With barely half a season over Paul Cook’s circumstances remind me much of the period where Alan Ball first arrived at the helm, albeit in a higher division.
In many ways Cook’s task is infinitely harder. Whilst Ball took on a club with a steady heart beat still ticking from two promotions in the previous four years, the current incumbent found one that had long been hurtling aimlessly in freefall. Nevertheless the framework is remarkably similar. Like Cook Bally developed a brand new system for which he overhauled the team and went on to produce three memorable years which are looked back on with fondness and affection.
And don’t forget like Cook he came to Fratton Park with no previous connection and the added burden of a playing antecedence down the road. Yet strip away any misty eyed romance from that period and the harsh reality was that two of those memorable years would have been deemed by some as ultimately unsuccessful in the respect of missing out on promotion.
Proof we don’t always judge ‘memorable’ by promotions or championships but also by progress, entertainment and winning more games than are lost.
To date as under Ball that has largely happened for Cook despite some unforeseen goalless encounters at home and the results and performances against rivals Oxford and Orient interspersed along the way.
Don’t be kidded by the natural candy sugar coating of the mid-1980s that such blips didn’t happen also to Ball in the pursuit of perfection. For instance in his first season of 84-85 there were three crucial consecutive defeats in April against Birmingham, Manchester City and Crystal Palace. Just how vital those defeats were proved by the first two teams promotion and Pompey’s agonising miss by virtue of goal average.
During that season there were other woeful performances, such as 3-0 defeat at Carlisle who finished 16th, while Sheffield United who ended 18th inflicted a 4-1 defeat. And who can possibly forget the infamous New Years Day 4-4 draw with Fulham after leading 4-0 at half time?
Was it cause for much wailing and gnashing of teeth about wrong formations, teams and signings?
Probably in some quarters. But generally the consensus was that a new team playing with a completely fresh style of no nonsense attitude which had agonizingly found themselves marooned in fourth was cause for commendation not complaints.
Ball’s second season was equally as entertaining yet infuriating. November brought four consecutive defeats against Leeds, Grimsby, Sheffield United and Bradford City with two goals scored and eight conceded.
Awful April reared its head for the second year as Pompey took four points from a possible eighteen with defeats against Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Stoke plus a goalless draw against Sheffield United thrown in.
A season of fluctuating fortunes where the Milk Cup run all the way to the quarter finals with Spurs one of the scalps after three pulsating matches. Again it was a season that most generally enjoyed even though nothing was won apart from hearts and minds. Fourth position once more, this time three points shy, was again subsequently deemed moving in the right direction even though it was no improvement on the previous campaign and once again so near yet so far.
Even the third promotion season itself wasn’t all roses. A woeful 1-0 defeat at 18th place Shrewsbury, another at 15th place West Brom and one at home to Plymouth. Then there was the 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park that didn’t even grant Ball’s team the satisfaction of promotion whilst on the pitch.
Doubtless had phone shows, message boards and Twitter existed in these three years they would have been awash with a barrage of anti-boss or board rants throughout.
Yet crucially come the end of each campaign most could see beyond instant gratification to stable progress which might have taken a little longer than perhaps anticipated but given the visible progression had been worth the wait.
Three seasons which had their fair share of latter day Orient, Oxford, Morecambe and Yeovil performances scattered within them.
Nor were all Ball’s signings universally popular or particularly successful. Step forward Scott McGarvey, Paul Sugrue, Ivan Golac and Malcolm Waldron to name a few.
And he certainly wasn’t scared to upset fans either with some of his omissions and then sale of ‘fan heroes’ along the way. The most notable being the publically ostracised Alan Biley.
In the end though with a fair amount of hindsight those years have stood the test of time as some of the most popular because of the tangible progress.
So what was this season about for me? It was always going to be about taking the next step forward from what has been a difficult few years.
About having a bit of respectability back, enjoying watching Pompey more often than not once more and going to each game home and away with a more than realistic belief of it being a winnable one.
For all the inevitable Orient game woes or the Oxford wails cast your mind back to last season, or the one before that, and those performances and results were ones most had come to reluctantly expect.
Seasons which had fans more than nervously looking over their shoulder come spring in fear that another inevitable loss was going to drive the club ever nearer the terrifying prospect of being cast into the oblivion of the non-league stratosphere maybe never to return.
The club was plummeting for so long and the longer that continued the abyss of non-league next looked the more likely scenario.
Football from sub-standard players who came rapidly and disappeared even more speedily was laced with fear as every game became a war of attrition.
Fratton Park for so long revered and feared had become a decrepit fortress devoid of portcullis and any other natural, man-made or human resistance. For long periods watching the football on offer was through a labour of love and loyalty. Like visiting a sick, dying relative that filled one with dread but which had to be done.
Culminating in the lowest ever league position last season with the added ignominy of being knocked out of the FA Cup by a non-league side. And then came Cook. Somebody not scared to stand up and take controversial decisions, committed to playing attacking football when possible and a man who has in the main had the place beating more vibrantly this season than for some time.
A manager who has transformed the style, bedded down new rules and one who hates losing as much as the next person. Brave enough to go against popular fan opinion with some of his omissions but who already has made undoubted progress despite the inevitable setbacks amidst that of which there will undoubtedly be more. One who had already walked the walk in League 2 who wasn’t a million miles away from doing it again in the league above.
A man in every way the re-incarnation of Ball minus the cloth cap. Possessing an unquenchable desire to succeed, who given the rarity of that breed, deserves the patience and support to build from the base and at least attempt to take us on another journey.
A journey that in time we can hopefully look back on with the same undying affection as thirty years ago.