PAUL COOK has told his fringe players: Force your way into my starting XI.
The Pompey boss is looking for those given their chance in the Checkatrade Trophy tonight to stake their claim for continued inclusion.
Cook’s side face Reading under-23s with the smallest crowd in the club’s post-war history anticipated at Fratton Park.
Changes are expected for the clash with the likes of Adam Buxton, Jack Whatmough, Noel Hunt and Brandon Haunstrup expected to be given game time.
Competition rules state five players who started the previous or ensuing league games must feature in the clash, or the club’s five highest appearance makers.
Pompey will incur a £5,000 fine if that is not kept to, as was the case in the tie against Yeovil in August.
But Cook is more concerned about players making a statement to him.
Cook said: ‘You have to show you are ready to play.
‘So these games should be great to watch, because everyone should be working dead hard.
‘Any time you’ve had two defeats in the league, lads not in the team should be looking at forcing their way in.
‘That’s the reality of football. This game is a great opportunity.
‘It’s going to be a strong team, by the way.
‘It’s a chance for anyone who wants to grab it to show us.’
After two league defeats on the bounce, Cook has reflected on the reasons for his team’s recent shortcomings.
And they were put to the players in no-holds-barred fashion yesterday in training.
Cook said: ‘I love it when people compliment you on how hard you team work – not how good they are, but how hard they work.
‘That’s a lovely compliment and that’s my message to the players all this week. We have to start being that team.
‘I’ve probably got the most talented group I’ve managed.
‘What is talent without work ethic and desire? It’s nothing. Absolutely nothing.
‘What triggers a good performance?
‘The three goals against Blackpool all came from our mistakes. On Saturday it was the same.
‘We have to earn the right to dominate the ball, and, at the minute we’re not.’
‘The person who must remain consistent on that is the manager.
‘If the manager doesn’t remain consistent the players have no chance. So we’ll stay on the same page.’
One person who will miss out for Pompey tonight is Conor Chaplin. He sits it out after three league starts on the bounce with Michael Smith, Curtis Main and Hunt given game time.
Cook said: ‘Conor’s had three games so I’ll give him a little rest. Noel will be involved. He’s training again.
‘Between the three strikers – Main, Hunt and Smith – they’ll all get as many minutes as I can physically give them.’