based Scot.

History shows as Chesterfield boss he transfer-listed Sam Hird in April 2013 – before removing him almost five months later.

The central defender went on to appear 35 times during the 2013-14 League Two title-winning campaign and last year was named as the Spireites’ player of the season.

Conceivably, Naismith’s reinvention was a canny motivational tactic to stir a talent Cook felt had laid dormant.

Regardless, Pompey’s leading scorer last week admitted he’s producing career-best displays.

And, thankfully, he’s no longer a stranger in his Fratton Park home.