If you read my preview, you’d know that my expectations from the match yesterday at the Memorial Stadium had significantly diminished in the absence of Bristol Rovers’ star striker Jonson Clarke-Harris. Portsmouth also came into the encounter severely under-performing in League One this season, with manager Kenny Jackett the subject of plenty of vitriol from supporters.
I took my seat high up in the Poplar Insulation Stand, which gave me a perfect vantage point to see the tactical battle play out in a ground full of character.
There was one change apiece from my predicted lineups for the two sides; the much-maligned Tom Nichols was relegated to the bench in favour of Tyler Smith. For Pompey, Ronan Curtis was drafted in on the left of the attacking midfield trio.
An early thrust down the right was a false dawn for The Gas, who looked utterly toothless up top after that fleeting moment, and the visitors were more than content to have their double pivot in midfield sit quite close to the back four, lapping up the powder-puff ambles into their territory, then quickly turning them into a counter. Oddly, despite Rovers’ conservatism, they’d often find themselves outnumbered in these situations.
As it was, the opening goal came from a contentious penalty decision. A move that began with a short free-kick was eventually directed into the home area and helped on by Ronan Curtis into the path of John Marquis ended with the latter seeming to go down from a push. I didn’t believe in real time that it was so clear-cut, and even slowing things down on the highlights makes it seem as though he made the most of things. Nevertheless, Gareth Evans stepped up to convert, giving Pirates chief Graham Coughlan a tactical quandary with 81 minutes still on the clock.
The problems were plain for all to see. With no focal point in the forward positions, the long balls to the front line were swallowed up. A lack of movement and positive intent in midfield magnified this, and in turn made the back three pass it across in the desperate hope that someone in advance of them would actively seek out possession.
The pattern kept repeating itself. Abu Ogogo, eventual recipient of the man of the match award, thwarted several breaks by his opponents, but couldn’t prevent further presentable chances from being created. Anssi Jaakkola kept the disparity to just a single goal almost single-handedly in the first period. Portsmouth’s height advantage was very telling in both open and dead ball situations, and every opportunity possible was sought from which to cross to the far post from both flanks.
The half-time whistle sounded, and at that juncture, I was sure Coughlan would have to do something drastic to shake off the malaise that was swirling around the ground along with the inclement weather, but there was no evidence of any changes as play resumed. Pompey hadn’t got out of second gear, but neither had they seemed capable of it on the evidence thus far.
Again, the diminutive statures of the hosts were costing them dear. The ball kept bouncing over captain Ollie Clarke and Ogogo’s heads, putting pressure on their teammates to step out of their low line to cut out the understated threats in grey. On the occasions they would stem the tide and attempt to take the game to the Hampshire outfit, they simply wouldn’t get close enough to their strikers, whose body language was getting visibly worse as time wore on, reflecting the frustrations felt in the crowd around me.
There seemed to be no way back to parity when on the 70th minute mark, Portsmouth got their second. A woeful clearance on Rovers’ left flank meekly surrendered possession in a dangerous area. Marquis turned creator, putting in a cross for Curtis to head in unmarked. They hadn’t to work too diligently for their two-goal lead, and a repeat of the scoreline suffered on Tuesday at the hands of Bolton Wanderers looked on the cards.
To Coughlan’s belated credit, the switches he made from that moment on had the desired effect. Liam Sercombe’s return to at least partial match fitness was timely. A free kick minutes later resulted in some pinball in Pompey’s area. Right wing-back Alex Rodman made the very most of the loose ball to lash it into the unguarded net. Subsequently, Tony Craig was withdrawn for Mark Little, allowing Rodman to push up into a midfield four. Kyle Bennett was also introduced, providing a brief but important link between the lines.
Jackett, whether he hadn’t anticipated the onslaught or felt powerless to react to it, paid the price with that reluctance in the dying embers. Despite the aforementioned physical disadvantage in set plays, the Gas profited once more from them, and the ball was forced over the line by a combination of Ross McCrorie and goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray to send the hapless duo to the floor almost immediately after the final whistle along with the rest of the XI.
The majority of the 8.648 in attendance left relatively happy whilst full in the knowledge that their side cannot always rely on either a big mistake or a lucky happenstance from a set piece. The onus needs to be on Coughlan to be more positive in home matches from the outset. As for Portsmouth, this was another two points dropped in a soporific season to date – on paper and in person, they should be doing far better even whilst a nagging feeling persists that they’re playing within themselves. They were the better team but did not ‘batter’ Bristol Rovers by any means.