A job well done*
By Matt Rowson
Our last away trip of the season, then, and it's a bit of an anticlimax if truth be known, what with Portsmouth cemented in mid-table and, following the routine win over Sheffield United at the weekend, the Hornets guaranteed the First Division title and already anticipating the Premiership.
Looking back, the uncertainties of the start of the season after the turbulent summer comings and goings seem an awfully long time ago. Ramon Vega and Pierre Issa have formed a formidable and reliable partnership in the centre of defence, looking every inch an international pairing. Marcus Gayle has been fearsome and commanding up front, whilst Stephen Hughes and Stephen Glass have been a model of consistency, putting to rest the understandable concerns that were voiced when they were signed regarding their injury records. Overall, as far as the new arrivals have been concerned, it's noticeable how the predictable complaints about the reputed size of their wage packets have faded as the season has progressed.
Several remaining members of Graham Taylor's squad have come on in leaps and bounds since August. Heidar Helguson's thirty-two league goals to date are all that needs to be said about his campaign...under the expert tutelage of his manager, Helguson has realised his obvious potential, and has been ever-present in the Hornets' forward-line. It's also been encouraging to see how James Panayi's game has come on, as he has relished the games he's played when called upon, benefitting from his colleagues' experience and growing into the international that many predicted.
Further testimony to the success we've enjoyed this season is how little we've been glancing at the progress of our former stars. It's certainly good to see Neil Cox getting a regular run as Millwall have steadied themselves in mid-table, and Tommy Mooney and Robert Page both seem to have established themselves at their new clubs. But without wishing to diminish the memories of these past heroes, they really do feel now like players from a bygone era, our history but not our future.
There have been slip-ups, of course...it seems a little foolish now, but there were those who even questioned our play-off potential after our little hiccup at the end of last year. On the whole, though, the side has been growing in confidence and purpose throughout the season as the management have rapidly identified and ironed out flaws in our performances.
It seemed like a bit of a gamble when Luca was appointed and given such a handsome purse to spend. Who knows what would have happened had it all gone wrong...one can only assume that a sound contingency plan was in place. In practice, however, that has never looked necessary.
Pompey, meanwhile, started promisingly enough but a chronic run of form around the turn of the year saw them plunge towards what has become their more traditional home and ultimately did for the Pompey management career of Graham Rix. Looking forward to Saturday's game, Pompey have chronic availability problems of one sort or another, and although the result will not carry much in the way of consequences, the south coast club must be dreading what the Champions will do to their decimated side.
In goal for Pompey will be the evergreen Dave Beasant, still going strong at forty-three. Yoshi Kawaguchi, a signing orchestrated by club chairman Milan Mandaric, has proved a bit of a disaster up to now and had a particularly poor game at Vicarage Road earlier in the season. He is currently out with a knee injury, so Chris Tardif should be on the bench. Tardif was one of sixteen players recently put on the Fratton Park transfer list.
In defence, youngster Lewis Buxton has done extremely well in holding down a central defensive place for most of the season and Premiership interest has been rumoured. The return to fitness of Linvoy Primus at the weekend saw Buxton pushed out to the right where looked less comfortable. With Jason Crowe out with a foot injury, Scott Hiley, last season's player-of-the-year but now also listed, would be the obvious alternative.
On the left, the attacking Jamie Vincent is one of a number of players once to have featured for Bournemouth down the coast. His place is assured by the continued absence of Justin Edinburgh, whose current achilles problem may end his career.
Alongside Primus in the centre of defence will be Scott Wilson, on-loan from Rangers with a view to a Bosman move in the summer. Wilson's uncompromising reputation precedes him but he has done well enough so far, although he is rumoured to be carrying a knock. Alessandro Zamperini has dropped out of the first team since Rix's departure and Carl Tiler, once a Watford target, is on the list. Eddie Howe, a recent signing from Bournemouth where he has been highly rated since our spell in Division Two, has a knee injury. His half-brother, Steve Lovell, is also on Pompey's books and scored against us on loan for Sheffield United last weekend.
In midfield, the stand-out name is the mercurial Croat Robert Prosinecki, more evidence of Mandaric's influence. Much of his fetching and carrying has been done by Neil Barrett this season, but the former Chelsea man has recently been displaced by another loan signing, Middlesbrough's Mark Summerbell. Gary O'Neil, eighteen, is one of the more promising kids at Fratton but looks like missing Saturday's encounter following his call-up to the England U19 squad. Shaun Derry picked up an injury in training last week and Nigel Quashie serves the second of a two-match ban. Candidates to replace O'Neil therefore include the transfer-listed trio of former Chesterfield skipper Tom Curtis, ex-Newcastle starlet Garry Brady and Mladen Rudonja, who will almost certainly make the Slovenian squad for the summer but is valued rather less highly on the South coast.
In wide positions, Kevin Harper's inconsistency down the right appears to be a frustration whilst twenty-year-old Courtney Pitt, who followed Rix from Chelsea, has plenty of pace down the left.
Up front, Pompey have chronic problems leading up to Saturday. Peter Crouch, of course, has left, GT finally getting his man if twelve months too late for our benefit. Lee Bradbury, Mark Burchill, Rory Allen and Luke Nightingale are all out with long-term injuries - knee ligaments in the case of the former pair. Argentinian Luigi Biagini, a loan-signing from Real Mallorca, joined the casualty list at the weekend limping off with a pulled hamstring. Helpfully, Bulgarian International Svetoslav Todorov's suspension also kicks in on Saturday leaving Pompey with local teenager Rowan Vine up front.
A sun-baked party on the south-coast, then, free of the pressure of worrying about the result. Pompey boast one of the longest current unbroken stints in the Division and, without Wolves' comical delusions of grandeur, are as close to a defining fixture in Div One as it gets. Our promotion means that we won't play them again for a while...and it's worth appreciating momentarily the significance of that success. Were we confined to Division One again, this fixture would have been as good a way of saying "here we are, then" as I can think of.
* This match preview is being written at the start of the season in an effort to save BSaD's editorial team some much-needed time during the hectic run-in as the club prepares for the Premiership. Obviously we had to make a few educated if largely safe guesses at how things would turn out, hopefully we've not been too inaccurate. Oh, and I bet Wolves have bottled it.