THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Awford replaces Barker at Fratton Park

icon relegation1229 March ~ Just when Portsmouth look like they might be about to bottom out and have a season approaching something like stability following three relegations in four years, crisis comes along once again. On Thursday morning, Richie Barker – who only took over as manager at Fratton Park in December – was sacked by the Pompey board with the club 22nd in League Two, just two points above Northampton Town in the relegation zone and having not won in six matches and lost the past three in a row. The manager's fall was swift.

On March 3, away at Chesterfield and in front of the Sky cameras, his side held the then-leaders to a 0-0 draw and should have won the game. That result left Pompey 15th and seven points clear of the drop zone. Following the Chesterfield game two 0-0 draws, both at home, and three defeats on the spin crushed any hope that Barker's side had finally turned the corner.

Barker's predecessor, Guy Whittingham, was sacked in December for Pompey's defensive weaknesses, although his teams were near-prolific in front of goal. His replacement managed – the odd thrashing aside – to make Pompey more solid, but in the eyes of many supporters Barker's ambitions seemed to stretch no further than a clean sheet. A Christmas 0-0 draw at home to Northampton and a 1-0 home defeat to Torquay at the start of February had many questioning the manager before the recent nosedive in form.

That Torquay loss came just a few days after Portsmouth won at Wycombe on a Tuesday night and looked a side that would be fine come the end of the season. And this is what puzzles about Barker's brief reign. The manager inherited a wildly unbalanced squad, the product of a difficult first summer of supporters' trust ownership, when Whittingham and his board had to put 22 players together pretty much from scratch, all without paying a transfer fee.

But Barker brought in nine players since then, both loans and frees, all of whom made the squad stronger and, in most cases, were better than the incumbent in their position. Portsmouth shouldn't have gone backwards in that time. Yet they have, and it has seemed increasingly clear in the past week or two that Barker just isn't going to keep a squad, who are no world beaters but should be comfortably lower mid-table, safe from the Conference.

So they go to Newport today with caretaker Andy Awford – yet again, the club stalwarts are called on in times of crisis – in charge until the end of the season. The Welsh side have only won one of their last ten, but Rodney Parade was where Pompey's season began to fall apart in November, as a 3-0 defeat in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy formed a key part of the run that led to Whittingham's sacking.

Dropping out of the League is unthinkable, but Barker's sacking has united Portsmouth's fans in a way they haven't been since the optimism of the Trust's takeover almost a year ago. Supporters just have to hope that Awford can motivate the squad so that the first season of Trust ownership isn't marked by an all-time low. James de Mellow

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