Pompey and the play-offs: It's the hope that kills...
Wednesday, 16th Mar 2022 22:28 by Steve Bone
Can Pompey finish the season in the top six? They can. It's possible. Will Pompey finish the season in the top six? Very probably not.
That is my assessment with nine games to go and I imagine it's in line with the thoughts of many who follow the Blues. And for me, it's a summary that's not really changed since the start of the season.
I didn't really set out last August with much hope that Pompey would finish in the promotion or play-off zone, though of course at the back of my mind I hoped they might outperform against my expectations and get us out of what has become an all-too-familiar League One setting.
And by the time the first of this season's meetings with Plymouth had been and gone in the third week of September, I had almost resigned myself to the fact this was going to be a mid-table season – maybe an upper-half-of-the-table season – but not a promotion season.
That first Plymouth game – which finished 2-2 thanks to Sean Raggett's late strike after we'd led then trailed – was one I wrote about here, and was one I quite enjoyed. I remarked then that if we could come to terms with lower-than-usual expectations, it may be possible to enjoy this season for what it was – one that would involve no hint of a relegation fear, and with a few good victories and great performances along the way.
I think that's pretty much how it has turned out. There have been peaks and troughs. The peaks have come in unbeaten league runs that lasted from mid-October to December and then from early February to earlier this week. The troughs? 'That Ipswich game', which for me remains one of the worst Pompey performances I have ever seen, and the barren run in January when we forget where the goal was and, as a result, undid all the good pre-Christmas work.
Given that the home game versus Plymouth was one match that made me realise how I needed to approach the 2021-22 season, it's perhaps fitting that the second game against the Pilgrims confirmed I was right not to get my hopes up.
Most fans – well, plenty, in any case – seemed to be in agreement that the recent run of six wins in seven reignited Pompey's play-off fire; it gave them genuine hope they could gatecrash the knockouts in the way that one team seems to do out of mid-table obscurity every year. But the draw at Ipswich – though a decent result when looked at in isolation and a deserved outcome for a gritty performance – was the signal for many of those same optimists to hold their hands up and say 'Actually, getting into the top six is not a realistic hope.'
The fact the trip to Portman Road was followed so quickly by the visit to Home Park really put the pressure on the Blues, and it proved to be pressure they couldn't handle. Losing 1-0 at Plymouth, given where they are and where we are at the moment, is no disgrace. It's not going to make Michael Eisner offer a Milan Mandaric-style refund of the travelling fans' not-insignificant fuel bills for the trip. But it does perhaps demonstrate that Pompey are a bit short – though not massively in my opinion – of the quality needed to get out of this division.
It also leaves them needing a hell of a run in these final nine games to stand any chance of scraping into sixth spot – requiring the type of points return from a series of games including four against sides above them in the current table that their season as a whole suggests will be beyond them.
Seven wins from nine would do it, some seem to think, and they may well be right – though even then, that relies on not too many of the other teams in the race managing a similar return.
Pompey are a momentum sort of team – a momentum sort of club, in fact. When they get up a head of steam, they can be difficult to stop. But what goes alongside that – certainly at the moment – is that when they run out of steam, they can take a while to recharge and, as Paul Cook would say, go again. It may be that with the squad looking thinner by the week as injuries bite, Pompey's recent unbeaten run could be their final notable results sequence the season.
Would it be unfair to say that a points return of between 12 and 15 is much more likely from the final nine matches than a total of 21 or 23? Such a tally is not going to sneak them into the play-offs back door, nor even get them in the adjoining car park.
That being the case, it's tempting to write off the season now and start thinking about how on earth the Cowleys and the Eisners can ensure 22-23 is better and brings a clearer stab at finally reaching the Championship.
I'm a fairly patient fan and do think the Cowleys deserve to be in post for longer than 12 months before being fully judged – though how long do people think the Eisners should be given to move the club one division higher than we sat when they arrived back in 2017? That's another question for another long, rambling article by me (you have been warned).
But... but... who really can bring themselves to write off this season? Not me, not yet.
You know what we're like. If Pompey manage to get the better of Wycombe in Saturday's 105-minute tussle at Fratton, we'll all be looking at that table again and at the gap between ourselves and sixth spot.
Given the enforced break we have after Wycombe's visit, followed by the final eight games being played in 26 days, a win on Saturday would seem absolutely essential to keep us vaguely in touch. Anything less and by the time that final Fratton flourish comes round, we'll have too much to do.
And if we do win on Saturday, well, I shall just have to keep reminding myself about those low expectations. Mid-table finish. Mid-table finish. Mid-table finish. That'll be the outcome.
Photo: Action Images
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