The day which signalled beginning of the end of Whittingham’s caretaker job

Guy Whittingham, left, with Blues skipper Johnny Ertl Picture: Joe Pepler
Guy Whittingham, left, with Blues skipper Johnny Ertl Picture: Joe Pepler

On a bitterly-cold February night at Hartlepool, 280 visiting fans shrugged off the icy elements and exhaustive distance to be present.

Not that they were anticipating anything ground-breaking to occur. After all, defeats had become a constant accomplice.

Confidence-shot Pompey dragged themselves up to Victoria Park reeling from nine successive defeats and a failure to win any of the previous 23 fixtures.

Then it happened. The turning point of Guy Whittingham’s managerial career.

The moment which would signal the start of the run which will ultimately earn him the Pompey job on a permanent basis.

The Blues didn’t even win that day – they emerged from a late bludgeoning clutching a goalless draw to ease the long trek home by coach.

Nonetheless, it was the beginning and the first tangible proof that footballing matters were finally improving under the caretaker boss.

Perhaps Whittingham knew it at the time. Ever the relaxed figure when dealing with the press, it was noticeably more so that night.

When myself and News colleague Jordan Cross made the journey from our position at the other side of the ground to the dressing room area for the post-match interviews, we were running marginally late.

The caretaker boss looked at us before firmly saying: ‘Too late lads, I’ve done press and we’ve got to drive home now. You’ll have to give me a ring’.

There was an unsteady few seconds before a smile spread across his face. Our legs had been pulled.

Up until that evening, few would have thrown their backing behind Whittingham winning the position outright and, to be brutal, why should they have?

After being appointed on the evening of November 7 following Michael Appleton and Ashley Westwood’s defection to Blackpool, the task proved an almost impossible one.

Whittingham and assistant Andy Awford ventured to Bury for the opening match of the caretaker reign, tumbling to a 2-0 loss which definitely carried with it no shame.

Yet, after 15 matches, they had overseen 12 defeats, three draws and, of course, no wins.

It was a period which produced a 5-0 New Year’s Day hammering at Swindon, saw Akos Buzsaky depart the club having refused to be a substitute, and attracted a January player exodus amid the big names.

Tough, tough times in effectively the fledgling career of somebody who had previously seen service with only Newbury in managerial terms.

That and six matches and 28 days as caretaker boss alongside Stuart Gray when Steve Cotterill had quit for Nottingham Forest in October 2011.

Make no mistake, Gray had a massive role in that partnership. It’s just that Whittingham was the one asked to be the public face.

Still, when administrator Trevor Birch asked Whittingham to go it alone this time round, he inherited a set-up which had lost its last four matches and was dogged by uncertainty over the ownership saga.

The club was already crumbling.

Considering the extenuating circumstances, it has been a wretched environment to prove his credentials for the role permanently.

However, in a results game, Whittingham simply wasn’t getting them and, as a consequence, few saw him as the long-term solution.

Understanding and sympathy among the supporters was prevalent towards the Pompey Hall of Famer, but the patience was wearing increasingly thin with every miserable loss.

Then came Hartlepool.

Those in attendance witnessed a side displaying a rare defensive resilience glaringly absent from previous matches during Whittingham’s tenure.

They took a battering against their fellow strugglers, fighting away in the final 20 minutes when faced with wave-upon-wave of attacks.

Crucially, it was only a second clean sheet in the first 36 matches of the campaign.

Suddenly it was lift-off as the new-look side, assembled with free agents and loanees mainly recruited by Whittingham, Awford and physio Steve Allen, gathered momentum.

A mere 12 matches after that Hartlepool encounter, Whittingham is to be appointed the permanent manager of Portsmouth Football Club.

Before today, the remarkable transformation yielded four wins, six draws and three defeats.

It also saw a shortlisting for the League One manager of the month for March. All constructed on a consistent first-team selection policy and the stability that has brought.

Whittingham has never wanted to fight the world, bemoan his lot or strike out at the ever-convenient Football League punchbag.

Instead, he has remained positive, a cheerful figure somehow untouched by the smothering Fratton gloom. It has been inspirational.

His calm exterior has been a reassuring presence, while a willingness to mix with the fans saw him present trophies at the Trust Pitch Invasion tournament and celebrate with supporters at the Shepherd’s Crook when the Trust bought the club.

And, most crucial of all, the displays and results have started to come.

Whittingham is now going to be manager – the Trust will never have an easier decision.