Time for us to be the underdog yesterday, despite the record of recent years. Portsmouth, having done what every club says it intends/wants to do and got the bulk of its transfer dealings done early, appear capable of dominating the league this season in a similar fashion to Sir Chris’ side. Of course the wheels could come off (and for them have done before), but unbeaten in 15, 10 of those won tells its own story. And we’ve already been beaten by the three teams currently below them, most recently falling some way short against Bolton. The bookies had Portsmouth odds-on to win and no question we would have viewed coming away with a point as a good result.
Indeed, for most of the game coming away with a point looked less than likely and very welcome. In spells – such as the opening 10 minutes and following their two goals – Portsmouth upped their intensity and threatened to blow us away. That they didn’t can be attributed to some sterling defending, with Hector and Jones both giving all they had, an outstanding display of goalkeeping from Maynard-Brewer, albeit blotted by the rash decision which resulted in their penalty, and sometimes less than clinical finishing. They were always dangerous from set-pieces but seemed to lack the pace to catch us unawares and between the lines, as others have done. Crucially, they were never able to get more than a goal ahead.
But this was no plucky underdog performance from us. We created our own chances, especially in the second half, and in a crazy finish might have scored a winner (and might have conceded again). Portsmouth dominated in spells but so too did we. In the end we just about deserved our point. Appleton previously described one of our games as a great advert for League One. I didn’t agree that time, but the words would be apt for yesterday’s game, which left all of us breathless at the finish. In that context, mixing it up with the team at the top and coming away with something, the game was very encouraging for us. Hopefully it will have impressed on the players the degree of intensity and effort required to succeed and that this will be applied not just to the cup replay.
The team was, ahem, expected to show some changes from Sunday’s FA Cup tie, basically to revert to the one which had taken the field against Wigan, with a replacement for the injured Camara. In the event there were two changes from that starting X1, with Edun coming in for Asiimwe, getting the nod over Thomas with Watson switching back to his usual right side, while Campbell(T) came in for Camara, with May taking the No.10 slot and Blackett-Taylor and Campbell either side of Leaburn, rather than Fraser coming in. To the surprise of some no doubt McGrandles was given one of the slots on the bench, with less surprisingly Kirk back out of the squad.
I don’t know if it’s Portsmouth’s way to try to come out of the traps very fast; yesterday they did. We were hanging on in that early spell but managed to come through it without conceding, and in the following 15 minutes or so began even to get the upper hand. Leaburn blasted over from a tight angle when a ball across the box might have found an unmarked Blackett-Taylor. Then after good passing May shot across goal, the ball going just wide and replays showing that their keeper did indeed get a touch on it. And a Campbell cross almost reached May as their keeper this time failed to cut it out.
Consequently it was a tad harsh for us to go behind on the half-hour. I remember thinking Portsmouth were allowed to play the ball out of defence down their left side far too easily and win a soft corner. That proved costly. The ball into a packed six-yard box was headed out but fell invitingly for their guy just outside the area in acres of space. He decided to take it on the volley and controlled the effort well, sending it over the bodies in front of Maynard-Brewer but with the dip to find the far corner of the net. Very well taken for sure, but we were too complacent in the build-up to the corner and had nobody on the edge of the box to close down their guy.
We were a little stunned and Portsmouth put in another burst. From another corner cleared but played back in, a far post downward header was well gathered by Maynard-Brewer. If we had conceded again in that spell the game may have gone beyond us. Instead we made it to the break with no further setback – and might even have levelled things up as a blocked Campbell shot dropped for Watson(L), who was able to put it onto his left foot but the shot tamely from the good position.
The second half saw chances at both ends. May sent a cross to the far post back across the face, but Leaburn wasn’t alive to the possibility, another Portsmouth corner (played short) produced a powerful header from close range turned over the bar well by Maynard-Brewer, we so nearly had May in for a one-on-one after their defender slipped, but so too did Campbell, delaying his pass forward, by which time May had run offside. Then probably the closest Portsmouth came to extending their lead as from yet another corner the guy who scored worked some space and sent in a shot. Maynard-Brewer reacted well to divert the ball onto the woodwork and their guy hooked the rebound against the bar. And then a May shot from just outside the box was blocked clearly by the outstretched arm of their defender. Would undoubtedly have been given by VAR, although whether it was inside or outside the box was unclear.
Finally, with around 20 minutes left on the clock, the game had another goal. Fraser had come off the bench for Campbell, taking the position in the hole with May moving to the right. By accident or design it paid off as Watson(L) found him. May played it back to him and from a tight position Watson managed to play a reverse pass inside to the advancing May. He made the ball his, beating a couple of defenders to it, and from a very tight angle blasted the ball low between the keeper and the post (yes, a cardinal sin from their perspective).
Portsmouth responded immediately and Maynard-Brewer was called on to keep us level, then just a few minutes after our goal made his one mistake. A Portsmouth one-two on their right played their guy in. Maynard-Brewer was alert to the danger but decided to speed out of his goal for a ball he was never going to make. Their guy clipped it over his outstretched arms and gleefully accepted getting clattered by MB’s follow-through. Hard to argue that one. And it was duly converted.
For a while it was hard to see us coming back again. Signs of fatigue across the pitch and Portsmouth threatening a third. Only a desperate block from a low cross by Watson(T) prevented that. Inside the final 10 minutes Atkinson did bring on fresh legs, with Asiimwe and McGrandles replacing both Watsons. But as we entered seven minutes of stoppage time – the first couple of which were spent with a farcical display of timewasting by their keeper – it did seem the game was up for us. It wasn’t. Fraser played a square ball to Edun, who sent a lofted ball in to the far post. It cleared the defenders and McGrandles got his head to it well, doing all he could. That the ball went into the net, beating their keeper again at the near post, was an error for sure, but who cared?
In the final few minutes both sides came close yet again. Hector had to take a yellow for the team to stop one dangerous move, Blackett-Taylor – who had had a strangely quiet game – had a shot saved, as did Edun. Then right at the death their keeper conspired to hand us another opportunity, playing a ball out to a defender under pressure. He was robbed and Dobson was able to advance unchallenged into the box. It seemed either a May-style drive for the near post or a pull-back for any one of a few of ours and a tap-in would send us into ecstasy. Instead Dobson took a heavy touch and lost control, allowing their defender to slide in and put the ball behind. That was, finally, it.
So plenty of good stuff for Appleton to take on board. Maynard-Brewer would have been by a distance MotM but for his rash moment, Edun lasted the full game, Hector and Jones both put in a shift despite knocks and by the end very tired legs, and May was irrepressible and scored again. On the downside, the front three if you like of CBT, Leaburn and Campbell were generally kept out of the picture. Finally, there’s McGrandles. Fair to say his time with us has been difficult, we’ve seen so little of him on the pitch that it’s been impossible to draw any conclusions. But Appleton has and if his appearance and goal can be a springboard for McGrandles to start afresh with us, it would be like a new signing. Let’s hope that proves the case, for us as well as him.