Is it time for an attacking change as Leicester City's ex-Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham United man shines on proud night for Portsmouth Academy?

There was much to digest from last night’s unlikely Papa John’s Trophy qualification against Crystal Palace under-21s. Here’s some of the key take-homes from the clash at Fratton Park.

By Jordan Cross
Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 10:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 5:39 pm

Hi George!

It looked like the first-half miss would be the abiding memory of his evening.

But deep into stoppage time George Hirst returned his first Pompey goal - and delivered an unlikely Papa John’s Trophy qualification in the process.

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It was what happened in between, however, which proved most significant as the Leicester City loanee fired a desperately needed message to Danny Cowley

The Blues head coach has bemoaned his lack of attacking options this season, with Hirst doing little to suggest he could challenge the established first choice in John Marquis - who himself has hardly fired this term.

What we got from the Leicester City loanee against Crystal Palace under-21s, was a pretty complete example of leading the line - one which has turned up the heat on the man in default possession of the number nine shirt at present.

It was a performance from the 22-year-old, as a whole, which warranted a first goal in royal blue which looked to have eluded him

George Hirst last night netted his first Pompey goal in 14 appearances - and it sent them into the next round of the Papa John's Trophy. Picture: Robin Jones/Digital South

Hirst offered a presence so often missing from Pompey’s front line this season. Similarly the kind of link-up play that it appeared Cowley had failed to unearth in his summer recruitment.

After some tidy solo play had created his 14th-minute opening, the former Rotherham man somehow toe-poked hopelessly wide from 10 yards.

It seemed the kind of moment which would sum up his Pompey career, especially when he saw an impressive first-time strike excellently saved 10 minutes later.

A second-half effort from outside the box was a whisker wide and a later header saved, as Hirst looked to be denied the goal his all-round game warranted.

Adam Payce with Danny Cowley last night.

When it finally came it was a scruffy finish from a weak corner. Yet, the son of Sheffield Wednesday legend David Hirst wouldn’t have cared less.

The powerful front man saw his display as a riposte to his critics, as he felt the stifling pressure of failing to deliver ease on him.

Perhaps it’s clear evidence of where things stand up front now, that one decent performance against an under-21 side has created an understandable clamour for league inclusion.But Pompey do now have a viable option to challenge Marquis going into the weekend trip to Wycombe.

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A proud night

There was first-year scholar Adam Payce busying himself around the pitch after being handed a surprise first-team debut.

On the other side of the pitch, Harvey Hughes was producing a mature maiden showing at senior level from the left-back position.

Then came the half-time introduction of Harry Jewitt-White, as the promising midfielder showed what all the noise is about.

The trio were joined late on by Alife Bridgman, who saw a shot blocked, and Izzy Kaba to make it five academy players who saw first-team action against Crystal Palace.

The cumulative message from the scholars was clear: There’s potential within the existing Pompey ranks.

The debate will continue over last season’s clearing of the academy decks, but whatever the rights or wrongs of those decisions it’s evident there’s talent in the latest emerging crop.

He may only be a touch over 17, but Payce’s display spoke of a talent refusing to be overawed by the occasion as he made good use of the ball.

Even when being turned over before the break, leading to Robert Street scoring before being ruled out for offside, the midfielder refused to be fazed and continue to play with energy and efficiency.

Hughes could be proud of his showing, after being handed a tricky assignment against freescoring Palace academy livewire David Omilabu.

The New Forest lad kept his distribution simple and tidy, got some sharp interceptions and overlapped with some tidy deliveries when the opportunity presented itself.

Jewitt-White’s half-time introduction gave another flourish to a night of real promise for Pompey.

The Welsh age-group international’s quality on the ball, composure and range of passing was there for all to see, with one ball to George Hirst with the outside of his right foot encapsulating the class in his locker.

It’s not been easy for Pompey’s Academy of late, but this was a good night for all concerned - an evening to be proud of.

Reasons to be cheerful – at last

At best, Pompey have been sleepwalking into mediocrity in recent weeks.

For some it’s been worse still, with no floor being placed on where the recent struggles could see Danny Cowley’s side drop.

So how the nourishment offered from the performance against Crystal Palace under-21s was needed.

Yes, this was a game against a Premier League’ side’s development group in the Papa John’s Trophy. No one is getting carried away.

But even in the three games since the stoic showing at Accrington, Pompey have offered little to quicken the pulse despite remaining unbeaten.

Against the team of Premier League prospects there was much to enthuse over, however.

Of course, there was the sight of a batch of Pompey’s own academy players more than adequately acquitting themselves.

Both Gassan Ahadme and George Hirst offered performances to catch the eye when new levels of despair had been reached over Pompey’s striking options.

Miguel Azeez gave a tantalising glimpse of what all the fuss is when it comes to Arsenal man’s potential, while Michael Jacobs reminded Danny Cowley he’s still pushing for involvement.

It’s easy to see why the Pompey head coach called it one of his favourite Fratton nights.

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