Key player: Ronan Curtis
These days most footballers are pretty sensible. Bordering on dull. They give media-trained stock answers to questions, they don’t go out drinking often, they focus on their football. Ronan Curtis is a bit of a throwback.
He was not popular with Pompey fans after two incidents towards the end of last season. He was involved in a fracas with a stranger outside a Portsmouth hotel – the police didn’t press charges, but rumours flew around about Curtis’ involvement. A week or so later, he was filmed on his Snapchat having a good time after Portsmouth lost on the final day and missed the play-offs.
Some of his public pronouncements are unintentionally hilarious – in an interview with the local paper he played down his arrogant reputation before comparing himself to Cristiano Ronaldo in the same sentence. In how he plays, however, it’s not a completely absurd parallel.
Curtis is a right-footed player who plays off the left-wing – he usually cuts inside to either set up a team-mate or go for goal himself. He racked up ten goals and seven assists for Pompey last season. While he may not everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a reason Championship clubs like Blackburn and Cardiff have expressed their interest in the Irishman.
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Manager: Danny Cowley
Cowley took over from Kenny Jackett in March. Pompey fans thought it was quite a refreshing change. Jackett may have won the EFL Trophy in 2019, but he failed in his main objective – getting Portsmouth back in the league their supporters believe they have a divine right to be in.
Danny Cowley comes as a joint package with his brother Nicky, who has been his assistant ever since his days in the Isthmian League with Concord Rangers. The Cowleys are not known for their pretty football, favouring a functional 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formation, but their results are unquestionable.
Lincoln was the club at which Cowley made his name, bringing them from the Conference to League One in three seasons, as well as winning the EFL Trophy. He rose to national attention by knocking out Burnley in the FA Cup in 2018. Lincoln’s snarling physicality overmatched Sean Dyche’s side – hardly a set of shrinking violets themselves.
Portsmouth have relished in being the side that no one else likes. While Cowley is likeable off-the-pitch, it’s difficult to see Portsmouth suddenly becoming the neutrals’ favourites. Their fans won’t care if they go up.
Danger man: John Marquis
Marquis bounced back from a fallow year last season. Having scored just eight league goals in 2019-20, he doubled that in 2020-21 – good enough to tie Luke Jephcott for the tenth most goals in League One.
He will be hoping to go even better this season and get closer toward the 21 goals he scored for Doncaster that led to Pompey spending nearly £2m on him. He may benefit from playing in a 4-4-2, as Portsmouth have in pre-season. Gassan Ahadme, a new loan signing from Norwich, is likely to play alongside Marquis. Ahadme is more of a false nine, who will drop off to create scoring chances for Marquis.
Marquis is tough and physical, as you would expect from someone born by the Lewisham docks and brought up at the club who no one likes but they don’t care. His game is unsubtle but all about goals – he’s sure to score a few this season.
Off the pitch, Marquis was credited with saving a young Pompey fan’s life. He saw a message posted on social media from a man experiencing severe depression – Marquis reached out to him and talked to him both over the phone and in person. He is a man with a heart of gold behind his steely exterior.
Key departure: Craig MacGillivray
Danny Cowley was happy to let Craig MacGillivray go. It’s not very often that a team does that with its player of the season, even if Argyle have been the beneficiaries of Ipswich doing the same with their award-winner James Wilson.
Scottish goalkeeper MacGillivray hardly came to Fratton Park with the most glittering CV, having spent a few seasons as a backup at Shrewsbury and Walsall. He established himself as the first choice for three seasons, becoming a fans’ favourite as he gained a reputation as a penalty-saving specialist.
The new manager wasn’t impressed with MacGillivray’s distribution. While his traditional goalkeeping skills are excellent, he would struggle if asked to be a more modern ‘keeper. Despite this, it came as a surprise to MacGillivray that he had to move his family up the M3 to London, away from a city and a club he enjoyed being a part of.
Cowley has taken a risk with his replacement, too. Gavin Bazunu may be a full Irish international, but the Manchester City loanee is only 19. Pompey’s season will depend on whether Bazunu lives up to the glowing reports of the coaches who have worked with him.
Nothing less than promotion would do for Portsmouth. The last four seasons under Kenny Jackett were considered a failure – losing in the playoffs twice and not even making them in the other two seasons.
They are taking a different approach to it than before. Rather than glitzy big-name signings, all of their transfers so far have been frees. Most of them are just solid, capable League One players – the Portsmouth chairman Michael Eisner is relying on Cowley getting more than the sum of his parts.
Whether or not this is intentional, or a consequence of the pandemic, is unclear. It seems a better strategy than stuffing the team with big names. Players like Ronan Curtis and John Marquis can still provide the star power Portsmouth need to challenge for promotion.
Defensively they’re gambling a bit more. Gavin Bazunu is highly-rated, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to fill Craig MacGillivray’s shoes – big ones to fill. Portsmouth’s season will come down to whether Danny Cowley can make Portsmouth into a deluxe version of his Lincoln side – physical, sometimes ugly, but win a lot.
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