The Academy five not here to make up Pompey numbers

Pompey youngster Nick Awford Picture: Joe Pepler
Pompey youngster Nick Awford Picture: Joe Pepler

Enthusiastic applause erupted after Jed Wallace fizzed in a superb low delivery from the right which was almost touched home by a flying foot.

The promising move had been instigated by an intelligent first-time pass from Ben Close inside the left-back, thereby carving open the space for his team-mate to exploit.

A glance at the clock revealed 28 seconds had passed against Northampton on Tuesday night.

For Close, it was 28 seconds into a maiden Pompey start and an impressive early touch on an undoubtedly nerve-jangling occasion.

The 18-year-old wasn’t alone on that Fratton pitch, he had excellent company.

After all, for a period of the match, he was joined by four other Academy products.

A quintet of youngsters to have emerged through the ranks and into the Blues’ first-team environment, giving an excellent account of themselves regardless of that Johnstone’s Paint Trophy result.

In the past, necessity forced the selection of a squad of 12 teenagers to face Plymouth in the Capital One Cup.

On Tuesday evening, the presence was largely influenced by merit.

And that in itself is reason enough for the Fratton faithful to be proud of the continuing success of the club’s youth set-up, whose foundations are rooted in local talent.

While other clubs higher up the football pyramid are blessed with superior finances to pluck promising youngsters by way of transfer fees, Pompey in its present guise must produce from within.

There was a time when Paul Hart could fritter in excess of £3m in one summer on recruiting players from Europe as well as these shores.

This is now and the Cobblers fixture was a case in point on how the current Academy system is succeeding in taking an alternative route.

Granted, Awford’s men lost 2-1, but little criticism could be fired in the direction of Close, Nick Awford, Dan Butler, Jed Wallace and Adam Webster.

Take central midfielder Close, who hails from Fratton and has also caught the eye for the reserves in their three fixtures to date this season.

He shone brightest against Northampton with his composure, range of passing and excellent ball retention throughout.

Joining him in midfield was Awford, the 19-year-old making his third start and fourth appearance overall for his home-town club.

Tuesday night, as with Close, also represented his maiden start at Fratton, having previously lined-up at Stoke and Yeovil this season.

Having spent time on loan at Bognor and Gosport, he is flourishing in the confidence shown in him, in addition to being largely injury-free.

At left-back was Butler, aged 20 and making his 30th appearance for the Blues since debuting at Plymouth in August 2012.

Back in the frame this term following injury and loan spells at Aldershot last year, he has become one of the early-season success stories.

So much so, agent chatter is already under way. A fortnight ago Sky Sports’ website clumsily linked him to Brighton, Ipswich and Millwall. The games have already begun.

Then there was Wallace – a relative veteran compared to his fellow youth products and despite being the same age and year group as Butler.

Before today the midfielder had amassed 86 appearances and 18 goals since making his bow against Plymouth along with Butler, Jack Maloney, Bradley Tarbuck and others.

No current Pompey player has made as many appearances for the club as Wallace, with Johnny Ertl the next in line on 77 and far from a regular starter.

Once Joe Devera crumpled to the floor with a stomach complaint on eight minutes, the door was opened for Webster to join the quartet.

The 19-year-old slotted into his favoured central-defensive role he has barely taken up during his 33 first-team appearances.

Despite still being a teenager, the West Wittering youngster made his league debut in January 2012 against West Ham in the Championship.

Steve Cotterill was the manager then and Webster has since played across the back four and also enjoyed two fruitful loan spells at Aldershot, where he was highly-regarded.

And so – for 37 minutes – Pompey featured five players who had successfully emerged from Academy surroundings into the first team.

A first-team standing up to the Cobblers on an October night while sporting an average age of 23.

A proud moment then for Andy Awford, surveying the fixture from the directors’ box during that first half when his side played their best football.

The subsequent departure of Wallace at half-time was designed to give him a breather and provided some rare first-team minutes of late for winger Andy Barcham.

Pompey’s best player during the opening 45 minutes, it not only ended the five’s presence but impacted on the team’s attacking fluidity for the remainder of the fixture.

On the hour mark the four were turned into a three when Webster was forced off after jarring his right knee.

He left the stadium on crutches – an unfortunate end to his first appearance since August and joining 18-year-old Jack Whatmough on the sidelines.

Whatmough, currently out with a hamstring injury, has started nine matches this season and also came though the Academy.

Webster’s injury also thwarted Awford’s plan to throw in Tarbuck from the bench late on – instead forcing him to introduce Nicky Shorey as a replacement.

Still, fate conspired to deny the 18-year-old Emsworth youngster becoming another Academy product to feature against Northampton.

But he will get another chance – as they all will.

This crop are here to challenge, not make up the Pompey numbers.