Ahead of this Sunday’s EFL Trophy final with Portsmouth, we caught up with Hugh Bunce from Pompey News Now to get his thoughts on what lies ahead for both sides.
After a recent upturn in form, Pompey fans are seemingly confident of securing a victory this weekend, but can Jack Ross and his men spoil the South Coast side’s party?
RR: What are the excitement levels like amongst the Pompey support? Like ourselves, I bet a Wembley final feels fully deserved after a rough few years!
PNN: It has been a little slow gathering momentum initial with some fans talking about boycotting the final. If it had been against an academy side, it may have had more traction.
However, nearly all the fans are on board and excited about the final. Going to Wembley is a special day out and something that you do not get to experience often as a fan. We have been singing about it in the Fratton End and the atmosphere will be electric inside and outside the ground. I am 31 so got to experience the FA Cup of 2008 and 2010, but some of the younger fans have never been to Wembley.
RR: Again, like Sunderland, there must be a level of expectation that goes along with being in the Checkatrade Trophy. Were you pretty much expecting to get to the final? How seriously has Kenny Jackett been taking the competition in the earlier rounds as well?
PNN: I certainly was not expecting to get to the final. Kenny Jackett played a reserve side for most of the tournament, giving academy players the opportunity to develop and fringe players the opportunity to impress. Christian Burgess our experienced centre back, recently stated the Checkatrade Trophy gave him the opportunity to play himself back into the side.
It was only when we got the semi-final against Bury that Jackett played the first-team with Wembley in sight. Now we are at the final stage, the fans, players and manager are as hungry as you can be to win the trophy.
RR: Going back to the league for a second, you had quite a blip in form after beating us at Fratton Park just before Christmas, winning just three games in twelve league outings. What do you put that down to and do you think that run of form will mean you will have to settle for a Play-Off place?
PNN: The loss of on-loan Ben Thompson back to Millwall was a shock to the system for the squad, and we have taken a while to adapt. In addition, the outstanding scoring of our attacking players such as Lowe, Curtis and Evans dried up a bit and we struggled to break out with pace as we had been earlier in the season.
We were struggling to finish chances and after going on a poor run of form confidence was low. A team once known for our solid defense, started choking and throwing points away. Being 3-0 up at half-time to Southend and drawing 3-3 epitomised Pompey’s struggles.
Considering this dreadful run of form, Pompey are back to their best and will finish strongly this season. Although unlikely, I am not ruling out automatic promotion. Barnsley were extremely luck to get a win against Walsall on Saturday and if they had drawn, Pompey would have been 2-points behind. Sunderland have the games in hand, but these will come thick and fast and I cannot see you winning them all.
RR: Portsmouth’s form lately has been much better with four wins in five. Which players in particular have impressed during those games, and who will be the main danger to us on Sunday?
PNN: Ben Close’s play in midfield has made the loss of Ben Thompson a distant memory. The Portsmouth born academy prospect has 5 goals in his last 10 games and has become a clutch playmaker in the heart of midfield. Liam Howes from Express FM recently dubbed Close the “Pompey Xavi”.
Omar Bogle has 5 goals since arriving in January from Cardiff City. Bogle has given Pompey another dimension up front, stretching defenders with his pace, power and eye for goal. He will drift and find space between your defenders and look to exploit that at pace.
Jamal Lowe has his scoring boots back on, partly from drifting inside when Bogle goes wide. Lowe is rapid and when on his game can be a clinical finisher, with 12 goals in League One this season.
Ronan Curtis is a doubt for the game as he shut his finger in a door and required surgery. Curtis is now back in training and if he plays, can create something out of nothing. The Irish midfielder has been capped for Ireland this season as a striker and was awarded Ireland’s Under 21 player of the season. A potential front four of Bogle, Lowe, Curtis and Pitman is as deadly as it gets in League One.
RR: Jack Ross sees his squad coming to Wembley with a degree of freshness, after a handful of international call ups led to our game being postponed last week. Anyone in the squad that you’ll be keeping a particular eye on?
PNN: Touching on the international break, this can be a help or hindrance for a team. It will be interesting to see if Sunderland come out fresh and guns blazing, or a little slow due to an extended break.
Aiden McGeady always seems like a clutch player who can get that spectacular goal when his team needs him. Jon McLaughlin is always a difficult keeper to beat, so Pompey will have to create quality scoring opportunities nit just shoot from anywhere. I’m a fan of Lynden Gooch, but he does not seem to be getting in your team. Every team in League One knows what Will Grigg can do. Matt Clarke who was recently named in the League One Team of The Season will have to be at his best if Grigg starts.
RR: It’s a big occasion under the Wembley arch where both managers will look to play on the front foot. Is there any specific approach that you think Kenny Jackett will take though? Who do you expect to be in his starting XI as well?
PNN: Kenny Jackett is a steady manager who will stick to what he thinks is best, which is his favored 4-2-3-1 formation. It is highly unlikely he will change the way Pompey play just because we are at Wembley.
Pompey will look to get the ball forward quickly to the front four and utilise the pace we have running at your defenders. Pompey fans will be hoping that we play a more possession-based game on a massive pitch. Only Southend have played more long balls per game than Pompey this season and if Bogle starts, ball a passing style is more likely than if Hawkins plays.
Brett Pitman has been reborn in the number 10 role and will look to come collect the ball, retain possession and play the other three attacking players. If Ronan Curtis is fit, I think Pompey start with the below. Gareth Evans will probably replace Curtis if he is not fit enough to start.
MacGillivray, Thompson Burgess Clarke Brown, Close Naylor, Lowe Pitman Curtis, Bogle.
RR: Finally, give us score prediction for the final please!
PNN: 2-1 Pompey with Ben Close and Jamal Lowe to score for Pompey!