Whoever said a week is a long time in football isn’t joking. Few of us had a spring in our step seven days ago. Fast forward and here we are, toasting back-to-back clean sheets and looking forward to another trip to Wembley, with momentum suddenly and unexpectedly in our favour.
The Fleetwood and Southend games had plenty looking at Jack Ross for some answers. He delivered in the 180 minutes against Pompey, despite us being without our most talented individual. Although there’s plenty of work to do before we get the ending we’ve all been wanting, we’d have bitten hands off a couple of weeks ago to be where were are now.
So often it’s fine margins that separate winners from losers, and although there wasn’t much to separate us from a team who had the upper hand on us for much of the season, few could argue we didn’t deserve to win the play-off against them.
Being the away side in such a pressure match can be a big advantage. Ross put us on the front foot with his team selection, which was packed with leaders and experience – a contrast to the occasions this season when we’ve been short. Whether it was their presence, or how things were done in the build-up to the match I’m not sure, but our temperament and composure were spot-on. The game may have been a draw, but we won the battle comfortably. The writing was on the wall when Pompey picked up a couple of daft early yellows and they could have had a red before half-time. As time run out, seeing ‘star’ striker Brett Pitman yelling abuse at a ball boy suggested their goose was cooked, as did the introduction of James Vaughan. They toiled on the pitch and unravelled off it, while we kept our focus and looked like a team, winning through with organisation. When six minutes were added at the end of the 90 few of us would have predicted how event-free they’d be. Our game management in the closing stages was exceptional, with the ball spending a wonderful amount of time deep in Pompey’s half, seemingly glued to a recently introduced Gooch for much of it. Brilliant.
Jon McLaughlin had a few tests and passed them impressively, as he has for much of the season. But the nervy moments were few and far between thanks to a second successive decent defensive display. I liked the signing of Ozturk and, although his ‘grabbyness’ worries me, we saw the best of him at Fratton. He’s bringing the best out of Flanagan too, who looks twice the player alongside the Turk. Whether it’s a bit of big game experience, the extra jabber or the funny looks from time to time, it’s working.
O’Nien also showed exceptional maturity. Plenty would have got the huff as the inbreds, pondlife and Jeremy Kyle rejects got in a lather when he accidentally appeared in their section, briefly, yet 09 was all smiles and satisfaction when he discussed the incident. And then there's Catts, someone who’s had his fair share of critics over the last couple of years but eased through the 90 minutes at Fratton Park as if it was a pre-season warm-up, following up with a cool on-pitch interview which showed he’d hardly broken sweat.
Grant Leadbitter wasn’t the obvious star of the show, until we discovered afterwards about what he’d gone through before the game. Short of saying I’m full of admiration that one of our own did what he felt he had to so well after such a devastating blow, I’ve nothing else to add. Brings a tear to the eye – his mam would be so proud of him.
Pompey took advantage of the extra man when we played them at the end of December and it was the same story seven weeks ago at a neutral ground with even numbers. Since then we’ve had the upper hand and it was good to see us get our reward, as they were shattered on their own turf. I’ve nothing against them, having lived there for the best part of a year back in the day of Alan Ball and his team of shithouses (namesake Kevin, who was there then, not included). A proper club in a tough old city that’s been through plenty in recent years, they’ve got more in common with us than some would see. That said, hopefully we won’t be hearing that chuffing bell for a while.
And so to another old foe, Charlton, who took a leaf out of the Liverpool book of premature celebrations after the shoot-out win over unlucky Doncaster. Plenty took to Twitter to ask if cavorting around on the pitch and mounting goalposts might be a bit OTT bearing in mind the bigger prize has still to be won. Put it this way, I'm glad we didn't do it...