It’s fair to say that this is the best I’ve felt about a Pompey team for a good many years. There was big optimism before a ball was kicked, and rightly so. On paper our squad looks very good and every noise made by Paul Cook so far has been very encouraging. We had a similar excitement heading into both the previous two campaigns, but that was quashed immediately two seasons ago with that horrible 4-1 defeat at home to Oxford on the opening day.
Last year the feel-good factor was there again after the unanimous approval of Andy Awford’s appointment, coupled with some impressive early results in which we saw a variety of different line-ups. But once the ever-changing starting 11 began to stutter, the confidence of the squad evaporated. It’s still very early days, but there are a couple of key differences to our start this time around.
Firstly, Cook has fielded the same starting 11 in each of our first three league games, and a lack of chopping and changing systems and personnel has definitely added the stability that was lacking last season. The other big difference is the manner in which we’ve played. We’ve shown a real desire to get on the ball and dictate the game. This has been backed up by the stats that show we’ve enjoyed at least 60% possession in all our League Two matches so far.
That approach is crucial because it sets the tone for what’s acceptable in this division for this club. The past two years I’ve been conscious of the importance of being realistic and it was clear that the slide we had been on since 2009 (or rather plummet) needed to be arrested first and foremost before we could think about ascending. But I think it’s quite obvious that we badly underachieved over the two League Two campaigns.
A big part of those disappointing seasons, in my opinion, was the way we often shaped our side to combat the opposition. I understand that you need to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the team you’re facing, it would be completely unprofessional not to give it thought. But to approach each game thinking of the best way to play the opposition is at odds with the expectation of being in the hunt for automatic promotion. By tailoring the line-up each week according to what’s in front of us, it smacks of not wanting to lose the game, rather than the primary thought being to go and win it.
It feels as though Cook has instilled that desire to go and win games rather than not get beat and there is no doubt at all that that will stand us in much better stead to achieve the goals that have been set by everyone this season. From the word go, Cook’s aim was “promotion, no messing about.” Straight away that sends a message to the whole club; players, fans and staff that here we have a manager who will not accept second best. Before, and I accept the circumstances were different having just come off the back of possibly the darkest season in the club’s history, Guy Whittingham’s objective was to try and finish in the top-seven.
Similarly, Andy Awford suggested he’d be happy with a play-off spot last term. Managing expectations is important, but this time we’ve got a good squad and a manager who I’m convinced will push all of them every single week.