Harry Redknapp's wing-backs, Talbot, Primus, Naismith and Todorov - why Portsmouth managers rarely know their best XI in August
It is worth allowing Paul Merson to explain the story.
‘At Crystal Palace, I’m walking off the pitch at half-time wearing Pompey’s all-gold kit and we were 2-0 down – honestly, it could have been 100-0,’ he told the book, Played Up Pompey.
‘Harry came steaming into the dressing room, he was fuming. We had been terrible, all over the place, really, really poor, it was unreal.
‘He shouted: “Right, you off and you off, we’re going three at the back, Jason Crowe you go right wing-back, Matty Taylor you go left wing-back, Merse you in the hole and let’s give it a go – get out there and have a right go”.
‘We went back out for the second half and it was wallop, crash, we absolutely battered them and won 3-2, Hayden Foxe scored and then our substitute Crowe got two, the winner 18 minutes from time.
‘We played three at the back for the rest of the campaign, Linvoy Primus was one of them and never looked back, he was one of the best players that season and I cannot remember when we lost a game after that.’
The 2002-03 campaign would yield the Division One title and a return to the top flight following a 15-year absence.
It took Harry Redknapp two-and-half games to stumble across the vital formula, born at half-time in the away dressing room at Selhurst Park. Yet there it was, three centre-halves and flying wing-backs, the backbone to that season’s success.
So much for knowing his best team at the start of the campaign – the Blues’ boss hadn’t even pinpointed their most effective playing system.
The truth is, seasons don’t commence in August with the same side which will later trot out in May. Teams evolve, players are dispersed with, new faces are recruited, form dictates – and formations are ripped up.
The criticism has been levelled at Kenny Jackett that he was oblivious to his best Pompey XI during the opening month. Outside the magnificent Premier League pair of Manchester City and Liverpool, which manager genuinely does know?
Following five League One matches in August, the Blues’ selection policy has been largely hotchpotch, of that there can be no doubt.
A centre-half at right-back, a central midfielder at centre-half, another central midfielder briefly at right-back and Gareth Evans serving in three or four different positions, dependant on deciphering the playing system.
There is presently a glaring lack of balance about Jackett’s side as he fiddles to unearth fluent performances so far lacking from a side undergoing transformation in front of our eyes.
Strong mitigation exists, however – injuries. In fairness, the early-season unavailability of players has proven pivotal in the shaping of the current Pompey line-up.
James Bolton was recruited on a three-year deal to replace Nathan Thompson at right-back. Following injury, his first start arrived in the Leasing.com Trophy on Tuesday night – the eighth game of the campaign.
The left-sided centre-half replacement for Matt Clarke was Sean Raggett, but his appearances have been hampered by a pre-season elbow injury and ongoing reintegration following a double ankle fracture early in 2019.
Another summer signing, Ryan Williams, has been earmarked to challenge the worryingly out-of-sorts Ronan Curtis on the left flank, the Irishman’s form issues stretching well into this calendar year.
However, Curtis has started all five league games, while Williams has yet to play a single minute of action, whether competitive or friendly, due to injury.
Throw in the below-par displays of Anton Walkes since the season’s start, the necessity of presently removing him from the starting XI all fans can agree on, and clearly Jackett has been forced to shuffle his squad.
Certainly, with the greatest of respect, Christian Burgess at right-back does not equate to Jackett’s best Pompey side – a scenario the manager himself must be well aware of. Still, needs must.
As a consequence, fitful team selection has produced a disappointing haul of five points from five league matches during August, a sluggish start extenuated by the unwise introduction of Burgess from the bench against Coventry.
That glaring misjudgement cost the Blues two points – and lost the confidence of a number of Pompey followers in their manager. It remains a battle to win them back, if ever.
However, Jackett should not be condemned for attempting to grapple with the variables which leave many managers unable to name their best side in the early stages of any campaign.
Back to that 2002-03 season, Svetoslav Todorov didn’t start until four games in – yet finished as Division One’s 26-goal top scorer.
Linvoy Primus was on the bench for the opener against Nottingham Forest at Fratton Park, only to be pushed into the action after nine minutes as the injured Eddie Howe’s replacement. Primus ended the campaign as The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season.
Incidentally, Richard Hughes had been earmarked for the pivot role in a diamond on that same day, only to injure his quad in training shortly before. Carl Robinson replaced him, and would himself feature only another 14 times in the league that term.
For the 2016-17 title-winning season, Drew Talbot was Paul Cook’s right-back during the five August league games, later to be replaced so effectively by Gareth Evans.
The opening day’s line-up against Carlisle also included Milan Lalkovic and Michael Smith, while Kal Naismith had been banished to play with the kids.
Incidentally, it took until a 3-2 Boxing Day win at Newport before Naismith was handed a regular place in Cook’s starting XI, going on to establish himself as the talisman of seizing that League Two crown.
More recently, in the curtain raiser of last season, Jackett employed a 4-4-2 system, with Anton Walkes in the centre of midfield and Brandon Haunstrup on the left wing. Leading the line, as a front two, were Brett Pitman and Ronan Curtis.
As the season wore on, Pitman reinvented himself as a number 10, skippering the team to the Checkatrade Trophy, while Curtis’ energetic displays wide left earned him Republic of Ireland recognition.
As for Ben Thompson, despite a flurry of games following his entrance, it wouldn’t be until October 13, 2018, at AFC Wimbledon before establishing himself in the side and producing those outstanding displays.
Players grow, managers learn and teams evolve – even the successful ones.