Allen’s Insight: Players in reserve spark potential Pompey rethink

Rommy Boco in action against Reading under-21s. Picture: Colin Farmery
Rommy Boco in action against Reading under-21s. Picture: Colin Farmery

The latest in a procession of thunderous downpours had just assaulted the Copnor Road training ground.

Among those beneath was Ben Close, trotting on to the pitch for what represented crucial progress.

The 19-year-old had been introduced as a half-time substitute for Danny Hollands in Tuesday’s fixture against Reading’s under-21s.

His previous outing involved proudly sporting the captain’s armband in a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat at Exeter City – 35 days earlier.

A large part of Close’s absence had been dictated by a hamstring injury collected during training and subsequent recuperation.

Yet this week he tentatively returned against a youthful side under the Championship club’s banner and headed by Martin Kuhl.

Alongside him was Rommy Boco, experiencing his first 90 minutes for the club, while Conor Chaplin netted two sublime goals in a lone striking role to stake a claim to start against Cambridge United today.

Nigel Atangana featured for 60 minutes having failed to make Pompey’s previous squad, with Kal Naismith given the bulk of the match after playing only 40 minutes of first-team football this season.

The importance of reserve football for Cook’s sizeable squad, irrespective of individual requirements, was clearly demonstrated to a sodden Roko gathering.

Pompey’s boss has several times voiced his regret at having mothballed the reserve side during his early stages in charge.

An honest admission from Cook, who possesses a 27-man first-team squad at present, among them three loanees.

Last season the Blues finished second in the relaunched south division of the Final Third Development League.

Crucially – in the eyes of Pompey’s incoming management team this summer – a fixture backlog had resulted in the reserves playing eight games in the final six weeks of their campaign.

The vast majority of those line-ups contained Academy players, who also had youth fixtures to fulfil during an exhaustive finale.

Then the axe fell.

First-team coach Ian Foster oversaw Tuesday’s behind-closed-doors run-out against the Royals, in which the hosts won 3-1.

‘At the start of the season, ultimately we wanted to focus on the first-team,’ he said.

‘We didn’t anticipate having such big numbers and therefore thought it could be a hindrance with regards under-18s’ development and playing too many games.

‘That was the feedback we got from last season and we didn’t want to do that to the youngsters.

‘I don’t think it is a massive mistake, it is something in hindsight we probably could not have done but I thought at the time it was the right decision.

‘We will get games into the lads, don’t you worry about that, and you can see even though no points are at stake those games are really competitive as well.

‘We did a lot of homework, particularly during the summer, with regards to the development squad and the age of other players.

‘The likes of Adam Webster, Jack Whatmough, Conor Chaplin, Close, Adam May, Brandon Haunstrup, Chad Field and Snorre Nilsen, we knew the quality of these boys but our idea was to get them out on loan playing.

‘Conor has obviously spent a huge chunk in the first-team, Adam Webster is knocking on the door constantly but there are others we want to go out on loan. I am sure that’s in the manager’s thoughts.

‘I don’t see the decision in the summer as too much of a hindrance to what we are trying to do, we will get enough game time into them.’

For Close, the youngster from Fratton remains unlikely to prise a door open to enter Paul Cook’s squad at present.

Certainly it’s no damning reflection on the talents of a teenager who has twice been presented with contract extensions since last season ended, such is the regard he is held in at Fratton Park.

Last season he made 14 reserve starts as he progressed at pace.

Haunstrup was another who shone and, along with Field and Nilsen, this summer earned a first-year professional deal.

Field and Nilsen are presently playing regular football at Bognor to supplement their development.

As for Chaplin, he scored seven times, including a hat-trick against Bristol City in March after he was elevated from the Academy.

The issue of potentially reintroducing the reserves to a league programme will be debated next summer. There could be a reverse.

Meanwhile, Foster is putting the finishing touches to Cardiff City visiting next week for another friendly.

He added: ‘I am working hard to try to get decent enough standard of games for the players.

‘It’s difficult, Category 1 and 2 teams have got themselves in leagues, so are not always available to play.

‘But if we can the odd game against the bigger clubs, like we did last week, it will certainly benefit us Saturday-to-Saturday.

‘Our own team selection depends on what we are like with regards to suspensions, injuries and who actually needs match minutes.

‘We had an under-18 friendly the other week where a few of our lads played just to give them minutes.

‘It doesn’t matter who you are playing, sometimes the priority is getting the match fitness.

‘Maybe the squad size has come as a little bit of a surprise to us but these games are worth their weight in gold and you can see the benefits it will have on the players.

‘When the manager needs them they will go into the game ready.’