Pompey Three – this time it’s personal. Good old Sunderland took on Pompey for the third time this campaign, and once again came up short in a game that proved to be a microcosm of our season. We went deservedly ahead, then were pegged back against the run of play, came close to scoring – very close – on several occasions, came up against a keeper who pulled off three stunning saves… all under the auspices of a referee as weak as a kitten. Portsmouth continue their transition into the new Millwall, with their objectionable tactics and manager, and, unfortunately, some fans to match. A point isn’t really much use to either side, and with the woodwork taking a fair old battering behind the Pompey keeper, it could have been three for us – but for fine margins.
If I’m being perfectly honest, this week has been difficult. For all the positive, tub-thumping, rallying calls from all quarters, and the fact that automatic promotion wasn’t dead in the water, I’ve struggled to be really up for this one. Not that I wouldn’t give all I could at the match in terms of vocal support and encouragement, but it’s been a tough one. Poor old me, eh? First-world problems. Fourth in the league from being in imminent danger of disappearing altogether not that long ago. Still where there’s life there’s hope, so the mood leading up to the match was very much one of defiance. Same team as last week, or shake up the central defence again? O’Nien up instead of Honeyman and Matthews in at the back? Oviedo to make way for Hume or James? Maguire for McGeady? Grigg to start?
Not my call, fortunately. Bus commitments meant another early departure, giving even longer to mull over the aforementioned ideas. Which we did, and the number of folks in the town, including a fair few in blue who were decent craic, reflected the big crowd that turned up to see the pit banners and the band before the match… and the match itself.
Not quite the same team, with Flanagan in for Dunne.
O’Nien Ozturk Flanagan Oviedo
Morgan Honeyman McGeady
We kicked off North, which is still unusual in my eyes, despite the rebirth of the Roker End, where the flags were once again waving, towards the noisy Pompey contingent. More of them later…
Perhaps the news that McGeady has been carrying a foot injury should have been kept quiet, as Pompey obviously knew which foot it was and targeted him from the outset, with the first foul committed during our first attack. Others followed quickly, and he found himself in the book for reacting by extracting a bit of revenge, but almost turned provider with six minutes gone when he dinked in a lovely cross from the left. Morgan produced an overhead kick that smacked the bar and bounced to safety. Fine margins.
With us very much on the front foot and giving the crowd plenty to shout about, Pompey broke to win a corner, but it was us who went ahead. Big Jon caught it, and set us away down the right, with the move ended by another foul by the visitors. Power swung it in, and there was Flan to head it down and in. Magic, and no more than we deserved. Come on Lads, let’s put this to bed with a second – after all, they had James Vaughan, and former player syndrome is always dangerous. He was getting a fair bit of stick from the home fans, and deservedly so – he got nothing but support from us when he wore our colours, but chose to bad-mouth us after his departure, which I can’t understand. Anyway, back to the action – and Honeyman was booked for a silly tackle that was later than a number 6 bus, but Pompey pulled a card back with yet another foul on McGeady. Really, even with less than twenty minutes on the clock, the ref should have been at their captain with two messages – “stop kicking Aiden”, and “if your 20 and 10 dive again. I’ll send them off.” But he didn’t bother, choosing rather to watch as Wyke was battered from pillar to post and steadfastly wave play on. It’d have been comical if it wasn’t so important.
After McLaughlin took a cross then produced a decent save, it went all wrong after 25 minutes when the ball looked to have gone out of play, but (fine margins) it was knocked back in, McLaughlin made another save, then could do nothing as it was headed off the bar only to bounce down and be knocked in. Bugger. Here we go again. Celebrations in the away end turned nasty as a flare was lobbed down into our fans, the ref rightly held the game up until the offending incendiary was dealt with and visiting fans in the boxes took a bit of stick. Some decided to react and ended up being moved. It was well after the lengthy stoppage that the polis, who’d obviously been studying CCTV, waded in to the away end and extracted the tosser. The tosser of the flare, not just a random Pompey tosser, of which there were plenty, which is a shame for the decent ones.
Anyway, after four minutes or so we got back underway, but it was Pompey who had the first chance – or they would have done had Vaughan not fallen over rather than get his shot away. After getting a grip of things, with Power having a fine game, Catts found himself watching Honeyman’s cross from the left drop nicely towards him in the box but lashed his shot way over the top. After McGeady was crowded out in the box, another visitor went in to the book for fouling him – come one, ref, have a word with their captain, or even their manager. Another Power free-kick followed, but it was cleared, with Oviedo knocking it back in only for another clearance to deny us a chance. As the five added minutes were ticking away, a low cross from our right took out their defence, Wyke slid in at the back post under pressure, and the keeper’s outstretched foot deflected the ball onto the post. Narrow margins.
There was just time for a Pompey free-kick to cause a bit of panic in our box before the break, and we had fifteen minutes to discuss another first half in which we could, and perhaps should, have put a certain side to the sword. The elusive second goal - fine margins. We also considered having a sweep on how long it would take Craig Pawson to get back to refereeing the Premier League but decided that is never going to happen based on the 45 minutes we’d just witnessed. Conspiracy theorists reckoned that the ref must have been under EFL instructions to keep us in League One as we generate money.
No changes for the second half, and we were quickest out of the blocks, with Morgan forcing a good save then their Thompson, already booked for a foul, dived yet again. In the rules, that’s a yellow card, but not in Mr Pawson’s version of the world. A bit of good defending by Flanagan prevented a shot, then Vaughan was replaced - to resounding jeers – after ten minutes or so. Five minutes after that, Honeyman made way for Maguire, and the crowd lifted the noise a decibel or two as we sensed a winner from our sub. We should really have had the chance to get that soon after, when Wyke was brought down, but no penalty was given. Maguire then worked a bit of space for a shot, but it was a tame effort that didn’t trouble the keeper.
With McGeady trying his luck in the Honeyman Hole for a while, we had a fair amount of pressure but couldn’t quite create a clear-cut chance, so with twenty to go, Morgan was replaced by Grigg and we went two up top. It was Power, though, who got the next chance, firing in a shot that the keeper did really well to save. Maguire had a go at the corner, but it was cleared, and we went into the final ten desperate for that second goal. We really should have had it when Maguire was played in through the inside left channel, he laid it off and Wyke played it to McGeady, who was surrounded. Strangely, Pompey didn’t dare kick him in the penalty box, but there was son nearly a goal soon after, when O’Nien arrived after a flurry of shots to beat the keeper only to see his effort hit the post. Fine margins. Another attack ended with Power being booked when a goal-kick was given and he lost his rag that it wasn’t a corner. Three added minutes were announced, and we should have had another penalty soon after that when Wyke went down - we could see the defender’s arms round both side of him from the far end of the ground, so I’ve no idea what the ref thought was going on. Perhaps Charlie should have taken a leaf out of Frank Worthington’s book and removed their number six’s hairband. McGeady looked to have set up Grigg for that vital goal, and Will did beat the keeper – but his shot hit the post. Fine margins.
O’Nien, who’d taken a hefty whack, was replaced by Matthews, and we continued to go for goal. Power had a shot saved, then Maguire was played in down the middle but as it was on his left, he decided not to pull the trigger, causing frustration in the stands. He took the corner himself, but he’s no Leadbitter, and it was cleared.
And that was that. Well, not quite, as, during the hand-shaking business between the players, Kenny Jackett (you can take the boy out of Millwall) said something to Flanagan, and our Lad went for the Pompey manager. Pushing and shoving ensued, somebody ended up on the deck, and the bad feeling continued down the tunnel. Flan was going to be my Man of the Match anyway, ahead of Power who had a fine first half but faded a bit in the second. Solid at the back alongside no-nonsense Ozturk and having a go at Kenny Jackett sealed it.
Mathematics and desperation tell us that we can still win the league - honest, it is possible, but about as likely as me sending Joey Barton a Christmas card. What we’re now doing is entering all possible results into our spreadsheets to see who we play in the semis, and whether it’s home or away first, and which days the games are on. I hate the play-offs, I really do.