The big dilemma Danny Cowley has to get right to deliver Portsmouth a League One play-off place

Danny Cowley hasn't exactly been awash with options since taking over the Pompey helm.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 4:55 am
Sean Raggett, left, or Paul Downing will likely make way for Jack Whatmough's Pompey return against Accrington.

Since succeeding Kenny Jackett as boss in March, injuries and suspensions have meant the head coach's selection choices have been limited.

For the vast majority of his 11 games, Cowley's starting XI has picked itself. There have been no quandaries, no restless nights trying to weigh up which player he should go with in pursuit of a play-off place.

However, heading into the most important game of the season, Cowley finally has a major dilemma on his hands.

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And, in truth, it's probably a headache he could do without.

For the crucial visit of Accrington, the Pompey chief has to decide on the centre-back pairing he deems best to deliver three points and book his side's spot in the top six.

Jack Whatmough, Sean Raggett and Paul Downing are all fighting to feature from the outset.

Certainly, there are cases to be made for all three but one will be left disappointed when the team sheets are announced come 11am on Sunday morning.

Before last weekend's 3-1 win at AFC Wimbledon, the Blues were crying out for Whatmough's return to the side.

Following his second red card of the season at MK Dons, which earned him a four-match suspension, Pompey were brittle at the back in a lacklustre 3-1 defeat to relegated Swindon and then a rollercoaster 3-3 draw at Accrington.

Particularly the Stanley stalemate was a concern given how easily the hosts frequently cut Pompey apart, having also hit the woodwork three times.

In his post-match interviews, Cowley cited that Accy's striker force, Dion Charles and Colby Bishop, rank among the very best in the division having plundered 32 goals between them this term.

They need to be kept quiet this time around.

To nullify such a threat in a game where three points is the minimum requirement means playing your best defender – and that involves restoring Whatmough to the team.

The Gosport lad's left sections of fans frustrated he's been dismissed twice because of similar challenges, some now even branding him a liability.

But it's easy to forget he was arguably player of the season before receiving his marching orders at MK.

Since arriving at PO4, there's no-one who's made a bigger impression on Cowley and admitted the Gosport lad is destined for the Championship in his career.

Conducting his media duties ahead of the Accrington game, everything implies Whatmough will come back into the XI.

It'll make for a harsh decision on who's unfortunate to be dropped between Raggett or Downing after helping yield a pivotal win at Wimbledon last weekend.

The old adage is to never change a winning formula, although that must happen to fit Whatmough back in.

Downing's shock berth in the line-up at Plough Lane was his first league start since September 2019 – and what a comeback performance he delivered.

Having been talked up plenty by Cowley, the former Blackburn man displayed plenty of the attributes supporters expected when arriving in June 2019, with Cowley naming him man of the match.

In contrast, Raggett has been a key cog started every League One match this season. Even a nasty eye injury couldn't keep him sidelined.

The former Norwich man's been his usual, fearless self throughout and won over plenty of his detractors.

Yet Raggett has been culpable for a few goals and had a shaky start at Wimbledon.

It's understandable why some supporters believe Downing should keep his place over Raggett. The former fits more into Cowley’s ball-playing style.

On, the other hand, however, this is no time for experiments. Whatmough and Downing have never played a single minute of action together, so to trial a new partnership would be a risk.

For example, who shifts over to the left-hand side? And how would that impact Lee Brown, who'd also have a new player alongside him?

Had this encounter been a month ago, the pairing of Whatmough and Downing is what we could well have seen.

However, Whatmough and Raggett have been both Jackett and Cowley's preferred duo when available.

They've been at the heart of the latest promotion bid, built a rapport and been part of some big wins against the likes of Sunderland and Peterborough.

Cowley's craved more selection conundrums given his limited resources he inherited when taking the job.

Now he has one, he simply has to get his decision right.