How cup competitions have choked Portsmouth's fixture list - but resurrected promotion ambition
Pompey are challenged with a bloated schedule of 14 matches during the next seven weeks, such is the price of success.
There should be no complaints, of course, rightly Kenny Jackett refuses to bemoan the crammed fixture list looming so ominously.
Having taken team selection seriously in all competitions, this is the consequence.
Granted, early exits from the FA Cup and Leasing.com Trophy would have undoubtedly reduced congestion, removing the chaotic nature of Pompey’s bulging calendar.
Still, they have formed an integral part of this resurgence which has stoked up the dying embers of promotion ambition.
The Championship is the priority, this is Jackett’s third attempt at steering the Blues upwards following successive seasons of progress.
However, once his team fulfil forthcoming fixtures against Exeter and Arsenal, regardless of the outcomes, it will represent a total of 15 cup matches in a season – a club record.
The Blues were jaded at the culmination of last season, a spent force as they limped through the play-off semi-finals without a goal. Their meek surrender during the Fratton Park second leg was painful to witness.
Never before had Pompey played 62 matches in a campaign, with 14 cup fixtures among them. As a result, those players Jackett was most reliant were a shadow of their previous form, in particular Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis, his energetic goal-scoring wingers sapped of spark and inspiration.
Bury’s demise has reduced the current League One programme to 44 matches, ensuring the Blues’ total at present is heading for 59 games, a figure which nonetheless will still have a considerable impact unless managed impeccably.
However, at this juncture, cup progress has proven tremendously beneficial, the foundation upon which Jackett’s remarkable transformation of this campaign is constructed.
Pompey were positioned 17th in mid-October – then they embarked on a magnificent run of two defeats in 22 matches.
It’s a period which has reaped 16 victories, of which seven have arrived in cup competitions.
A side formerly stuttering and accompanied by chants for the manager’s dismissal has learnt how to win again, driven by continued progress in the FA Cup and Leasing.com Trophy.
Jackett was scratching around for a sustained spell of positive results, now he has it, albeit surely exceeding even his hopes.
Should Pompey beat Sunderland, they will equal the club record of eight successive victories in all competitions – a feat Jackett matched during two separate spells last term.
He has uncovered the winning formula which so frustratingly eluded for the first few months of the season, threatening his own standing, certainly among the Fratton faithful.
The assistance of fixtures against the likes of Harrogate Town, Altrincham, Northampton and Walsall have been invaluable in establishing a resurgence which could still blaze a trail back into the Championship.
Jackett now possesses a settled side, whose defence have conceded twice in the last four League One outings, while have netted in 22 consecutive games. It has clicked.
Yet there remain nagging fears over the volume of fixtures squeezed into the final three months of the campaign, certainly in terms of draining first-choice performers.
Staggeringly, last season there were six players which registered 51 or more appearances – Matt Clarke (60), Gareth Evans (56), Jamal Lowe (55), Tom Naylor (53) and Lee Brown (51).
In addition, Curtis (49), Oli Hawkins (48) and Ben Close (46) were on the cusp during an exhausting year.
In the case of the indefatigable Clarke, no player in the club’s history had previously registered 60 or more appearances during a single Football League campaign.
The centre-half missed just two of Pompey’s 62 matches, both arriving in the Checkatrade Trophy, being rested against Arsenal under-21s and an unused substitute at Southend.
Clarke’s club record will not be matched this season. Close, leading appearance maker with 36, has already not featured in three matches, unused on the substitutes’ bench in each.
Others to have so far featured prominently are John Marquis (35), Christian Burgess (34), Naylor (33), Curtis (31) and Ellis Harrison (29).
As it stands, the Blues will play 59 fixtures this term. However, should they reach the play-off semi-finals that will stand at 61. With further progress in the cups, and potentially a play-off final, the figure would be extended beyond even that record 62.
Still, in the here and now, Pompey are faced with 14 matches in 49 days, while, after next week, will be handed six successive midweek fixtures.
During that period, stretching from Sunderland until the Saturday, March 21 visit to Ipswich, the Blues will have carried out nine home games and five away.
Small mercies that 64 per cent of those matches will be hosted at Fratton Park, certainly the players can benefit from reduced travel.
Managing the squad will also be pivotal, with Jackett in a stronger position this term to rotate the attacking positions which attract the greatest physical demands.
Marcus Harness and Ryan Williams are battling it out for the right flank, an ongoing fight which prevents a repeat of the reliance which caused the burn-out of 17-goal Lowe last season.
On the other flank, Curtis has come through his poor start to the campaign after sitting out four games, with Williams earmarked as a potential deputy.
Indeed, whereas Jackett never quite trusted loan wingers Viv Solomon-Otabor, David Wheeler and Lloyd Isgrove, the hard-working Australian possesses his full faith.
Meanwhile, for the number 10 role, Andy Cannon has largely been starved of matches, while the Blues boss could also employ Evans, Cameron McGeehan or Marquis.
As for up front, Harrison and Marquis are his favoured options, rarely operating in tandem, such is the wont of 4-2-3-1 system, allowing their rotation to maintain freshness.
Jackett’s careful utilisation of his attacking assets will be key to how his side emerge through this hectic schedule.
History details how an exhausted Pompey side failed to turn up in last season’s play-offs, condemning them to another year in League One.
In the meantime, the Blues will plough on with their overpopulated fixture list for another lengthy campaign.
But they can’t complain, the winning habit has thankfully become hard to shake off.