Portsmouth 1 Harrow 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Eight agonising weeks to go. Cowley must overhaul failing strikers - and Blues must financially back him
So eight weeks remaining, the days are ticking down but time is dragging excruciatingly.
Not so much galloping with grace, more crawling on hands and knees with blistered mouth parched during pursuit of the glorious oasis represented by the January transfer window.
Danny Cowley recruited 14 newcomers during a large-scale summer overhaul, greeted with feverish applause and whoops of delight from the Fratton faithful.
The Blues required a clear-out, eighth-placed in League One and a side deteriorating in its effectiveness, for many the journey had reached a natural end.
Now Pompey’s head coach is 56 days away from the window’s grand reopening – and how he needs another opportunity to rip up this playing squad.
A 1-0 victory over Harrow Borough represented comfortable passage into the second round of the FA Cup, yet it was a wholly unsatisfying experience.
Indeed, Cowley took little pleasure in only a third win since mid-August, his post-match demeanour unmistakably exasperated, particularly at the second-half showing.
Their Southern Premier League South opponents rank 82 places below and compete in the same division as Gosport Borough, yet left Fratton Park with confidence intact and a hearteningly narrow scoreline.
The Blues were comfortable, barely a troublesome moment apart from Sean Raggett’s under-hit back pass, yet the display was laboured and uninspiring, perfunctory even.
Crucially, Cowley struggled to resolve Pompey’s attacking issues during the previous transfer window and those failings continue to apply the handbrake to any potential progress from the team.
George Hirst has failed to shine and it’s not inconceivable will be returned to Leicester in January at the halfway stage of his season-long loan, while Gassan Ahadme has been a cheap gamble so far not paying off.
Ellis Harrison’s susceptibility to injury is once again restricting his availability, not to mention depriving him of the chance to prove his worth after a mixed opening two seasons.
Then there’s John Marquis.
With four goals in 18 matches this season, the 29-year-old is frustratingly out-of-form and playing purely by default rather than warranting his rigid first-team selection. The team is suffering as a direct result.
His admirers refer to prolific times at Doncaster as compelling evidence of scoring talents, yet that occurred two-and-a-half years ago in front of average home attendances of around 6,000.
Judging Marquis entirely on his Pompey exploits with its accompanying pressure rather than grainy video clips paints a substantially bleaker picture.
His July 2019 move from the Keepmoat Stadium for £1m has been massively disappointing, albeit not for wont of effort or playing opportunity.
Unfortunately, Saturday was another case in point as Marquis failed to fire against non-league defenders, involving missing from two-yards out during one first-half move.
The lack of viable striking alternatives remains immensely frustrating – and requires addressing urgently once the transfer window arrives in January.
Perhaps the Doncaster Marquis will re-emerge to become a pivotal player. Although, after 121 appearances during this second Blues spell, the time to admit defeat surely has to be upon us.
Certainly Cowley is entirely aware of his side’s shortcomings, with the signing of a new striker his priority, the necessity edging ahead of a desire for another centre-half.
Whether he can raise the required wages to supplement such a deal through reorganising loan arrangements for Hirst and Ahadme remains to be seen.
With the option to return either of the forwards to their parent clubs in January, it is a reasonable consideration.
In the meantime, Cowley has 11 matches from now until the transfer window opens, a period during which he must start picking up victories, irrespective of his team’s obvious shortcomings.
Since an excellent start to the campaign, wins have dried up, the systems have varied, the quality of performances have deteriorated, and Pompey reside 14th in League One.
It is inevitable his own position will come under intense scrutiny unless he can reignite a faltering team which, once again on Saturday, were lacklustre and uninspiring.
Recognising the need to rediscover a taste for winning, Cowley selected his strongest possible side against Harrow rather than rotate his squad.
There were two changes, with Miguel Azeez and Shaun Williams handed starts in place of Reeco Hackett and Louis Thompson, with the head coach not willing to risk the pair through injury concerns.
For Azeez, it was only a second start in more than two months since arriving on a season-long loan from Arsenal and, operating behind Marquis, there were encouraging moments from the youngster.
Surprisingly, however, there was no starting XI place for Hirst, signifying another damning indictment of how he is viewed by a boss who continues to select an out-of-form Marquis ahead of him.
Hirst wasn’t even called upon from the bench, although Ahadme was granted 30 minutes, representing only his second first-team outing since September 7.
Still, Pompey were expected to secure an emphatic win over the non-leaguers, although never totally suggested they were capable of it during proceedings.
The Blues’ most dangerous player, Marcus Harness, netted on 28 minutes when he applied a confident first-time finish following Mahlon Romeo’s cross from the right.
Yet the anticipated flood of goals never emerged, while the hosts’ tempo and performance levels dipped alarmingly in the second half.
Cowley afterwards speculated that a goal glut may have arrived once that all-important second goal had been secured, preferably early in the match.
As it was, Pompey were wasteful, none more so than Marquis when, minutes after the opener, Harness put in a wonderful cross from the right and somehow the striker failed to make connection from two-yards out.
There were other opportunities, while Harness struck the far post with an angled shot in the second half, yet not nearly enough was created against Harrow.
Such cup fixtures can often be no-win situations, when a side is expected to win with a swagger and flourish, while negotiating the danger of a humiliating upset. You earn no credit for a victory you’re meant to achieve.
Nonetheless, irrespective of a 1-0 outcome, it was the manner of that achievement which disturbed as once again the glaring inadequacies of this Pompey side stood out, particularly in attacking positions.
Roll on 2021 – and a clear-out in the striking positions.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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