Chants of ‘Hartlepool, Hartlepool’ rang around Fratton Park at approximately ten-past-seven last Saturday evening when news filtered through that Nialle Rodney had netted his second of the afternoon as the Monkey Hangers took the lead against Doncaster Rovers.
With Plymouth Argyle also dropping points against Grimsby Town, after a strike from former Pompey right-back Ben Davies had kept The Pilgrims at bay, the impossible became possible and Paul Cook’s side were accordingly crowned Champions of League Two.
It seemed a far cry on February 4, with Portsmouth having just slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Wycombe Wanderers and sitting seventh in the League Two table. On 45 points, with a goal difference of +12, fans were preparing for another year of play-offs, potential disappointment and what could be a fifth season in English football fourth tier.
At the top, Doncaster sat on 62 points and with a goal difference of +24, double that of Paul Cook’s side.
Last Saturday night, it was The Blues on top spot, with 87 points and a goal difference of +39. Plymouth occupied second place on the same number of points and Doncaster were third on 86, meaning that the deficit had been turned around.
Darren Ferguson’s side had spent 128 days of the season sat in pole position, and Derek Adams’ side 102 days, but Portsmouth timed their 33 minutes at the top to perfection, with the final standings showing the magical ‘C’ next to their name.
So what was the reasoning behind such a turnaround and why has this season been such as success for the boys in Blue?
Firstly, Cook has implemented a consistent spine in his team from the outset. The relatively young centre-back partnership of Christian Burgess and Matt Clarke have kept 17 clean sheets across the course of the League Two campaign, with five goals between them.
Additionally, Burgess picked up Portsmouth’s official Player of the Season award on Monday for his outstanding contributions across the last ten months.
Just in front, ‘captain fantastic’ Michael Doyle has played in every one of Portsmouth’s League Two fixtures this season. His resilience in midfield, ability to spray a pass and commanding voice at the heart of midfield have been crucial to the success of the side, whilst he is also first to join in the celebrations once that net has been rifled.
Up top, Kal Naismith has hit 15 goals for Pompey since being told to ‘look for another club’ at the end of the 2015-16 campaign. Finishing as top goalscorer, the Scotsman netted seven times in the final nine games of the season, with winners coming against Newport County and Cambridge United, ultimately helping the side finish top of the table.
Aside from outfield, the Fratton Faithful were relieved to see a consistent number one between the sticks. After five different goalkeepers pulled on the shirt last season, David Forde, who had come in on a season-long loan from Millwall, has played every minute in Portsmouth’s League Two campaign this season and has been a towering presence in the box.
Commanding his area well, the 37-year-old has shown no sign of his age and has certainly pulled off some pivotal saves throughout the season, most notably the one at Notts County as his side were 2-1 up and moments from promotion.
It can also be said that securing promotion so early, at Meadow Lane, was another factor which helped the League Two trophy find its way to Fratton Park. With the pressure off as of April 22, and with three games still to go, fans were simply relieved to be out of the division and had no initial intentions of looking upwards.
Consequently, players and staff were able to enjoy the rest of the season and play to their full potential, as was seen in the 6-1 victory over Cheltenham Town on the final day.
Without such pressure on winning the title, which fans from Doncaster and eventually Plymouth had placed on their team, it allowed for Cook’s side to slowly get the points on the board and catch up without any expectations.
Yet, ultimately, the style of football played by Portsmouth, both home and away, was the most attractive.
Where the side did come unstuck and grew very frustrated was against teams that came and sat 11 men behind the ball and pounced on the counter attack.
Morecambe and Crewe Alexandra were two games that stood out, where the Blues couldn’t find a route goalwards.
On the flip side, matches against Barnet, Mansfield Town and Grimsby Town, in particular, showed the real quality that the south coast outfit possessed, with teams punished for any slight slip of concentration and goals piling up.