How did we end up here? The story of Portsmouth's striker woes

From a period which saw a whopping 32 players move in and out, it felt slightly incongruous to greet the transfer window’s close bemoaning a move which didn’t happen.

Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 6:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 7:32 pm
Much could rest on the shoulders of Ellis Harrison to get Pompey's misfiring front line going again this season

But the transfer yearning which frames the summer ambitions of so many supporters these days, certainly hadn’t been satiated by 11pm on August 31.

The late announcement of Championship quality arriving in Mahlon Romeo had been foreseen, and hadn’t done enough to satisfy. Maybe if it had dropped from leftfield, the impact would’ve been greater.

But, really, there was one overriding question being asked, one burning issue among the majority of Pompey’s fanbase: Where was the striker we need?

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A little over two weeks on from the window gong sounding, the question reverberates like a clanging cymbal over Danny Cowley’s head.

Two League One blanks have greeted the close of player trading and along with a failure to trouble Wigan’s back line, places the Blues within 90 minutes of equalling their worst shot-shy league spell of the 21st century.

So how did we arrive at the point where the attacking addition Cowley so patently yearned for wasn’t welcomed, as a 15th and arguably most significant arrival of the head coach’s Fratton overhaul?

Well, you can go back to the middle of June for one of the most significant events of Pompey’s summer, as they were jilted by Jayden Stockley who apparently used their significant interest to drive up the lucre on the table at Charlton.

Cowley was prepared to put a significant portion of his transfer kitty into one of his key summer targets who of course, was to fall by the wayside.

By the time it came round to the dying embers of the summer period of recruitment, that money was instead invested in a player who gives some of the extra defensive flexibility the 42-year-old craves.

In between, the financial boundaries had been pushed - most notably to finance the arrival of Joe Morrell from Luton.

It’s something new CEO Andy Cullen spoke explicitly about within days of the window’s close.

‘One thing to recognise is we started off with a budget, but have ended up over-spending,’ he said.

‘We’ve over-spent because the owners gave us the latitude in terms of not only player salaries, but also transfer fees.

‘We put quite a bit into the signing of Joe Morrell. We pushed the boat out for him.

'I know the type of budget Portsmouth have compared to previous years, and what other clubs have this year: it’s going to be right up there.’

What was evident across most of the summer, was Pompey were entertaining interest in Ellis Harrison after a stop-start Fratton career punctuated by injury.

Sheffield Wednesday, Fleetwood and perhaps more solidly Oxford United were the suitors before Plymouth pushed late on.

By the stage the Pilgrims’ late, late interest had surfaced, Cowley had nailed his colours to the mast when it came to deadline ambitions.

‘We need three players if we’re going to be contending for those top places,’ the 42-year-old said two days before the window’s close.

Key summer target Miguel Azeez was one of those men, but when those words were spoken the fear was Romeo was Ipswich bound.

That deal sparking to life again was an opportunity Cowley thought was too good to turn down, but securing the move came at a premium.

That meant, in reality, there was nothing left in the pot unless Harrison moved and there was time to get a suitable replacement.

A look at the front men on the move around the window’s close also highlights a significant issue: Were there the strikers out there to improve Pompey?

Leon Clarke, Jonathan Leko and Daniel Jebbison, who generated a few noises before going to Burton, were the deadline-day deals in that area. Going back a week further, Saido Berahino and Brandon Hanlan were on the move.

With Tom Eaves a red herring and keen to stay in the Championship, the market was hardly awash with the kind of mobile physicality Cowley desired.

So the conclusion was a flat end to a window, which in its entirety Pompey could reflect on with some satisfaction.

The glaring issue remains unsolved, however, and it’s one which has been bludgeoning watchers of this club over the head for a couple of seasons now.

The answer, for now lies in four men - two who the club committed the best part of £1.5m to bring in.

Gassan Ahadme’s rawness has been exposed and a blank at Basingstoke on Tuesday only further underlines he’s not ready to be relied on, while George Hirst awaits his chance to silence his past critics who say he can’t provide goal threat.

A player with 18 and 14-goal returns in previous seasons cannot be deemed a total failure, yet John Marquis’ struggles at times have been well documented.

Cowley’s reservations over Ellis Harrison’s fitness have now hopefully resided enough for him to let a player loose who has faced his critics, but has also shown a wrecking ball potential in glimpses boosted by last week’s AFC Wimbledon hat-trick.

The modern football world is one where a signing is a lightning rod to rid a team of all its ills. There, of course, are no guarantees that’s the case, and definitely not the case it will happen straightaway when a new face arrives.

Evidently, this is the conclusion Cowley came to. The striker who ticked his dataroom boxes wasn’t there at the end of last month, the target to significantly improve his front line like his other premium summer purchases absent. The outcome was to stick not twist.

So now we look to a young, raw pair to come through and fire the bullets getting stuck in Pompey’s chamber at present.

Or more significantly, a return on investment from two of the biggest-money buys in recent seasons. Quite frankly, the season could end up resting on the ability to find a way of doing so.