The Cross Word: Bravery needed to combat football fear

Kyle Bennett & Co were not at their fluent best against Mansfield. Picture: Joe Pepler
Kyle Bennett & Co were not at their fluent best against Mansfield. Picture: Joe Pepler
Reading were linked with Matt Clarke during the week

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Bravery comes in a multitude of forms.

And Portsmouth Football Club is a place which has witnessed the many different shapes and sizes of fearlessness and fortitude.

What Cook needs more is his players to perform for him. That, and not formations, was the biggest problem at the weekend.

Those who raised £35,000 in five months to help save the club through the SOS Pompey scheme in the 1970s were brave.

Fast forward 40 years and look to those who risked their own health and wealth to fight to keep the club in existence. Awe-inspiringly brave.

And then there were the fans who made their way to Fratton Park over 100 years ago to sign up for the 14th and 15th battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, the Pompey Pals, before sacrificing their lives in the First World War. The ultimate bravery.

In the face of such heroism, it seems churlish to talk of the type of bravery spoken of in the football sphere.

Hyperbole is king in a world where defeats are termed ‘disasters’ while the death toll rises above 300 in the Afghanistan earthquake.

But ‘bravery’ has been peppering Paul Cook’s vocabulary as he looks for his side to remedy a downturn in home form.

It’s on a different planet to the real world the term is used in football’s self-absorbed bubble. Nonetheless, it has its place in the game’s lexicon.

And that football bravery is what’s needed to arrest the downturn in home results.

We’re not talking about the James Dunne or Michael Doyle bravery of thundering into a challenge which is 70-30 in your opponent’s favour here.

And it’s not the Matt Taylor bravery of stepping up to take a penalty when £50m and Pompey’s Premier League existence is on the line.

Cook is looking for the kind of courage from his players which ebbed out of their game against Mansfield.

‘We need to be a bit braver,’ said the Pompey boss. ‘Take a few more risks in possession of the ball and be a bit more clinical.’

Three draws and a defeat at Fratton Park could easily be in danger of creating an environment where it’s tough to deliver that approach.

When an opponent’s ambition is limited to parking the bus and escaping with a draw, the test for attacking players intensifies in the limited space they’re afforded.

It’s also a challenge to their character, conviction, belief and, crucially, confidence to stand up and be counted when it’s 0-0 after an hour in such an environment, and the natives are getting restless.

The same goes for the player who takes the easy option on the ball and looks for the simple sideways pass, for fear of getting the more testing defence-splitting ball wrong and agitating supporters.

Mansfield were less guilty than most of negative play. But to hear boss Adam Murray’s delight at reducing Pompey to moving the ball from left to right, while his side threatened sporadically on the counter, was enlightening.

The Fratton faithful showed impressive restraint at the full-time whistle on Saturday.

The talk around the ground afterwards and, later, the Pompey boozers, messageboards and social media circles was of a glaring need for Cook to employ two strikers.

What he needs more is his players to perform for him.

That, and not formations, was the biggest problem at the weekend.

Too many of Cook’s attacking options failed to deliver and looked paralysed by fear and frustration.

When it was time to demand the ball again after a misplaced pass too many went missing. When the chance to take on a player and create an opening emerged, the player dallied, checked and passed backwards.

Possession stats can be telling, but also misleading. Without purpose, daring and some mettle that dominance of the ball means nothing.

A little football bravery is what’s needed.