Rare stability and resolve allow Pompey to dare to dream again

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The date is October 22nd 2010, and the breaking news is that Portsmouth are in serious danger of going out of business for good. Whether you are a fan of the Fratton Park outfit or not, the revelation would not have come as much of a shock.

This wasn’t a simple case of administration or minor financial irregularities, it was far, far more serious than that. The Football League was not allowing the club out of administration, and talks with former owner and key creditor Sacha Gaydamak had grinded to a stuttering halt.

The administrators declared that a likely scenario would involve the club being forced to close down and enter liquidation.

While of course the club were in dire straits, the obvious cry for help worked. The following day Gaydamak revealed that an agreement had been made to secure the club’s future, Portsmouth exited administration and Hong Kong businessman Balram Chanrai completed his takeover. Not bad for a day’s work.

And now, against all the odds, Pompey are quietly looking to ambush the play-offs. There may still be a long road ahead if the south coast outfit are to achieve the unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

Competition for a top-six spot last season may have been somewhat less fierce, but Blackpool were five points off the mark with the same number of matches remaining last term - just one fewer than Pompey are now. A win at Reading tomorrow would take Pompey level on points with the Berkshire side, themselves currently the closest club to the play-off positions.

And in truth, Steve Cotterill’s side are looking like having every chance of upsetting the apple cart. While the Championship’s big-hitters are hardly falling over each other to stake their own claims for a top-six finish, Portsmouth have capitalised after looking completely down and out at the start of the year.

The Fratton Park outfit have now taken 22 of the last 27 points available, keeping clean sheets in eight of those nine fixtures. Their success is no secret; one needs only look at that final stat alone.

Their latest victory, a hard-fought slog away at a strong Leicester side, epitomised much of what Cotterill has managed to achieve with his team this year. Portsmouth fans will not shy away from the fact they were perhaps second best for much of the encounter, but that certainly does not mean they didn’t deserve it.

Dave Nugent, enjoying his most prolific campaign since the 2006/07 season with Preston, hit an excellent early goal to give his side a vital lead from which to defend.

And that they did, incredibly well. Pompey restricted the usually creative Foxes to half-chances and hopeful efforts, making Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side look a shadow of their capable selves. It was a testament to Cotterill that his side could probably have played all day and still kept the score goalless.

A compelling brand of football it certainly was not, but the former Burnley boss has been forced to conjure on limited resources ever since taking the reins.

But even with a threadbare squad, Cotterill still has unsung gems to call upon. One of those, Ricardo Rocha, has played a colossal role in sustaining Pompey’s impressive strength at the back since returning from injury against Doncaster in February.

And yes, we are talking about the same man who was sent off twice in his first three matches for the club. The former Benfica man is now proving himself to be one of the finest centre-halves the division has to offer.

While the squad at Fratton Park may be thin, Cotterill can still rely upon those who were only recently plying their trade in the Premier League. Former Stoke pair Liam Lawrence and Dave Kitson have both proved invaluable to the cause, while top goal-scorer Nugent has weighed in with his fair share of 11 league strikes.

Resources are limited, but the club managed to draft in Aston Villa’s tenacious Jonathan Hogg, Manchester United full-back Ritchie de Laet and Swansea’s David Cotterill on loan in January and February.

Two weeks ago, however, Steve Cotterill revealed his disappointment that the club’s stance was not geared towards a serious assault towards the Premier League.

“I think that I’ve more than achieved – along with the staff and players – what the owners wanted this season,” he admitted. “I know our fans would obviously want us to be up there and higher.

“But you would have to ask the owners their thoughts on that. The first seven games – no team. That block of 10 games – no team. We’ve had injuries, suspensions, contractual issues. It’s ridiculous.

“We haven’t been on a level playing field, really.”

And he has a point. Sections of the club’s support including the ‘SOS Pompey’ group continue to demonstrate against the way the club is being run, and while few are likely to be surprised Chanrai hasn’t dipped into his pocket a great deal this season, this underlines the lingering concerns for the longer term future of the club.

Speaking just over a year ago, eight months earlier than his eventual takeover, Chanrai had insisted he had no interest in taking over the troubled club at all.

“I have zero interest in buying Portsmouth,” he conceded. It's nothing to do with controlling the club. I don't know anything about running a football club. I just love the game and that's why I've taken this action.”

It appears his hands were tied. Would he allow the club to sink and lose his money, or take them on with the intention of recovering some of that debt? Subsequently, he simply hasn’t been willing to invest any more than is strictly necessary.

The likelihood of investment in the summer remains reasonably low, but some Pompey fans may simply be content with a relatively quiet life for a while. After all, there are no major rucks with Gaydamak, no complaints from the Football League, none from other clubs, and none from players whose wages had previously gone unpaid.

On the pitch there can be few complaints from the Fratton faithful who are ready to carry the dreaded hope that maybe, just maybe, they can go all the way. It is the same question on the lips of no fewer than 13 sides, all of whom have realistic aspirations of a Premier League shot next season.

Promotion looks unlikely, but nothing can be certain in the frantic life of the Championship. Cotterill’s team have proven they can churn out results on a consistent basis - the key ingredient of any successful side in the Football League.

But even if they don’t make the grade when it comes to the final grind, Cotterill knows it will have been some achievement to have even had a sniff at the big time this year.