The fire still burns as Awford fights on

Andy Awford. Picture: Joe Pepler
Andy Awford. Picture: Joe Pepler
Christian Burgess

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His eyes were lifeless and words limp, a demeanour betraying a man resigned to his fate and accepting of his future.

The final stand of Richard Ian Barker took place pitchside at Rochdale back in March.

There was no grand defiance, no fight remaining.

It was a beaten man standing in front of the local press that Tuesday evening following a 3-0 defeat.

The brimming self-assurance which characterised his three-month and 19-day presence had been sucked out. Instead, there was a calm acknowledgement the end was nigh as Pompey boss.

‘I don’t feel the pressure, I just get on with it and work as hard as I can,’ uttered Barker.

‘I’ve had things happen to me and this is not pressure.

‘Nobody has said anything to me. I dare say they might do but I don’t know, so I will just keep going.

‘It’s not something I am afraid of. Compared to the things that have happened to me, this is not tough.

‘You can keep changing managers but the players keep making the same mistakes.

‘I am not everybody’s cup of tea, so what – it’s not the end of the world.’

Within 36 hours the cage door had been opened and the tortured soul released. It was by ‘mutual consent’, we were consistently reminded.

In truth, a shell-shocked Barker was as desperate to flee Fratton Park in his black Kia as the club were to remove him, having lost the changing room and then the Fratton faithful.

In his slipstream he left a club in turmoil, hurtling out of the Football League.

And so it was his replacement who entered into the glare of the media on Wednesday night.

Andy Awford is unquestionably under pressure, having overseen Pompey’s first FA Cup elimination at the hands of a non-league team in their 116-year history.

Conducting a procession of interviews following a raw inquest inside the away dressing room at the Recreation Ground, the fresh wounds of the debacle were repeatedly prodded.

Not that Awford winced.

The fire inhabited his eyes, the anger overtook his self-imposed barriers, suddenly his players were gun-toting fair game. The 42-year-old was marching out of the burning building on the attack.

Awford is a belligerent soul, infuriatingly stubborn as his friends and those who know him best in the media will gladly testify. He doesn’t know the meaning of defeat.

The desire to prove his worth as Pompey boss is unshaken from the latest foundation collapse. If anything, his steely resolve is stronger.

No time for self-wallowing in doubt and longingly eyeing the embracing arms of the Academy set-up he walked away from in March.

For Awford, the fight rages on and he has no intention of pleading for the white towel to be flung into the ring to herald an escape out of the back door.

What the abject Aldershot result demonstrated – apart from the obvious – was the heart of the manager is still committed to the job he has wished for since serving as a central defender.

There was no wishy washy addressing of the gathered media on the very pitch where his team were humiliated less then two hours earlier. Instead, the battle cry was sounded.

This was Awford speaking at his finest – candid, honest, sincere and blessed with inspirational passion.

Let’s just hope those inside the dressing room can open their ears to such words because their manager really is involved in a battle.

No question about it, the doubts have escalated since the naming of that Home Park team – those calling for his head have multiplied in the past week.

Suddenly the rookie manager the vast majority wanted in charge on a permanent basis is being criticised for his lack of experience.

The Pompey Hall of Fame inductee, once gushingly lauded for ‘getting’ the club, now has such a strength regarded by some as a trifling irrelevance.

Most crucial of all, the results are delivering a damning chorus of disapproval on a managerial ability which is now under immense scrutiny.

This morning, the Blues are three places ahead of the 16th spot they occupied this time last year.

Progress, undoubtedly, yet when you throw in a budget that has doubled since Guy Whittingham’s tenure, there is little surprise questions are being posed.

Present performances and scorelines are hardly reflective of such money well spent on a group of players possessing a large amount of experience of League One and above.

Aside from reliable goalkeeper Paul Jones, every department is alarmingly lacking in effectiveness and quality.

To think it was a year ago tomorrow when Whittingham endured his final match in charge – a 2-1 home defeat to a Scunthorpe side destined for promotion.

Today is a must-win occasion against Morecambe, both for Awford and a football club desperate to retain an interest in the play-offs.

But while there are ongoing suggestions the players are going through the motions, their manager is not.

As Awford displayed so emphatically during his interviews on Wednesday, the intensity to succeed remains undiluted.

He still cares, he still believes, success at the club he loves is his primary objective, and he will commit every ounce of energy towards achieving that.

Times are tough at present, there’s no denying that. Results are poor and displays unsatisfactory.

Mistakes have been made, selection and formation errors have occurred.

But looking into the eyes of Pompey’s manager at Aldershot you could see a fire so reassuringly undiminished.