Six games unbeaten is best start since 2002-03
12 September ~ Portsmouth host Barnet this afternoon in an unfamiliar position: unbeaten after six games. The last time this happened, in the 2002-03 season, a Paul Merson-inspired Pompey went on to win what was then Division One with a total of 98 points.
Paul Cook’s side start the weekend in fifth spot in League Two thanks to three wins and three draws, including impressive victories away at Plymouth and Luton Town. This time last year, a 2-0 defeat at Southend saw the Blues slip to 11th after seven games and set themselves up for a dispiriting season without progress under Andy Awford.
Cook, who joined from Chesterfield in the summer after leading the Spireites to the League Two title in 2013-14 and following up with a play-off finish in League One last year, has had an immediate impact, bringing in 14 new signings. While the squad underwent similar upheaval over the past two summers, it was clear from the opening 45 minutes of the season at home to Dagenham & Redbridge that the standard of player at Pompey has risen considerably since the 2014-15 season petered out.
The most important arrival is probably Gary Roberts, who had been Cook’s talisman at Chesterfield and – if he can stay fit for most of the season at 31 – will be at the centre of everything good Pompey do going forward. Winger Kyle Bennett has also made a promising start, while ex-Sheffield United midfielder Michael Doyle has increased the speed at which the team can move the ball.
Centre-backs Christian Burgess and Matt Clarke – an 18-year-old loanee from Ipswich who will play at a far higher level than League Two – have been light years ahead of anything Portsmouth fans have seen in the position since dropping into League One in 2012. Both players have made Cook’s somewhat brave decision to let last season’s captain Paul Robinson move to AFC Wimbledon look a masterstroke.
There are still issues to be ironed out, however. Two of the three draws have been goalless, suggesting that Pompey, as one of the division favourites, will have to learn new ways of breaking sides down. Striker Matt Tubbs hasn’t quite looked comfortable in Cook’s 4-3-3 formation yet and started the last two league games on the bench. At home to Accrington Stanley last week, a game that finished 0-0, there was a feeling that Pompey needed to raise the tempo against visitors who would be happy to leave Fratton Park with a point.
Portsmouth fans are in a little bit of no-man’s land at the moment. A six-game unbeaten start is fantastic and the group of players and the manager have far more ability than the club’s seen in years. But it’s still not clear whether this is a team that can blow away the opposition week after week and gain a stylish automatic promotion in the manner of Merson’s boys of 13 years ago. James de Mellow