Why Pompey fans are enjoying plenty in reserve

Noel Hunt, right, celebrates his goal against Barnsley in Monday night's Premier League Cup game at Westleigh Park with Blues team-mate Ben Tollitt Picture: Mick Young
Noel Hunt, right, celebrates his goal against Barnsley in Monday night's Premier League Cup game at Westleigh Park with Blues team-mate Ben Tollitt Picture: Mick Young
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In February, Pompey reserves defeated Reading’s youngsters 3-1 during a behind-closed-doors encounter at their Copnor Road training home.

Now the fixture is under the gaudy umbrella of the Checkatrade Trophy – with the addition of a £7 charge for those wishing to be privy to the occasion.

Such is the fine-line none-too-daintily tip-toed by a Football League press-ganged into action by their Premier League masters.

Yet interest in reserve football remains encouraging, certainly among Blues fans whose number until recently had to peer through meshed fences at Roko for a glimpse.

On Monday night, 355 people witnessed Pompey progress in the one competition whose presence of under-23 sides has been embraced.

Top-flight clubs, no matter the guise or title paraded under, have rightly been lambasted for their unwanted involvement in the lower league format of the Checkatrade Trophy.

Meanwhile, the Blues’ ongoing engagement with the Premier League Cup has been embraced by both the club and its supporters.

Far from being a dose of hypocrisy, the reserve competition clearly fills a sizeable pothole in the footballing calendar for supporters.

To the extent where this week’s visit of Barnsley to Westleigh Park attracted considerably more fans than tickets so far accounted for in the forthcoming Checkatrade Trophy clash with Reading under-23s.

For the record, currently 215 seats have been snapped up by home followers for the grand visit of the Royals to Fratton Park on October 4.

But while that ill-conceived competition wheezes through its last breath, there remains a future for reserve-team football as a spectator sport.

Those in attendance at both of Pompey’s Premier League Cup fixtures so far have been treated to entertaining matches, a glimpse at the young talent beneath the first-team, in particular Adam May, and a useful gauge of the senior players.

Incidentally, Ian Foster’s side won on each occasion – not that it matters in the overall picture.

Still, with the preliminary round now safely negotiated, the Blues are involved in the group stages, counting Everton, Norwich and Wolves among their rivals.

Each team will be faced on a home and away basis from now until the end of February, albeit not at traditional home venues.

During that period, expect interest to be cranked up among those supporters yet to venture over to Havant for a slice of reserve action.

Regardless of the calibre of the opposition, there remains a reassuring attentiveness towards a reserve team back at Westleigh Park for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign.

And for that reason we are all thankful for the behind-the-scenes lobbying for Pompey’s entry into the Premier League Cup this season.

There was, of course, a sole season of involvement in the reformed Final Third Development League for 2014-15, with games staged at Furze Lane.

Yet supporters are now seeing the reserves in the more conventional match venue of Westleigh Park, accompanied by a charge of £5 – gate receipts which the Hawks reap.

Back in 2009-10, with Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham and Aston Villa reserve opposition, gates averaged 222 at the non-league side’s home.

In terms of young talent, Joel Ward, Matt Ritchie, Nadir Ciftci, Paris Cowan-Hall, Marlon Pack and Lenny Sowah were among those on parade.

Not forgetting, a teenage Liam O’Brien long before this season’s return to the fold – and a place in the past two reserve line-ups.

There were also match cameos from Jamie Ashdown, Eugen Bopp, Papa Bouba Diop, Steve Finnan, Richard Hughes, Jamie O’Hara, Frederic Piquionne and Danny Webber.

Even Mike Williamson was granted five appearances, although still never made a first-team appearance.

Those fixtures served their purpose. Whether to highlight the idiocy of Marko Futacs spitting at an opponent for a red card or to mark the Arsenal debut of new recruit Theo Walcott.

Incidentally, 619 watched the latter event as Marc Wilson struck twice in a 3-2 victory to steal the show.

Arsenal’s scorers being Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner.

Moving to the present, 10 of Pompey’s 16-man reserve squad against Barnsley had climbed through the club’s youth ranks, while attendances have involved 240 (Southend) and 355 (Barnsley).

Group D fixtures in the Premier League Cup have still to be finalised, subject to the calendars of competing clubs as well as the Hawks.

However, home matches are tentatively pencilled in as Wolves (November 7), Norwich (January 23, 2017) and Everton (February 27, 2017).

A real concern is the proposed trip to Norwich landing on October 3 – 24 hours before the Checkatrade Trophy encounter with Reading under-23s.

It represents a headache for Pompey, considering Cook’s preference to operate with a reserve side in both competitions.

Each fixture must be staged during a period of four days (Friday-Monday) and the Canaries’ under-23s are also involved in the Checktrade Trophy.

Discussions over a new date continue.

Interestingly, the Premier League Cup this season replaced the Under-21 Premier League Cup, raising the age limit to allow three outfield players and a goalkeeper aged over 23.

There has also been the addition of a Champions League format, with the top-two teams from each of the eight groups progressing to the final-16 knock-out phase.

Similarly, change this season was initiated in the former Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, allowing five over-21s in the starting line-up of invited clubs.

Yet as the Premier League Cup is demonstrating, Pompey followers are not adverse to watching a team of reserve players in an honest competition beneficial for youngsters.