Fleetwood 0 Portsmouth 1: Neil Allen's verdict - New-look Blues fall into bad old ways to raise unfavourable playing comparisons amid winning start

A stagnating Pompey were deservedly ripped apart during the summer, seeking fresh impetus and renewed drive for success.

By Neil Allen
Sunday, 8th August 2021, 9:00 am
Updated Sunday, 8th August 2021, 10:05 am
Lee Brown celebrates his Pompey winner against Fleetwood on Saturday. Picture: Paul Thompson/ProSportsImages
Lee Brown celebrates his Pompey winner against Fleetwood on Saturday. Picture: Paul Thompson/ProSportsImages

The playing squad, the backroom staff, the Academy and chief executive have been overhauled, while even Fratton fixture Kev McCormack is stepping down to be replaced as kitman on Monday.

Yet Saturday was eerily familiar, a glanced reminder that while everything has changed at the Blues, sometimes actually nothing has.

It was a scrappy, hard-fought, 1-0 success ground out unconvincingly without any trace of style or swagger. In truth, an uncomfortable to watch at times.

Encouragingly, Danny Cowley’s side’s accomplished victory at Fleetwood to kick off the League One campaign in winning fashion, registering a clean sheet in the process.

Nonetheless, the manner of their triumph was uncannily familiar to a significant proportion of matches witnessed under Kenny Jackett’s lengthy reign as Blues boss.

Comparisons are inevitable – and certainly not out of place.

A total of six debuts failed to remove the nagging feeling that we’ve seen such performances before, on multiple occasions. The King is dead and all that.

Still, it was a win, a gutsy win, driven by character, desire and heart, epitomised by Ronan Curtis’ involvement despite personal heartbreak.

For all the disparaging of Jackett’s time at the club, let’s not forget the new Leyton Orient boss steered the Blues to a staggering 109 wins in 211 matches in the charge.

Overwhelmingly, the majority of such triumphs were turgid to sit through, such substance over style had long become unpalatable to supporters, irrespective of brief victory thrill.

Perhaps that is why the groans from the south coast could be heard from a blustery Highbury Stadium on Saturday, despite the Blues claiming a 1-0 success they barely deserved.

For a new start, it felt like a false dawn. As fans often sing these days: ‘We’ve seen you before’.

Yet let’s not condemn Cowley on the flimsy basis of one match – and a winning beginning to life as the permanent head coach.

Unquestionably this is a team in transition, the hurried evolution of a squad which reached eighth last season, while reducing the playing budget following more than a year without match-day income.

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There have been 11 departures since that failure, in addition to the exit of loanees Rasmus Nicolaisen, George Byers and Harvey White.

Meanwhile, Michael Jacobs is on his way to Ipswich, while Ellis Harrison is set for either Sheffield Wednesday or Oxford United, both fetching fees, as the clear-out continues.

As it stands, the squad is undoubtedly weaker than last term, nonetheless the rebuilding process is still underway. Frustratingly slow at times, admittedly, yet we can see progress.

In the meantime, Pompey won 1-0 at Fleetwood on Saturday – it’s a reminder worth raising once more before engulfed by gloom.

As misfortune would have it, preparations were severely hamstrung by the pre-match drama of losing Shaun Williams to a back problem in the warm-up.

Concerns have long been raised of the wisdom of a constructing a squad containing just two senior central midfielders at present, of which one turns 35 in October.

Sure enough, Williams’ sudden unavailability saw Connor Ogilvie thrust into a midfield role, while 17-year-old Academy prospect Harry Jewitt-White occupied the bench.

According to Cowley, the former Gillingham defender had never before operated in the position in senior football. That handicap clearly impacted upon the way Pompey subsequently played.

For large periods, especially in the first half, the Blues struggled to build through their midfield and were unable to dictate through possession as an impressive Fleetwood seized the initiative.

Ogilvie, a natural left-footed defender, huffed and puffed, sticking to his task admirably, yet this square peg in a round hole should be used strictly in an emergency. And Saturday definitely was an emergency.

Until Williams’ late withdrawal, it was an obvious Pompey starting line-up for the first match, albeit a predictability driven by lack of alternatives in this threadbare playing squad.

With Gavin Bazunu having featured for just 63 minutes in pre-season through injury, Alex Bass started in goal, with the only available centre-halves – Sean Raggett and Clark Robertson – ahead of him.

Skipper Robertson was among five debutants, consisting of Gassan Ahadme, Kieron Freeman, Ryan Tunnicliffe and, supposedly, Williams.

Freeman, of course, was marking his second Blues bow, following his Fratton Park loan spell in the second half of the 2015-16 campaign under Paul Cook.

That meant George Hirst on the bench alongside Ogilvie, although the latter was promoted into the starting XI following Williams’ set-back, with youngster Izzy Kaba replacing him among the substitutes.

Meanwhile, Curtis suffered the heartache of his partner miscarrying during the week, yet was adamant he wanted to play.

For a player who has made no secret of his desire for Championship football this season, it’s another remarkable show of commitment towards Pompey and deserves immense respect.

Indeed, it was the Republic of Ireland international who struck Fleetwood’s bar on 28 minutes with a 25-yard free-kick, albeit very much against the run of play.

Largely that first half was dominated by the hosts, whose right winger Shayden Morris was a massive handful for Lee Brown throughout with his pacy and trickery.

Certainly boss Simon Grayson will have been wondering how his team entered the break goalless, although the defending of Sean Raggett, the positioning of Alex Bass and the profligacy of Harrison Biggins may explain it.

Pompey were better after the break, although still mainly uninspiring, yet Ahadme should have scored on 58 minutes when Tunnicliffe’s shot from outside the box kindly deflected into his path.

With just Alex Cairns to beat, the Norwich loanee couldn’t steer a left-footed effort from close range past the keeper.

However, two minutes later, the game’s decisive goal arrived.

Tunnicliffe’s cross from the right eluded his team-mates positioned in central part of the penalty area, yet found its way to Brown on the far side.

The full-back took a touch before drilling a superb low left-footed shot into the far corner of the net for his fourth Pompey goal.

Unconvincing and a tough watch at times, yet the Blues had their opening day win, which nobody should be chuntering about.

Now we wait for squad reinforcements – and more enjoyable team performances.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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