When the opportunity arose for Marlon Pack to re-join Portsmouth back in July, he jumped at it.
The midfielder was born in the city, on the club’s books by the age of six, a South Stand season ticket holder thereafter and, after progressing through the academy, handed his Pompey debut by Steve Cotterill at 19 in August 2010.
He did not manage to break into the first-team picture at Fratton Park, though, instead opting to join Cheltenham in 2011 after a successful loan spell in Gloucestershire.
So when he was released by Cardiff after the expiry of his contract, a second chance proved enticing.
Image: Pack re-joined Portsmouth on a two-year deal in July, having initially left almost 13 years ago
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“It was always going to be hard for me to turn down, just because of the emotional pull of being my local team, being where I grew up, being a Portsmouth fan from when I was a kid,” he tells Sky Sports.
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“They kind of had one over me in that respect and I’ve always said, for me, there was unfinished business here.
“Sometimes, the idea of coming back to your local team is better than the reality of it, but there was always that ambition and desire to pull on a Pompey shirt again because when I did come through, I feel I didn’t play enough games before leaving.”
Take a look at Marlon Pack’s goal for Portsmouth against Ipswich Town back in December 2022.
The fabled fairy-tale return started off as just that. Pompey were unbeaten in their first nine League One games and won six in a row between August 13 and September 13. It was no surprise that Danny Cowley won August’s Sky Bet League One Manager of the Month.
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports in September, he said: “We’re certainly enjoying the process. For us, it’s important to not get too caught up with the outcome; we’re always trying to stay really process-driven and the better we do, the harder we work. We try to live with that mantra and see where it takes us.”
He was right not to get too caught up because, from there, everything unravelled rather spectacularly.
Over the next three months, a run of 13 league games produced a solitary win – against struggling Forest Green on October 22 – and only 10 points. From challenging for automatic promotion, by close of play on New Year’s Day, they were 12th, 18 points off the top two.
What went so wrong so quickly?
“I’m not going to lie and say we weren’t thinking we were onto something good,” Pack says.
“We’re a level-headed group so we weren’t getting carried away, but there was a real momentum and belief because of the performances we were putting in and the games we were winning. That has all come crashing down, so it has been a real tough period for us all.
“It has been a disappointing period, to say the least, and I think I’m probably being easy on us by saying that because it’s been a lot worse than that. There’s a lot of work to do.
“At the start of the season, when you’re on that roll, things do go well for you and then, on the flip side, when you’re desperate to win a game, those things that were going for you at the start of the season seem to desert you a little bit.
“We could be here all day talking about what’s gone wrong and I don’t think there has been one specific thing, but it does happen. I’ve been in teams where we’ve had bad runs and from going so well, things can quickly turn against you.
“But we can control that and, maybe at times, we haven’t controlled that enough and there’s a real onus on us as players to take some accountability, to stand up, be counted, have the minerals to take the ball in tight areas, make those tackles, do the hard stuff and also play smart, be creative.
“We know this is a situation we shouldn’t be in, but we are and only we can get ourselves out of it.”
Portsmouth's struggle to leave League One
- 2017/18 – Finished eighth, five points outside top six
- 2018/19 – Finished fourth, lost to Sunderland in play-off semi-final
- 2019/20 – Finished fifth on PPG, lost to Oxford in play-off semi-final
- 2020/21 – Finished eighth, two points outside top six
- 2021/22 – Finished 10th, 10 points outside top six
- 2022/23 – Currently 15th, nine points outside top six
The extended run of poor form saw Cowley and his assistant, his brother Nicky, relieved of their duties on January 2, one day after a 3-1 home defeat to Charlton, in which Pack was sent off for the second time this season.
Pack admits it was a wrench to see the pair depart, despite the inevitability of the club’s decision.
“I’m an experienced player now, so it sits on your conscience more when you’re a little bit older, when you see the effort they had put in day-to-day. It doesn’t just affect them as individuals; they’ve got families and people to provide for.
“I know it’s the nature of the beast, it’s the burden of being a football manager and it comes with the territory, but it’s still not nice because they are good family people and I had a good relationship with them.”
At long last, though, there is now reason to believe the season may be able to be salvaged.
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The search for Cowley’s successor concluded on Friday January 20, 18 days after his departure, when John Mousinho left his player-coach role at Oxford, thus ending his 18-year playing career, to take up the head coach role at Fratton Park.
Just over 24 hours after taking charge, the 36-year-old – who started out at Brentford – oversaw a first league win in 11 attempts, with Pack scoring a thumping volley to break the deadlock.
It was the perfect way to start the second half of the season, with Pack hinting Pompey will treat what remains of the campaign as a season in itself.
The 31-year-old says: “I think you’ve got to look at the fixture list when you get it and try and break it up into blocks and evaluate where you are after certain blocks.
Watch Marlon Pack’s brilliant volley for Portsmouth against Exeter City in January 2023.
“We can’t do anything about those previous games now. The start of the season was great, but that’s gone now. Yes, the run we’ve been on since has disappointing, but that’s gone now. It’s the biggest cliché, we can only focus on the next game.
“We can all play the victim and it’s easy to be negative during this time, but I think we have to go the opposite way and try to be ultra-positive and really stick together as a collective, try and get everyone onside and get back on a winning run.
“As I said, we can control certain things; how we go up to games, the work ethic we put in, the endeavour we show – and there’s a minimum requirement to do that at Portsmouth Football Club.”
Highlights of the League One match between Portsmouth and Exeter City.
In spite of the fact they have traversed a tricky path to this point, Pack says the pre-season target remains in place.
“I’ve come here – and I know it seems a million miles away at the moment – to get promoted, to be successful and that is the expectation here.
“I know from what I see on a day-to-day basis that we’ve got a talented group, we just need to get back to winning ways. I think a run will build some confidence throughout the group, which we desperately need at the minute.
“That end goal that we set ourselves hasn’t changed. The journey may have diverted a little bit and we’ve made it a lot harder for ourselves, but there’s so many games to play, so many points still up for grabs.
“One good week in this division can really start changing the outlook and perspective of the table. But there are no easy tests. It’s a really competitive league and we’re going to have to get back to our best.”
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