The reason behind Oli Hawkins' Portsmouth return - and the bright future predicted for converted centre-back
Pompey’s vulnerability from set-pieces was a key factor in the decision to jettison Oli Hawkins back into the starting line-up at Rochdale.
And after the former non-league striker impressed in only his fourth outing of the season following injury, Blues assistant manager Joe Gallen tipped the now converted defender to be a ‘top centre-half’ at this level.
Hawkins, who had been out with a foot problem since the end of September, was an unexpected name on the Pompey team-sheet for Saturday’s 3-0 win at Rochdale.
Paul Downing was expected to fill the defensive void left vacant by the injured Sean Raggett (abductor).
However, it was the former Dagenham & Redbridge man who was given the nod to partner Christian Burgess in the centre of defence at Spotland.
Gallen admited it was the defender’s physical presence and aerial ability which earned him a starting role, with 46 per cent of the goals Pompey have conceded this season stemming from set-pieces.
Kenny Jackett’s assistant explained: 'It was a very close decision with Paul, because he came on against Harrogate and played very steadily.
'I think, overall though, the manager's just gone for Oli for sheer physical size in both boxes.
'We have conceded too many goals from set pieces – and that's not Paul Downing's fault, because he hasn't played.
'But the thinking was Oli would do a bit better in that moment.’
Hawkins’ four appearances this season have all been at centre-back.
Following a pre-season dogged by a back and a separate foot injury, he made his maiden appearance of the campaign at Wycombe on September 21.
That arrived 19 months after he last lined up in a defensive position.
But now fully converted to the role, Pompey believe he has a big future as a centre-half.
Gallen added: 'We've been waiting for Oli to come back, if the truth be told.
‘Both the manager and Oli believe that he can be a really effective and top centre-half.
'I personally think he can be a top centre-half in this league, I really do, and we need him around.
'He just seems a bit of a natural there.
'The sheer size of him in terms of winning the first header, it's so important winning the first headers from goal-kicks, winning the first header from corners.
'His distribution is excellent, he doesn’t get ruffled at all.
‘And knowing Oli very well, he believes in himself there, which is very, very important.
'He believes in himself deep down in any position, to be fair, but I just see him being very, very comfortable there.’