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30 May 2014

Blues boss always believed Pompey would survive last season

It might be history now, but it is still worth reliving the plight that almost befell Pompey.

In late March they teetered ominously in a precarious position just above the League Two drop zone, just two points better off than 23rd-placed Northampton.

Pessimists among the Fratton faithful feared the worst.

But even optimists were casting worrying glances below following an emphatic 3-0 defeat at Rochdale that sent the Blues torpedoing closer to an unfathomable drop out of the Football League.

Only an injury-time AFC Wimbledon leveller against Northampton on the same evening – the goal arrived moments after full-time at Spotland – prevented the even more uncomfortable situation of just goals scored keeping Pompey above the bottom two.

There had now been a run of six games without victory and with just one goal scored in that time.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back as Richie Barker made way for acting manager Andy Awford, who immediately proclaimed: “We will survive.”

That statement was soon backed up with results. Pompey immediately returned to winning ways at Newport – just their third away league victory of the campaign – and went on to secure five successive triumphs before the season ended with a couple of entertaining draws.

It was a whirlwind period when 18 goals rained into the opposition net as the Blues ultimately finished 13th in the fourth tier.

Although reassuring for some, Awford’s words could so easily have backfired spectacularly.

But if there was a certain amount of psychology intended then it worked a treat – probably beyond the expectations of even the orator himself.

The same group of players (plus Danny Hollands) who previously could not buy a win had suddenly become unbeatable overnight.

Awford, however, is adamant that his words were not about mind games, but simply based on his intuition.

“I really believed it and that belief certainly wasn’t some PR stunt by any stretch of the imagination,” explains the Blues boss, taking up the story. “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I had felt we were going to go down – I simply wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with that.

“But I had seen enough of the squad of players, and there were some very good ones at the club, to really believe that they were good enough to keep us up.

“It was just finding the right way of getting the best out of them and that was something I was very confident of doing.”

Awford cites the opening win at Rodney Parade as the crucial factor for what followed.

“The performance at Newport for my first game wasn’t 10 out of 10, but it was, in my mind, the most important one.” he reveals. “People say to me that the Bristol Rovers game was the defining one, but that first match provided the building block and the three points gave us the confidence to go on from there.

“Against Rovers we had a dodgy period in the first half and responded in the second, but it was a different kind of match.

“Newport was pivotal – giving the board, the fans and the city confidence. And it gave me some momentum to build on.

“For the following home game against Hartlepool, I asked for a ‘Stockport-esque’ siege mentality from the supporters.

“It was much easier to ask for that on the back of victory against Newport rather than defeat, so that will always be where it all began to change.”

As someone lucky enough to be privy to proceedings at the team hotel on the eve of the Newport game, one could sense a wind of change on the horizon, without being able to explain why.

Perhaps it was the reassuring sight of spotting Awford deep in conversation with right-hand men Paul Hardyman and Alan McLoughlin.

Maybe it was the legendary stories from Pompey past they each later regaled that proved a comforting factor, confirming their deep-rooted allegiance to and understanding of Pompey.

But it was all very well me sensing a change of fortunes, the important thing was that the players felt the same.

“When you mention the atmosphere at the hotel, perhaps we did play a part with our approach and attitude,” he says. “But the players also had a huge role in creating that.

“Before I was appointed I think there was a realisation from the players that they were in trouble. After the loss at Rochdale, fans got their crumbs of comfort celebrating the news of Wimbledon’s equaliser at Northampton and I think it hammered the message home about the situation the club was now in.

“If you like it was the dawning of a realisation. I think everyone up to this point, including people around the club, had still considered Pompey as too big and good to go out of the league.

“It was certainly at this point that the players realised the gravity of the situation because they had their own private meeting. I don’t know what was said – and I don’t need to know – but I would imagine it went down the lines of enough being enough.”

Whoever takes the credit for creating that wind of change blowing through a south Wales hotel just off Junction 24 of the M4, the fact remains – neither manager or players looked back from that moment.

In Part Two: How Andy Awford intends to keep his sharpening his axe as he follows in the footsteps of managers like Ball, Redknapp and Venables.

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