Pompey's dress rehearsal is over '“ now we await the show
A season without targets, a campaign spared of expectation, for new boss Kenny Jackett registering failure was an improbable outcome.
Admittedly, relegation could rightly be considered a monumental disaster upon Pompey’s hard-earned League One return, yet that was never part of the equation.
Jackett was granted a practice run, a warm-up, representing a scenario rarely afforded to football managers in the impatient modern game.
No pre-season demands for promotion, no bloated playing budget handed over with strict stipulation for success, barely even a big-name arrival with the exception of Brett Pitman.
The 2017-18 campaign offered a comforting period for the manager to rebuild, constructing deep foundations for a glorious push towards the Championship. One day. In the future. Some time ahead.
The result was a highly-encouraging eighth-placed finish, five points adrift of the League One play-offs.
Jackett can hardly be criticised for not gatecrashing the top six when he possessed neither the mandate or financial backing to achieve such a feat.
Of course, Pompey’s boss was guilty of raising previously dormant hopes at times, artificially as it turned out, as they delectably flirted with the play-off positions.
However, that subsequent shortcoming should not entitle supporters to scream underachievement and campaign for the manager’s removal.
At the start of last summer, few would have confidently shared a vision of successive Blues promotions. It was not anticipated, the directive was neither delivered from the terraces or the Fratton Park boardroom.
In that respect, Jackett should be spared from any hindsight-driven criticism. He was challenged to erect a platform to launch giddy optimism – and he has obliged.
Not that there is any hearty patting on the back taking place at the Hilsea training ground, the manager has not held out his arms in expectation of bouquets or sought gushing plaudits.
For somebody who has twice steered clubs out of League One, most recently 2013-14, eighth place is no source of unbridled delight, rest assured.
Interestingly, at no stage were Pompey positioned lower than 16th in the table. In fact, since November 25, they slipped below ninth for just one weekend.
It means the Blues have occupied the top 10 for the majority of the campaign, maintaining pace with the play-off spots until the final fortnight.
There was even a two-week occupancy of sixth at the turn of the year, yet never would Jackett’s men again reach such heights, coinciding with Danny Rose’s injury and the failure to recruit a replacement.
Indeed, the January transfer window was a pivotal slice of the season. Rather than strengthening a potential promotion push, it initiated a trip which would prompt a stumbling Pompey dropping behind the pack for the campaign’s remainder.
There were subsequent attempts to catch up during mid-March once the injury list finally cleared, but the Blues had already missed their glorious opportunity.
Jackett recruited Connor Ronan, Sylvain Deslandes, Anton Walkes and Stephen Henderson on loan during January – three of which were aged 20 and below.
However, despite undoubted attempts stretching to the final moments of deadline day, they didn’t succeed in signing an experienced central midfielder to stand in for injured pair Rose and Stuart O’Keefe.
The consequence was eight points from a possible 33 from the turn of the year and a midfield containing youthful pairing Ben Close and Adam May on occasions. During the 2-1 victory at Fleetwood, the average age of the starting XI was 22.5 years, with 21-year-old Matt Clarke skipper.
Brett Pitman led the charge upon his return in mid-March, flanked by Gareth Evans and Nathan Thompson during their welcome comebacks, adding precious guile and experience.
The play-off push recovered, but a side which lost 20 times – more than any club in the top 13 – ultimately fell short following defeat to Charlton.
The Fratton faithful can rightly reflect on whether there would have been a different outcome if an alternative approach had been taken during the transfer window.
Still, the club is entirely blameless over Rose’s broken leg, freak intervention provided by a drop-ball challenge with former Northampton team-mate John-Joe O’Toole.
The Blues midfielder was in the form of his Fratton Park career. Thankfully, he has recovered – but play-off aspirations did not.
Jackett’s team selection was often devastated by injury, with 23 different players sidelined at some stage amid the most overcrowded treatment room witnessed at Pompey for many years.
To finish eighth, irrespective of such a handicap, is remarkable and testament to the managerial talents of the manager.
In terms of displays, last month’s 2-1 victory over Wigan was magnificent both on and off the pitch, with Pompey’s fans generating the best Fratton atmosphere of the season for the televised encounter.
Managed by Paul Cook, of course, the Latics would claim the League One title regardless, racking up 98 points and a goal difference of 60.
While Pompey themselves didn’t secure promotion, supporters can be enthused over their progress.
Granted, there have been periods of disillusion, yet thankfully it proved to be nothing more than passing frustration.
Jackett has constructed his foundations – now we await the next stage of his Fratton rebuild. Bring on the show, the dress rehearsal is over.