What the summer holds for Portsmouth quartet possessing Championship aspiration
The Championship remains within sight. Partly obscured, granted, yet still occupying the line of vision.
Certainly it serves as Matt Clarke’s destiny, potentially Nathan Thompson too.
Although the futures of Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis are encouragingly a little more watertight in Pompey’s favour.
There are 11 matches remaining, along with the necessity to overhaul a five-point deficit in pursuit of League One’s two automatic promotion positions.
The play-offs serve as a safety net, offering precautionary measures should the primary objective elude. As a back-up plan, it represents a cast-iron certainty of qualification.
Failure to secure promotion, through whatever form, however, will initiate unwanted Fratton Park departures, such is football’s heartless temperament.
Chiefly that centres on Clarke. Contracted to the Blues until the summer of 2020, yet, as the club’s prized asset, the most susceptible to talons swooping from above.
The cultured 22-year-old is surely gliding towards embracing The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season for successive years, albeit that honour resting with supporters to rubberstamp.
With 77 consecutive League One starts since September 3, 2017, he remains a pivotal member of Kenny Jackett’s team and an irreplaceable figure.
While squad rotation and the blooding of Academy talent has been the blueprint behind the majority of Checkatrade Trophy selection this term, tellingly Clarke has still featured on five occasions.
Admittedly, the central defender is contracted to Pompey for another season, yet inevitably substantial offers will prove irresistible should the club still reside outside the Championship.
Last summer, owners Tornante were determined to retain Clarke, rejecting solid interest from clubs higher up the football pyramid in favour of bolstering a 2018-19 promotion assault.
Should escaping League One not materialise in May, the Blues will be faced with the financial necessity of cashing in on a player potentially valued around the £5m mark.
Realistically, Clarke cannot be counted upon to sign a fresh deal, surely reticent to spend another year at a level in which he effortlessly excels.
The alternative would be insistence the youngster fulfils his contract, thereby accepting the likelihood of a reduced fee through a tribunal spared of transfer-market inflation.
Incidentally, the level-headed Clarke is not the type to agitate for a move. Don’t expect aggressive demands delivered by softly-spoken Suffolk-lad.
Yet, ultimately, the inevitable can only be beaten away for so long. Ambition and money are persuasive companions.
For encouragement of adapting to the Championship, perhaps Clarke can gaze at the progress of former team-mates and fellow League Two winners Gary Roberts and Kal Naismith, the duo now with Wigan.
Roberts was swiftly jettisoned by new boss Jackett in the summer of 2017, instructed to train with the youth team and increasingly marginalised in pre-season friendlies.
He has subsequently totalled 41 Championship appearances since rescued by Paul Cook, while last month was handed a one-year extension.
At the age of 34, Roberts has made 16 appearances this season, operating on the left of the attacking three in the manager’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system.
As for Naismith, who departed Fratton Park in the summer after a new deal could not be agreed, he has established himself as the Latics’ first-choice left-back.
In the process, the Scot has clambered ahead of Everton loanee Antonee Robinson, a 21-year-old USA international possessing six caps.
Naismith has made 18 Championship starts this season and, having initially been doubted by supporters, has gradually convinced.
Back to Fratton Park, aside from Clarke, other highly-regarded performers are Curtis and Lowe. Their ongoing presence will also be questioned should the club remain in League One.
Both are out of contract in 2020, precisely the same timescale as Clarke, yet the club are in a far stronger position to retain them.
Lowe extended his deal in January 2018, while Curtis arrived from Derry in May 2018 – in both instances, Pompey inserted club options.
Essentially that means the Blues can implement an additional 12-months on their contracts upon expiry in little more than a year’s time.
It not only safeguards their ongoing presence, but also ensures a greater transfer value should the club be inclined to cash in. Regardless, Pompey are in a position of strength.
Finally, there’s the uncertainty over Thompson, who has called off contract talks in favour of examining his options in the summer.
Those actions suggest there exists confidence of Championship interest, sufficiently strong to initiate such a gamble.
Of course, the defender’s stance has alienated a section of Pompey followers, perceiving a lack of respect towards the club and suddenly prompting some harsh appraisals of his footballing performances.
Before the episode, the 28-year-old was a popular first-team player, regarded as an essential presence at right-back, with the team weakened considerably during injury-influenced absences.
Anton Walkes may clearly be improving at encouraging pace, yet the the former Spurs man has still received criticism at times during spells of deputising at full-back.
Regardless of Thompson’s predicament, he remains the same player previously applauded.
In the dressing room, the former Swindon man is considered the club’s finest one-v-one defender. Certainly few opponents get the better of him in such situations.
He remains a fierce competitor, brave, wholehearted, willing to put his body – and teeth – on the line. Last term colleague Drew Talbot knocked him out during an aerial challenge.
Thompson is not a swashbuckling right-back, firstly he is equipped to defend, with Jackett’s team not relying on breakneck-attacking intent from players in such positions.
Paul Cook effectively employed Enda Stevens, Ben Davies and Gareth Evans as deep-lying wingers, encouraged to charge to the byline and deliver crosses, with the likes of Michael Doyle offering cover.
In contrast, Lee Brown, Thompson and Walkes are handed primary instructions to bolster the team’s defensive unit.
Of course, the right-back’s game-management skills should also not be underestimated, particularly his mastery at crumpling to the ground to earn soft free-kicks in dangerous defensive situations.
Meanwhile, accusations of ego driving the shelving of contract discussions are wide of the mark. Thompson is a personable character, willing to engage with supporters and respectful around the club.
There resides Championship ambition within the dressing room, occupying the boardroom and existing among supporters.
Very soon we will discover the fate for all.