Pompey’s breakneck progress can make 2016 a year to remember

Pompey boss Paul Cook has assembled a Blues squad genuinely equipped for promotion Picture: Paul Cook
Pompey boss Paul Cook has assembled a Blues squad genuinely equipped for promotion Picture: Paul Cook

It was Johnny Ertl who strode forward to save the day.

For the December 2014 finale, the Austrian was ushered back into Pompey’s first team at Kenilworth Road, marking a first start in 12 fixtures.

The whispering in the Fratton Park corridors of power had grown more vocal, the doubts intensifying, defeat and the end could well have been nigh for then-boss Andy Awford.

The loyal club servant who had kept the Blues in the Football League was battling to turn around an increasingly-concerning plight.

Then the recalled Ertl intervened with a typically gutsy display, recognised by being crowned The News’ man of the match, as the players reiterated their commitment with immaculate timing.

A battling 1-1 draw at Luton had been achieved. The manager continued.

And so Pompey entered the year 2015 in 15th spot, albeit with one win in the previous nine matches continuing to anchor them to the lower half of League Two.

Roll on 12 months. Again, Luton were the opposition in the final fixture of the calendar year. And once more the result ended in a draw.

Awford even made a repeat appearance – this time in the opposition dugout, having temporarily taking over the Hatters’ reins from the departed John Still.

Yet the crucial difference was the passing of 12 months which has seen Pompey evolve beyond recognition.

From a team which recorded a lowest position in its Football League history to one which has marched into 2016 in fourth spot and oozing confidence for a loftier destination.

Even the most exasperatingly morose of message board inhabitants could manage to chisel out a smile in recognition of that headway. Surely.

Expectations have largely eroded patience among the Fratton faithful, a third consecutive tenancy in the bottom division is a pain threshold few could stomach exceeding.

Promotion this season is not so much an ambition, it is a requirement.

In fairness, it is a reasonable demand considering Pompey’s favourable financial resources compared to their rivals, in addition to the CV of the manager presently at the helm.

Nonetheless, the progress during the second half of last year has been breakneck compared to the pedestrian nature of the start to 2015.

Unquestionably, plenty to be positive about heading into today’s visit of Crawley and the official kick-off of a footballing year with such potential.

Paul Cook has constructed a squad brimming with a level of talent last witnessed by Blues followers in the days of the Championship.

Since that 2011-12 administration-influenced relegation, the calibre has largely been abject courtesy of a variety of shortcomings – both in and out of the club’s control.

Few would disagree this current crop of players is one of the most impressive in League Two. It is now about how such ability is utilised to a successful effect.

Cook has recruited extremely well since his May arrival, both in terms of permanent and temporary signings.

The essential summer overhaul of a side which languished in 16th saw 14 depart and 14 arrive. More have walked into Fratton Park since.

Few tears were shed over the vast majority of those shown the door, of which many presently reside in the lower regions of the league.

A total of five have dropped into non-league for regular first-team football, from where it is a long climb back.

Still, transfer fees have been outlaid by Cook on Gary Roberts, Kal Naismith and Christian Burgess – a luxury never afforded to Guy Whittingham or Michael Appleton.

Although Awford did spend minor figures on Nigel Atangana and James Dunne – both currently out of favour in this regime.

The overwhelming fact is this squad is genuinely equipped for promotion, a rarity from Pompey set-ups in recent times.

In addition to those signed for money, there are Ben Davies, Enda Stevens, Michael Doyle, Adam McGurk and Gareth Evans, who have proven revelations.

Meanwhile, the often-maligned Kyle Bennett has helped himself to two goals and seven assists.

Dependant on who is deemed to have netted the first goal against Leyton Orient on Boxing Day, that could be raised to eight assists.

Regardless, no Pompey player has been as creative this season and Bennett’s willingness to gamble on the ball is brilliantly effective as it can be occasionally frustrating.

Throw in loan signings Marc McNulty and Caolan Lavery, albeit their length of stay indeterminable at present, and fans should be upbeat.

Not so long ago it would be unthinkable for reigning League Two golden boot holder Matt Tubbs to be sacrificed in the January transfer window.

Yet, such has been the impact of others in Cook’s favoured system, that is the likely outcome.

So where does it leave Pompey?

They enter 2016 with only three league defeats, although having drawn 11 of 24 matches.

They have consistently sat in fourth spot, but are eight points off top-placed Plymouth Argyle.

Only Carlisle have scored more goals in the division, yet there have been five goalless draws at Fratton.

Feel free to adopt the appropriate figures to suit your mood. The more hysterical supporters wildly alter opinions game-by-game anyhow.

Obviously, life isn’t perfect. The goalkeeping situation is a growing concern, as is the reliance on the loan signings of Lavery and McNulty.

But I defy anyone to compare the present to that of 12 months ago and not feel optimism stir deep inside.

So here’s to 2016 – it has the ingredients to be a very happy one for Pompey followers.