Sheffield Wednesday 4 Portsmouth 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Let the clear-out begin, some with a heavy heart, some with relish. Next season has to be different

Pompey have been here before, of course,

Sunday, 1st May 2022, 9:00 am

A final day choking act, culminating in a last-gasp slip down the League One table and preceding a major summer squad overhaul. All eerily familiar.

Except next season cannot be a transitional period, the continuation of Danny Cowley’s Blues reign depends entirely on creating a sustained promotion challenge. It’s beautifully simple.

The Fratton faithful were spared the painful sight of witnessing Wigan holding a promotion party in their presence in midweek, courtesy of a remarkable second-half comeback.

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Instead they were forced to stomach Sheffield Wednesday’s brutal dismantling of their team on Saturday, followed by joyous scenes among the vast majority of 33,394 present at a pulsating Hillsborough.

A 4-1 home triumph secured play-off qualification for a side inspired by the brilliance of League One imposters Barry Bannan and Lee Gregory, the duo excelling at a level far below their natural talent.

It was impossible not to emit a sigh tinged with pangs of envy at the Owls extending their campaign for a little while longer amid aspirations of an instant Championship return.

Almost 12 months earlier, a calamitous 1-0 home defeat to Accrington cost Pompey the sixth spot they clutched heading into the last round of fixtures in 2020-21.

Disappointed Pompey players following Saturday's 4-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday. Picture: Paul Thompson/ProSportsImages

This time around, Cowley’s first full season failed to muster a realistic play-off challenge, such was the infuriating inconsistency over the campaign’s duration.

In April, the Blues overcame Rotherham and Wigan at Fratton Park, thereby claiming eye-catching victories over the two clubs which on Saturday claimed automatic promotion.

Subsequently, however, they were demolished 4-1 by a Sheffield Wednesday team which rampaged through an uncharacteristically fragile defence to effectively decide the outcome of the fixture by half time.

Cue the galling laps of honour beneath the Sheffield sunshine and an over-enthusiastic PA system whose booming playlist stretched long after the departure of supporters, threatening to drown out post-match interviews.

The Owls fully deserved their moment – let’s now hope they are similarly triumphant in the play-off campaign, therefore removing them from League One. Meant in the nicest possible way, mind.

Still, now here comes the Fratton Park rebuild. Again.

Last summer signalled 12 departures and 15 arrivals during a chaotic period when triallists regularly outnumbered registered players during pre-season training sessions.

Cowley has promised such an approach is not required this time around, with firm foundations already in place, largely consisting of Joe Morrell, Connor Ogilvie, Clark Robertson and Denver Hume.

Nonetheless, if Pompey are to emulate Sheffield Wednesday in 12 months time, considerable recruitment is required – of which the majority must become success stories.

Playing budgets can be debated – or often the case guessed as smoke and mirrors are rolled out to deflect and distract – yet, as ever, recruitment is king. That is down to Cowley and a team which, in absolute fairness, identified some very good players over the last two windows.

Gavin Bazunu, Hayden Carter, George Hirst, Louis Thompson, Morrell, Ogilvie, Aiden O’Brien and Robertson have proven fine acquisitions, some of which have enhanced their reputation so significantly that they are now beyond League One.

Throw in Mahlon Romeo as well, who demonstrated quality which unfortunately dipped substantially from the turn of the year, and Cowley’s transfer business must be applauded.

We now await to see which of those whose loans expires and contracts end are to remain at Fratton Park to underpin the team’s latest round of reconstruction.

Yet at least the Blues’ head coach has credit in this department, such have been the impact of eight of his signings over the last two transfer windows. How he would love all to return, but, realistically that won’t happen.

Bazunu is destined for greater things and played his last game, Carter isn’t for sale and of Championship calibre, while Hirst has dramatically transformed a fading career since finally handed a first-team run in November and could now be out of reach.

Carter and Hirst, of course, may come back to Fratton Park on loan, yet, as ever, that hinges on their parent clubs’ plans and the players themselves, factors often overlooked during supporter clamour for their returns.

Meanwhile, Sean Raggett is out of contract, Ronan Curtis may feel the time is right for a fresh challenge following stagnation, and Marcus Harness can attract a transfer fee to help rebuild – although firstly the club must activate his option.

Clearly it won’t be merely loan players who bid Pompey farewells at Hillsborough on Saturday, albeit in the most sobering of circumstances thanks to the scoreline.

Indeed, the in-form Blues started the day eyeing eighth place to equal last season’s finish, having already overhauled that points tally with one match to spare.

What unfolded was a chastening defeat which saw them drop to 10th place at the death, with Bolton capitalising through a 4-2 triumph over Fleetwood which consisted of two goals in the final four minutes.

Had substitute Jay Mingi converted a glorious stoppage-time chance following Hirst’s pull-back from the right, Pompey would have remained in ninth place courtesy of goal difference.

As it was, they slipped down a notch in a flat final match during a campaign which had some fine moments and dreadful lows, yet finished with an impressive 35 points from the last 19 matches, averaging two goals a game in that period.

Certainly enough evidence to provide encouragement about a promotion push next term. Then dawns the reality that this team must now be torn up.

Saturday started brightly enough, on four minutes Curtis producing a first-time pass from the byline, with Hirst on hand to calmly finish right footed from seven-yards out.

The leveller arrived on 17 minutes when Marvin Johnson was allowed far too much time by Hayden Carter to cross from the left and Gregory applied a first-time finish when the ball arrived.

Then Saido Berahino forced the ball home during a scramble from a right-wing corner, and it was 3-1 when Jordan Storey finished at the near post after George Byers had gone past Morrell too easily.

After the break the Blues improved, with substitute O’Brien hitting the post and then Raggett seeing a header pushed against the woodwork by keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

However, four minutes from time, ex-Pompey loanee Byers was completely unmarked when he headed home Josh Windass’ right-wing corner.

So let the clear-out begin, some with a heavy heart, some with relish. Cowley cannot afford to live that familiar final-day feeling a third successive time.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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