January cavalry failed to aid shattered Portsmouth’s promotion charge – Neil Allen’s end-of-season verdict
Marginalised as a second-half substitute, the exhausted figure of an unrecognisable Jamal Lowe epitomised Pompey’s campaign.
The leading scorer’s declining energy levels had long been a concern of Kenny Jackett, prompting omission from the squad for the final league match against Accrington.
There was a starting return at the Stadium of Light for the play-off semi-final first leg, yet the jaded winger sank to the bench for Thursday’s decider.
Lowe was in fine company, fellow high-flier Ronan Curtis grounded beside him for the culmination of the Blues’ season.
The high-octane duo were inspirations behind a scintillating start to a League One campaign which saw Pompey still topping the table in mid-January after 28 matches.
Then, in the biggest game of a gruelling campaign, both were among the substitutes against Sunderland at Fratton Park.
Lowe appeared on 52 minutes, yet couldn’t recapture that trademark intensity. Curtis remained unused, despite the manager still possessing a substitute option.
It represented a 62nd fixture of the season for Jackett’s men – a club record during their 98-year residency of the Football League.
A staggering six players appeared in excess of 50 times – Matt Clarke (60), Gareth Evans (56), Craig MacGillivray (56), Lowe (55), Tom Naylor (53) and Lee Brown (51).
Incidentally, Curtis finished on 49 following his puzzling lack of involvement.
The Irishman’s jettison from the first-team was understandable considering fitful displays over recent months. His non-introduction as a substitute, however, was unfathomable.
And so Pompey’s campaign petered out into a goalless draw as their shattered collective couldn’t muster a goal against the Black Cats.
‘There's a break now, they deserve that break,’ said Jackett in his post-match press conference.
‘For everybody it has been a long season. We have somewhat limped over the line as well in terms of energy.’
With his favoured players so noticeably drained through their endeavours, it raises crucial questions over those January transfer window dealings.
As it panned out, for a second-successive season, Pompey’s January recruitment policy impacted substantially on the club’s finishing position. Unfortunately, not in a positive context.
Following a New Year’s Day victory over AFC Wimbledon, the Blues possessed a five-point lead over Luton at League One’s summit.
Oli Hawkins would collect an injury during that 2-1 success, joining Nathan Thompson and Lee Brown on the sidelines.
It would also be the outstanding Ben Thompson’s final league outing before a widely-anticipated recall by Millwall. A month later, Jack Whatmough suffered a season-ending injury.
Pompey required squad strengthening to bolster their sizeable points advantage, plus plug holes created by a flurry of festive-season injuries.
Certainly, there was little dissent upon the arrival of Omar Bogle, James Vaughan, Viv Solomon-Otabor and Lloyd Isgrove, the majority possessing encouraging pedigree.
As it unfolded, all suffered injuries at various stages, and, other than perhaps Bogle, none truly threatened to establish themselves as starting XI regulars.
Instead, Jackett stuck to his tried and tested personnel, no doubt much to the immense frustration of the newcomers themselves.
While the substitutes’ bench was boosted by these additional numbers, the six failed to raise the performance levels of a first XI which would subsequently flag under the rigours of the lengthy season.
Isgrove never featured, Vaughan’s outings were fleeting although impressed in that final game off the bench, Solomon-Otabor demonstrated glimpses.
As for Bogle, four goals in his opening eight games suggested promise, but he never started a match following the Checkatrade Trophy final, failed to score in the final two months, and missed three fixtures through injury.
In terms of the permanent signings, Cannon didn’t feature after mid-January, while Morris’ sole start since February 23 saw him withdrawn at half-time.
They may well prove to be fine signings, let’s not condemn them without judging contributions on the field of play. In mitigation, both were heavily hampered by injury.
Still, this was a season of progress, Jackett racking up 22 more points and an improvement of four places on his maiden Fratton Park campaign – and the capture of the Checkatrade Trophy.
Pompey’s boss has made significant strides, while the summer recruitment of Craig MacGillivray, Ronan Curtis and Tom Naylor, in particular, proved masterstrokes.
In addition, he has overseen the ongoing development of Matt Clarke, Jamal Lowe, Ben Close and Whatmough, enjoying their finest Blues seasons to date.
This was a talented side destined for the play-offs, yet for half-a-season overachieved by bustling their way to the top of League One and remaining there.
Ultimately, however, they ran out of steam, understandably exhausted and shattered from the mammoth effort required over a 62-game season.
And it will forever be an irritant among the Fratton faithful that the much-trumpeted January cavalry could barely raise a gallop into battle during that promotion charge.