After four years in League Two, Pompey have finally guaranteed promotion to League One. The all-important match against Notts County was not the most spectacular to watch, but the celebrations certainly were. Pompey needed to beat their opponents as well as for Luton to fail to beat Mansfield in order to guarantee promotion, and they will be delighted that they managed to get over the line with three matches still to play. Luton drew 1-1 with the Stags and Pompey got past County with a 3-1 victory to take the first steps of Pompey’s return to Championship level.
Gareth Evans’ first half penalty put Pompey 1-0 up at half-time, before Jorge Grant scored a well taken goal to equalise for County. With Luton and Mansfield level, the Blues knew that they only needed to get a winning goal in order to make their pace in the top three safe, but the game had gone quiet and neither side looked like scoring. However, the goal eventually came through substitute Jamal Lowe, who cut inside from the left and curled the ball past Adam Collin into the bottom corner with 13 minutes remaining. The ex-Hampton & Richmond Borough man then confirmed promotion when he was found by a quick free kick by Michael Doyle and chipped the ball over the goalkeeper to write himself into Pompey folklore.
As the full-time whistle sounded the 4,500 travelling supporters rushed onto the pitch to celebrate with the players and celebrations continued long into the night and, most probably, the next couple of days. While some might say that earning promotion is nothing special; simply fulfilling the pre-season expectations, Pompey fans would argue that it means far more than that. Just over four years ago there was a chance that Portsmouth FC would cease to exist and that they would have to restart right from the bottom of the English football pyramid, but the hard work of a number of people behind the scenes, as well as thousands of supporters opening their wallets to buy shares, allowed the Pompey Supporters’ Trust to take over the club and retain their Football League status. Since then, although the blues have avoided dropping out of League Two, those fans had had little in the way of concrete rewards to show for their devotion until yesterday, when they could finally have something to show for their achievements and know that they had been a tangible part of their club’s success.
Pompey were prevented a taste of success this time a year ago when they were cruelly dumped out of the play-off semi-final at the hands of Plymouth Argyle, but they finally brought their four year wait to an end, and celebrated accordingly. While it is true that Pompey have one of, if not the single, highest budgets in the league, promotion was far from a foregone conclusion this season. Defeats to Crewe, Morecambe and Blackpool stick in the mind as moments when it did not look as if the Blues would get over the line, while there have constantly been sections of the Fratton Park crowd who have insisted that Paul Cook was not the right man to lead Pompey back up the leagues. The fact that the team have managed to secure success despite the vast amount of pressure they were under and despite not necessarily having all the fans on board all of the time is testament to the strength shown by the manager and his squad. Among those players, there are several great stories which cannot help but make me feel as if the promotion was completely deserved.
The most prominent of these is that of Kal Naismith, who found himself on the transfer list in the summer, having been told he could leave for nothing and being forced to train with the youth team. He had been described as toxic in the dressing room last season and Paul Cook clearly felt he could not trust the ex-Rangers man to do a job after last season. However, Naismith knuckled down and forced his way back into the manager’s plans, playing a key part in the final push for promotion. He is currently the joint leading goalscorer at the club and has also contributed numerous assists to the team over the season, including setting up both Lowe and Evans’ goals against Notts County. Another success story is Jamal Lowe, who was signed in January from Hampton & Richmond Borough in the National League South. Lowe had not played professional football since he was released from Barnet’s academy, and last season he was playing in the seventh division of English football. However, after a prolific season he – and teammate, Nicke Kabamba – both secured moves to Fratton Park where, after a lengthy wait for a goal, Lowe has become an important member of the squad. He will forever be remembered at Portsmouth for scoring the two vital goals which completed Pompey’s escape from League Two, and is now a firm favourite with the Fratton faithful.
The elder statesmen in the team have also more than played their part, with Gary Roberts going through a turbulent season. He started off the season as one of Pompey’s key players, before going through a slump in form for which he received criticism and ended up out of the starting eleven. However, over the last couple of matches he has proven his worth and has played a big part in getting the Blues over the line, and is currently the club’s joint leading goalscorer. Noel Hunt is a player who has also had a bigger impact than he is given credit for, playing a huge part off the pitch. Outsiders might say that, having started just four matches, he has had a limited impact, but he is regularly praise for the way he helps his teammates, using his experience at a higher level to guide the players towards promotion despite the veteran striker having scored just one goal since his summer arrival. Another man whose experience has been invaluable is David Forde. The 37 year old goalkeeper has been a steadying influence on the defence and his command of the penalty area is something which nobody can deny is one of the best in the division. It is suggested that a more vocal and commanding goalkeeper might have helped Pompey to success last season, and Forde has certainly lived up to that billing, even if his shot stopping sometimes comes in for some criticism.
Lastly, the manager, Paul Cook, cannot be praised highly enough for his achievements with the Blues this season. When he came in he replaced almost the entire playing squad, bringing in a team of his own choosing. In the summer after the play-off disappointment he then went about making even more signings so that the current squad is unrecognisable from the one he inherited. Cook revealed recently that, when 3-0 down to Morecambe at home early last season, he said to his assistant, Leam Richardson, that they wouldn’t see Christmas. However, 100 matches later he has achieved what he was brought in to do and must take great pride in the way he and his squad have managed to conduct themselves over the past two seasons, especially considering he was under unrelenting pressure to deliver. Despite the occasional sending off and FA fine, and even the odd prickly interview, Cook has proved himself to be a very decent person. There are regularly stories of him encountering fans in the street and being very generous and open with them; even giving some money to one family whose daughter was in hospital. Cook also earned plaudits for visiting the Plymouth Argyle dressing room after Pompey’s semi-final defeat at Home Park last season to congratulate them on their visit to Wembley.
The manager is not the only one who deserves to be commended for his work in the community over the past couple of years. Numerous players have appeared at various functions to interact with supporters, with Christian Burgess going a step further and volunteering to coach an under twelves team when Pompey’s visit to Crawley was called off for a frozen pitch. Meanwhile, Pompey in the Community won the Checkatrade Community Club of the Year award for the South-West at the recent EFL Awards Dinner, having been a presence all over the city helping out various groups of people in need. It is fair to say, in my opinion, that the club – and everyone associated with it – richly deserves this promotion despite having the tools in place to achieve it, having gone through a catalogue of adversities to get it.
On the face of it, this is not such a momentous occasion as Pompey will still be one of the larger clubs in League One and have a long way to go before they are back where they were before financial mismanagement crippled the club, but it is the first taste of real, tangible success the Blues have had in far too long. From the players who have been a presence in the community and have had to deal with immense pressure, as well as embarking on their own journeys over the course of their time at the club, to the manager who has kept faith with his players and his methods through some very low points, to the supporters who are the sole reason the club exists in its current form and some of whom have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get the team back on its feet, as well as lining the terraces every week to cheer on their side just as passionately as in the Premier League years, everybody is deserving of the success they are currently enjoying and the celebrations going on around them.
The job is far from done. The next step will be to challenge next year in England’s third tier and do everything possible to get the club one step further down the line. It is fitting that Pompey have managed to get at least one promotion under fan ownership, as it looks more and more likely that Michael Eisner will take over the club in the summer, and it is a just reward for those who stepped in to save the club from liquidation. It will be intriguing to see what the future holds for Pompey, but for now it is important to savour this promotion, even if the celebrations do come at the cost of a couple of defeats in the remaining matches!
There is a long way to go but, at long last, Pompey are back on the map.