No Enda in sight for Pompey search

Enda Stevens perched on the physiotherapist's table, blinking away intrusive tears during an emotionally-charged finale to his Pompey career.

Saturday, 13th January 2018, 9:30 am
Former Pompey left-back Enda Stevens

Next door the boisterous antics of title-winning team-mates threatened to drown out the softly-spoken Irishman, not that their gregarious behaviour could be begrudged.

As ever, platitudes of waiting to learn his fate were delivered to the media, safe words rolled out to gently diffuse potential powder-keg accusations of disloyalty.

Minutes later, across the corridor in Fratton Park’s laundry room, Paul Cook attempted a similar manoeuvre. The conviction in allaying fears over his ongoing presence was more emphatic, yet the subsequent fall considerably more damaging.

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Pompey new-boy Sylvain Deslandes Picture: Joe Pepler

In truth, Stevens knew he was departing Fratton Park, the destination of Sheffield United having already been negotiated by a player whose contract was reaching expiry.

The left-back’s future had been decided leading up to the visit of Cheltenham, a plotted course which enabled him to savour the present and bid farewell on a wonderful high.

Within 16 days, the ex-Villa man was unveiled at Bramall Lane on a three-year deal.

That was May 2017 – and in the ensuing eight months the Blues are auditioning their seventh candidate to be an effective replacement.

Pompey new-boy Sylvain Deslandes Picture: Joe Pepler

Clearly it was a thankless task replacing The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season and twice Players’ Player of the Year, particularly following two years of dominance at left-back.

Following his June 2015 arrival, Stevens missed just two of Pompey’s 92 League Two fixtures.

There was Northampton at home on the final day of the 2015-16 campaign – an unused substitute, with Cook opting to rest players ahead of play-off encounters with Plymouth.

The other occasion was influenced by a groin problem, forcing his removal for the goalless draw at Crewe in August 2016.

Contrast that bloody-minded monopolisation of the position to seasons both before and since, when the Blues have struggled to unearth a reliable and effective alternative.

Admittedly, they have been stung by outrageous misfortune at left-back under Kenny Jackett, table-thumping problems the fault of neither player or club.

Yet with Sylvain Deslandes the latest to step forward, the Blues are hoping to have finally found a valid successor to Stevens. Seventh-time lucky.

Dion Donohue has served there during the past three matches, but the Frenchman’s recruitment from Wolves until the season’s end has been done with the first team in mind.

Jackett has declined to pinpoint whether he explored the signing before or after Brandon Haunstrup’s knee injury against AFC Wimbledon which has sidelined his promising progress for up to eight weeks.

Nonetheless, even if Deslandes should not be handed his debut against Scunthorpe this afternoon, his time is coming.

By his own admission, Donohue favours the attacking aspect of the game, prompting extra work on the training ground with Joe Gallen to ramp up his defensive discipline.

Of all his 10 league starts at left-back this season, the 24-year-old has been more impressive of late – particularly during victory over Northampton when he assisted Oli Hawkins for his second goal.

The fact Donohue has been pressed into left-back duty is due to injury to loanees Tareiq Holmes-Dennis and Damien McCrory – the key reason behind struggles to replace Stevens.

Holmes-Dennis, a season-long loan from Huddersfield, demonstrated a pacy and swashbuckling approach during his four pre-season outings.

Then 39 minutes into his debut against Rochdale, he was forced off with knee-ligament damage following a slip on the Astroturf positioned in front of the South Stand. A freak injury had ended his season.

McCrory was next, a deadline-day loan recruit from Burton whose first-team presence spanned three matches and an unused substitute outing.

During his bow at Fratton Park, he twisted his knee after 21 minutes against Fleetwood – and never again represented the side before his scheduled January 2 return.

Meanwhile, Joe Hancott became the club’s youngest post-war debutant when he turned out aged 16 years and 161 days against Fulham under-21s in the Checkatrade Trophy.

Even Matt Clarke, Pompey’s prized asset and outstanding central defender, was switched to left-back for a three-game spell in November, before returning home.

As for Haunstrup, there have been nine league starts this season. Now he has been sidelined by injury.

Before Stevens’ free transfer arrival under Cook, the 2014-15 season saw Dan Butler and Nicky Shorey share left-back duties, save a two-match cameo by Cole Kpekawa.

Kpekawa was packed off back to parent club QPR early after an inauspicious stay with the Blues. He is now with League Two Colchester.

Incidentally, Butler has started 20 of Newport County’s 26 league games this term and was part of the side which defeated Leeds in the FA Cup.

Meanwhile, during the first campaign under fan ownership in 2013-14, seven different left-backs were employed.

In addition to Butler and Shorey, there were league starts for Marcos Painter, Danny East, Joe Devera, Shaun Cooper and loanee Dan Potts.

As for the 2012-13 season, the total of six included Butler, Cooper, Jon Harley, Mustapha Dumbuya, a second loan spell for Carl Dickinson and Adam Webster.

Back to the present, Stevens has so far missed just one Championship match for the seventh-placed Blades.

And over at Fratton Park, the pretenders are still queuing to prove themselves worthy successors.