Our rivalry of recent seasons – basically, since both sides found themselves in the third division at the same time – against Pompey continued as Sunderland went as far due south as you can get without wetting your feet and produced a display of consummate professionalism. Yet another textbook header from Wyke in the first half, and what they call an opportunist strike from the impressive Jones in the second gave us a well-deserved win.
While our star has been very much in the ascendency of late – new mega-rich owner whose letter I received this morning, forward-thinking head coach, sensible Sporting Director, reinvigorated academy, Si Senor, give the ball to Wyke and he will score, Wembley on the virtual horizon – Pompey’s is pretty much being losing its lustre. Poor results, magpie-like calls for the manager’s head, general misery, you get the picture. I suppose that could have manifested itself in one of two ways – either the players have a point to prove, or, without the fans to cheer them on, let the malaise continue. Whichever it was to be, we’d need to maintain the simple efficiency we’ve shown of late, and perhaps even up our game and show a bit more of the flair that saw off Lincoln and Donny –other of the division’s “big” teams. There are only fine lines between winning and really clicking, and they become harder to cross when you have to cope with the loss of the club’s main central defenders – but cope we must, and the league debut of Ollie Younger on Saturday showed that we have capable and confident cover.
The day should have been spent either mostly on a coach (a bloody long way, punctuated by a couple of service station stops and a desperate dash to a desperate hostelry near Fratton only to find they’d run out of brews) or (preferred option) a few hours on the train, with an hour or so in the King’s Cross area, and a leisurely jaunt around Old Portsmouth, then the match, and a stopover. Last time I did that, Rob, Nr Winks and I had ended our evening with a mad hour in a nightclub that specialised in cheap vodka, and a ratty taxi driver who wouldn’t let me tell him which hotel I was using. Aren’t awaydays brilliant? One of the few benefits of there being no fans is that, apart from there being no bloody bell, O’9 won’t have to put up his dukes to Terry Troglodyte of Southsea, so he can concentrate his efforts on playing football. Mind, I’ve seen Luke in the gym at Birtley Boxing Club, and he’d probably win on points anyway – especially against such a paunchy and sluggish opponent.
Power © Sanderson O’Nien McFadzean
Jones Scowen Winchester McGeady
I assumed that we’d be setting out with a flat back four, but Lee Johnson’s sides at Sunderland have been nothing if not adaptable – and with the pace of Diamond and Gooch and the guile of Maguire on the bench, there was something to batter Pompey with when the inevitable changes would be made. Also in back-up were Matthews, Vokins, Neil, and a welcome return for Flanagan. Pompey featured their star man Marquis, so I anticipated a fair amount of work for Sanderson and O’9 in keeping him at bay. Him and the rest of his impressively large team-mates – who lost 4-1 at the weekend – who also have a Wembley final at the weekend. Has there ever been a game on which both teams were next playing in the final of the same competition, and both could win? One for the pub quizzers, when pub quizzes are a thing again.
With expert comments from SKP in the studio and not-so-expert from Lee Hendrie in the commentary box, we set up defending the goal to the right of the camera for a change. After a brief foray up the field, Power took a late one as he went into a tackle, and we had the first free. Pompey has the second immediately afterwards when McFadz splattered Marquis on halfway – which was nice: let him know you’re there. We built an attack down the left and switched it to the right, from where Jones aimed one at Wyke, but big Chas was under pressure and his header deflected for a corner. This came in from the right and was needed back in, but the whistle went for a push as the ref was kept busy.
The pitch was looking in good nick, and we used it to knock the ball about and tried to build from the back, at the same time forcing Pompey to chase for possession. We had to be alert as a couple of crosses, one low, one high, came in and had to be dealt with. Once we’d done that, we tried a few long punts to the wings which won us a couple of throws, while Pompey tried a couple of long punts down the middle which we had to mop up. With twelve gone, Geads cut in from the left and sent in a swerving shot that the keeper did really well to tip away for a corner. Charlie was there again, finding the space to get on the end of an outswinger from the right to leap like a young salmon and thump home a textbook header inside the near post. Get in – the sort of header that Roy of the Rovers was always depicted as scoring, but it has to be said that Chas took advantage of some abysmally half-hearted marking. SKP must be wondering if his scoring record is in danger.
Winchester’s tackle looked robust but fair straight afterwards, but the ref thought it was a bit on the wild side and gave a free, which was followed by another as the ref’s whistle was in danger of wearing out – but O’Brien was there to win the defensive header under no pressure at all. Their next attack saw Harrison win the header, but he was right underneath the cross and put his header way off target.
A very deep cross saw Pompey manage to head clear, but Geads was there at the back of the box to cross it back and the defender got there on the line just ahead of Wyke to allow the keeper to mop up – very nearly the second goal there, on twenty minutes. The clearance saw their Williams get near the edge of the box, but Sanderson’s challenge forced their man to foul Power, who’d come right across to cover. Nice defending, Lads. More good play right out on the right saw another deep Power cross win us a throw on the left as we kept the home side on the back foot. A complete mis-kick by a defender almost sliced the ball past his own keeper, but he readjusted and gathered comfortably and set up a home break – which O’9 ended with a foul on Harrison thirty yards out. White took a shot, which hit the wall and Power took McGeady’s pass to try another hoof forward, but it was nowhere near either of our front two.
Another foul, this time on Sanderson, gave us the chance to set up something from just in the opposition’s half, and Jones’s effort dropped on the edge of the box but was cleared. Around the half hour, Pompey put is under a spot of pressure and when Williams reverse passed to Marquis, their striker fell over when slicing his shot wide and screamed for a penalty that was never on.
Some great positional defending by O’9 helped us settle and attack down the right, with Jones dropping another cross into the box that needed some desperate defending to get it away as we shaped to shoot. Jones looked to be caught when he knocked it past his man to sprint away again, but the ref was obviously giving his whistle a rest. Our defensive record, as the commentary team kept reminding me, is the best in the division, and the organisation and partnership playing back there showed why as Sanderson and O’9 moved about effectively to frustrate Marquis and Harrison. We were picking up the loose ball with increasing regularity in the centre of the field, and using that possession to feed Jones who was giving their full-back Daniels a torrid time. Basically, the only time he slowed down was when the feed buffered. We piled into them, with good work from O’Brien keeping the move going and Jones’s low shot not really a problem for the keeper. The home side were looking increasingly desperate as they tried the spectacular 50-yard pass because the shorter option was denied them by our shape at the back. Another free to Pompey out on our left was played over to the other side, from where Daniels tried a cross that soared out for a throw near the flag. McFadz took it long, and we switched it to Jones via Power, and the Rangers loanee twisted into the box only to be dispossessed as he turned to shoot in the final minute of the half. Wyle held it up well in the box, but we couldn’t turn his possession into a shooting chance as a single added minute was announced. The last Sunderland action of the half was Johnson nearly blowing a fuse when an obvious foul on our man was given the other way. Thankfully, we defended the free and the subsequent cross, otherwise he’d probably have been on the pitch in the ref’s face. Had there been fans in the ground, I’d probably have been alongside him.
A goal up at the break, and with five shots, three on target to Pompey’s three and none on target, meant that we were the better team. With us playing to the full width of the field and Pompey being on the narrow wide of narrow, Jones had the space to build up a head of steam to run at Daniels, who looked ten years older at half eight than he did at quarter to, and their defenders, while being decidedly on the large side, seemed scared to get close to Wyke. With Geads jinking about on the left to balance Jones’s pace on the right, I expect that Jackett’s half-time chat will have been more of the Reidy and Sacko show, while Johnson’s will have been “more of the same for fifteen” – which is when he could unleash Maguire for his now customary half-hour cameo – he’d have a field day against this lot -…. and a pat on the back for our defending so far. Makeshift maybe, make do certainly. From a fans’ point of view, more of the same, please, and hey ref – if they kick us up the backside, please give us a free kick, and if we lean towards a Pompey player, don’t give them one.
No changes for the second half, and we got the game underway, attacking the end we would have occupied. O’9 carried on his impressive form when wining a header against the larger Harrison, clattering his opponent for good measure. Scowen did well to win it back after losing control in the middle, and set Geads away down the left, but the cross evaded our forwards and Pompey broke out of defence to win a free on halfway. There was no way past our back line, though, and we forced them back towards their own goal – all the way to the keeper, in fact. Geads chased back to nick the ball off their man’s toes, and we watched the throw wend its way to Burge, who punted it up towards O’Brien, who had his legs taken away for a free forty-odd yards out. Power took the pass from Sanderson to sling in a deep cross which was headed away, but we kept the pressure on with Geads and McFadz keeping the ball on the left and Wyke getting it back from the line to allow it to go across the field to Jones. His cross was a killer, bit all we got was a corner and we could only get a throw from that. Still, a magnificent bit of possession that had included about twenty passes, and that was enough to provoke Pompey to warm up a sub. While he was taking instructions, Geads chased back again, was grateful that his challenge was deemed legal, and we won the ball when Pompey played a sloppy pass across the field and Jones sped in to get in a challenge that he won just outside the box. He sprinted just wide of the goal to the right and did really well to clip it back across from a narrow angle for 2-0 just before the hour. Smashing finish, Lad.
On came Flanagan for O’Brien, who looked to have twanged something, so there would have to be some reorganisation – and it initially, at least, looked like O’9 at right-back and Power into midfield. There was a surprise corner for the home side when McFadz was shepherding it out for a goal kick and the Pompey man clearly got the last touch. Not to worry, we defended that, then Sanderson upset his opponent after another vain penalty shout. Initial view of the replays sort of justified the claims, but subsequent viewings show that Flan definitely got the ball away before contact with their player and the ref was right on top of it. It would undoubtedly have been a penalty had VAR been in operation, but had it been a Sunday morning, you’d have been laughed off the field for claiming it. Anyway, out on the touchline, Dion clattered his opponent, with the Pompey clearly slapping him but for some reason only our man was booked. Strange, but the outcome was a free to Pompey. That sparked a little bit of life into the home side, but their subsequent attack petered out as Flan shielded it out for a goal kick.
Jones was now spending time out on the left, presumably out of pity for Daniels, then went back to the right to fire in a deep cross that was headed behind for a corner on our left with 20 to go. Pompey cleared that, then, after we’d passed it about a bit, they contrived to attack down our left and win a corner. We got that away, and it was a comfortable take for Burge when it was floated back in - hopefully rather than purposefully. Jones too the pass through the middle, and with Wyke’s run dragging the defence out of his way, hit a rising drive from the edge that the keeper took above his head. Another telling pass by Geads won us a corner when Jones got onto it, and that was repeated when Wyke took it at the near post. It was increasingly a very Sunderland game, with possession very miuch in our favour, and it was so close to three when McFadz took a perfect pass from Geads to fire it low to the near post and somehow Charlie couldn’t get his foot behind the ball from a foot away from the near post with the keeper and a defender on him. It would be impossible to get any closer without actually scoring.
That was a signal for another home change as Harness came on, so we brought on Maguire for Jones – who’d done his job in smashing style – and with just over ten minutes in which to take the mickey out of a flagging set of opponents. Somehow the ref thought that Charlie standing still while his marker climbed up his back was an offence, but we defended that free, from halfway, with ease and won a throw on the right near halfway - then another further up the pitch. Maguire and Power swapped some lovely passes, but the low cross was hacked away from the front post. A Pompey break down their right saw Burge take the cross under no pressure whatsoever as the home side didn’t seem to have the heart to compete where it mattered. Maguire took a pass from Power and was fouled, with the free being in the perfect place for a penk – 25 yards out, inside right spot – but it hit the wall and went for a corner on our left. As we were lining it up, Geads made way for Gooch for a five minute spot, and we kept the pressure on, and five added minutes were announced. We were still dashing about as if the game had just begun, while Pompey laboured as if in the second half of extra time on a muddy pitch. Possession might have evened out at about 50/50, but the home side had created precious little where it mattered, although they did win a corner deep into injury time which Burge punched away then watched as the shot sailed way over - but the whistle had gone in our favour anyway.
The whistle went as we were attacking down the right, and we were deserved winners after another thoroughly professional performance in which we’d been sharper all over the field and a game that we’d controlled absolutely.
Man of the Match? When you win comfortably, and your main man gets his 26th of the season (are you watching, SKP? Of course you were!), with your most creative player dancing rings around one full-back while your other wide man zips around like a man possessed, it’s difficult not to give it to one of those. However, that victory was based on the defence blunting the opposition strike force, and when you consider we have an inexperienced loanee and a utility man at the heart of that defence, and that they were up against one of the division’s allegedly hottest properties - who is a big bugger – you have to recognise the contributions of Lucky Luke and Deadly Dion. No shot for Burge to save is a great statistic for any defence, and one which will make your keeper very happy indeed. Given his height disadvantage, I’ll give it to O’9, as he made his personal duel with Marquis look like Colin Todd against Joelinton. Ask yer granddad.
Nice one, Luke. Onwards and upwards, me bonny Lads!