Names travelling to Exeter underline Portsmouth squad strength - but first-team line-up continues to pick itself

The names travelling to St James Park hardly represent an archetypal reserve-team squad.

Tuesday, 4th February 2020, 3:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th February 2020, 6:17 pm

Yet the likes of Lee Brown, Ross McCrorie and Jack Whatmough are all set to feature in tonight’s clash at Exeter.

The senior players who’ll be involved in the Premier League Cup encounter all require match minutes for one reason or another.

The three aforementioned have recently returned from injury, while, in the case of Paul Downing, Brandon Haunstrup and Oli Hawkins, they’ve been on the first-team fringes.

Sign up to our Portsmouth FC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Following a flurry of early January transfer business, Kenny Jackett insisted he was focusing on players regaining full fitness. His desire has now become a reality.

With Bryn Morris the solitary player sidelined, the Pompey boss’ options have never been stronger this season.

What an apt time for Jackett to be awash with choices, too.

The League One promotion push is entering the business end of the campaign, while the Blues have progressed into the FA Cup fifth round and EFL Trophy semi-finals.

Lee Brown, left, and Jack Whatmough have been unable to win a starting spot since recovering from injury. Picture: Joe Pepler

Despite having a bevy of players to select from, however, Pompey's scintillating recent form means it's proving nigh-on impossible for those on the periphery to win a berth in the starting XI.

It's an ironic situation and something Jackett would have craved during the formative stages of the campaign when his side were spluttering along.

Eight centre-back pairings were used as the manager scratched around for a successful combination at the back.

Right-back and the number-10 role also proved problem positions.

Ross McCrorie. Picture: Graham Hunt

Injuries had a part to play, of course, as well as summer signings taking a while to acclimatise to the demands and pressures that come with donning the star & crescent.

But against the backdrop of eight successive wins in all competitions and Pompey moving into the play-off places following Saturday’s 2-0 defeat of Sunderland, there’s now little room for manoeuvre in Jackett’s line-up.

Consequently, Haunstrup has been omitted from the past two match-day squads.

After recovering from his latest long-term knee problem, Whatmough’s been unable to dislodge Christian Burgess or Sean Raggett. The centre-half duo have been influential in the Blues recording three straight clean sheets in the league.

James Bolton has made up the final cog on the right-hand side of the watertight back four, with Rangers loanee Ross McCrorie having to wait patiently having overcome a recurring hamstring complaint.

Even highly-popular keeper Craig MacGillivray can’t get a look in since being replaced by Alex Bass at Gillingham on New Year’s Day.

Meanwhile, Andy Cannon has made the No10 role his own, with his harrying and close ball retention crucial to Jackett's side’s recent success.

The only positions that have been tinkered with is the lone striking role and the berth next to Tom Naylor in the middle of midfield.

It was John Marquis who spearheaded the attack against Sunderland, but was substituted for Ellis Harrison at half-time. The Welshman’s dynamism was pivotal to the Blues dominating the second period and amassing three points.

Cameron McGeehan replaced Ben Close from last Tuesday’s win at Lincoln, with the on-loan Barnsley midfielder now beginning to hit his stride.

Jackett isn’t naive and is well aware treatment room will have new faces in it at some stage this term.

There’s also be games when fresh legs are required and players can be afforded time to recharge their batteries.

As things stand, however, the manager’s team sheet is picking itself.