Club records, silverware and 109 goals scored – Portsmouth’s remarkable campaign craves one final entry
It was Lee Brown who dared address the issue, a voice possessing no inclination for shy retreat with Pompey’s camp.
The left-back is a jocular figure around Fratton Park, an uplifting presence rattling off wisecracks and crashing one-liners to shatter silences.
Yet there can be moments of weighty contemplation, however, on this occasion arriving ahead of mid-February’s visit of former club Bristol Rovers.
‘Sometimes we’ve got to step back and have a look at it and say “Are we in a good position?”. Yes,’ Brown told The News at the time.
‘Have we overachieved in the first half of the season? Probably.
‘When we fall out of it having been top for so long, it’s so easy to get so down and think it has been a massive fail.
‘But we are third in the league. If this had been offered in July, I think people would have snapped your hand off.’
Ultimately, the Blues collected fourth spot, yet Brown’s sentiment was sound.
Some among the Fratton faithful reared up at such words, mistaking frank honesty for lack of ambition and conceding defeat when chasing the top two.
The 28-year-old was correct, of course.
It has been a truly remarkable League One campaign, a substantial improvement on last season, silverware at Wembley and a string of club records created.
Meanwhile, the final points haul of 88 exceeded the tally of 87 which took Pompey to the League Two title two years earlier under Paul Cook.
But automatically-promoted Luton and Barnsley were better – as the final table so accurately reflects.
No shame in conceding this is a talented play-off side, yet overachieved in topping the League One table for the opening half of the season.
The Blues now head into the play-off semi-finals perfectly equipped to safely negotiate this torturous alternative route into the Championship.
Kenny Jackett’s troops slipped out of the top two at January’s end, never to return to such lofty climes again.
Yet they have long represented fierce play-off opposition, a gutsy, stubborn and streetwise side capable of clambering back upon their feet without bruise or scratch.
As recent encounters with Burton and Coventry emphatically demonstrated, Pompey possess the irritating ability to snap back from the ropes with a ferocious knock-out punch.
Certainly do not underestimate a side only outscored by Luton during the League One campaign – and totalling 109 goals in all competitions.
The Blues’ granite-chiselled defence has worryingly eroded as the gruelling season progresses, yet goal-scoring has been a reassuringly reliable presence.
Among Jackett’s squad are five players to have each entered double figures – Jamal Lowe, Gareth Evans, Brett Pitman, Ronan Curtis and Oli Hawkins.
Elsewhere, Ben Close’s recent flurry of eight goals in his last 18 appearances has taken his campaign tally to nine.
Of Jackett’s squad to have registered at least six starts, only Brown, Jack Whatmough, Brandon Haunstrup and Craig MacGillivray have failed to net.
Not so for 19 of their team-mates. No longer does Pitman dominate the goal-scoring stakes, compared to 12 different identities last season.
The Blues have failed to score in just five of their 46 League One matches this term. Should there be any fretting over the team’s attacking prowess, it is widely misplaced.
More of a concern, however, is a mere three clean sheets recorded in 2019,. A poor return, particularly for a side possessing promotion aspirations.
In fact, during the calendar year, 28 goals have been shipped during 21 League One matches.
Compare that to eight shut-outs and 17 goals conceded in the opening 21 league fixtures which propelled Jackett’s men to the top of the table.
Curiously, one of those 2019 clean sheets arrived against Barnsley, a Fratton Park encounter undoubtedly remembered for the significance of an Omar Bogle penalty miss.
Victory and the sides would have finished level on points, such is the slender dividing line.
Similarly, the Fratton faithful can prod an accusatory finger in the direction of February’s 3-3 draw at Southend.
With 13 wins and 45 points, this campaign represents the finest away campaign in the Blues’ 98-year Football League history.
Yet, puzzlingly, Jackett’s men let slip a 3-0 lead after 31 minutes to earn an unsatisfactory Roots Hall point.
Incidentally, at the time Southend were embroiled in a 15-match winless sequence. They stayed up with just three minutes of League One remaining, courtesy of Stephen Humphrys’ winner over Sunderland.
Pivotal moments, yet Pompey should also reflect on eight league games without victory following the New Year’s Day triumph over struggling AFC Wimbledon.
It was a costly period which also consisted of five-successive draws in League One action. Jackett’s men would fall short of automatic promotion by three points.
So here we are, heading to the Stadium of Light for the first leg of the play-off semi-finals, a fresh shot at reaching the Championship.
History shows Pompey have yet to win in the competition following four previous fixtures, with Ian Ormondroyd and Jamille Matt serving at the principal villains.
The pain inflicted Leicester City’s Ormondroyd’s offside goal in May 1993 has barely eased over time.
As for Plymouth’s Matt, his cowardly headbutt on Michael Doyle in May 2016 was never punished, not even retrospectively.
Here’s to improved fortunes this time around, with every reason to be optimistic.
Jackett’s side have improved upon last season’s eighth placing, while for three-and-a-half months occupied League One’s summit.
They knocked eventual Championship title-winners Norwich out of the FA Cup at Carrow Road and claimed the Checkatrade Trophy on a memorable Wembley day.
This team has broken the club record for away wins during a Football League season, while established the finest unbeaten start to a campaign in 57 years.
The club best of eight-successive victories has twice been equalled and today will equal the highest number of matches ever played in a Pompey season.
It has been a remarkable campaign, yet there remains time for one final entry.
As Brown called it, the vast majority would have welcomed the offer of play-off qualification before the 2018-19 season commenced.
Now it’s time for the Championship.