Date: 18 August 2012
To coin a phrase, we must “take the positives” out of this game. Well the greatest positive is that we played better today than we did on Tuesday. And the huge turnout of fans from both clubs guaranteed an electric atmosphere once the two teams really started to play. Another positive is Lee Barnard, signed on loan from Southampton less than 24 hours ago but currently looking more likely to score than our existing strikers (the cynic would say we’ll soon alter that!). He was the perfect signing for the occasion because of the traditional Portsmouth vs. Southampton rivalry; and he became an instant hit with Bournemouth fans, who by the end of the game were singing “One decent Scummer, there’s only one decent Scummer...!”
First impressions of Fratton Park weren’t good (yes, I’d been before – but too long ago to remember!). Two of us turned up with tickets quoting different turnstiles – and were made to use the turnstiles quoted even though one of them was signed “Home Supporters”. Once inside some stewards were saying you can sit where you like – and indeed helping people find the number of seats together that they wanted – while others were absolutely insisting you sit where your ticket says. The inevitable result was that four of us who initially found seats together were forced to separate – and I ended up standing (and I mean standing, because I was in a section where no-one sat for the entire ninety minutes) amongst total strangers – some of them quite foul-mouthed. Memories of City Ground, Nottingham and (longer ago) Boleyn Ground, West Ham, where I’d similarly bought a ticket with the other Exiles and ended up on my tod. Today my feet were aching by the end, not being used to standing on terraces these days. The one good thing was that on a baking hot day (though not as hot in Portsmouth as in London) it was relatively cool and even slightly breezy in the away stand.
We kicked off with four changes from Tuesday. The displaced players – Zubar, Arter, Grabban and Tubbs – weren’t necessarily the worst at Oxford, so this was either squad rotation or more likely just the fact that a player who not been available then was available now (Elphick, MacDonald, O’Kane and Barnard respectively). MacDonald still doesn’t look fully fit, but the other three making their season’s debuts would prove to be amongst the best players on the day. This also may go some way to explaining why today’s was an all-round better performance, though still with some room for improvement. Meanwhile, the four displaced players all went onto the bench; along with Cooke, Wakefield and the youth keeper in the absence of Flahavan.
I guess the greatest disappointment was that we didn’t look better than Portsmouth – despite the fact that the latter squad had been hastily assembled, all on short term contracts, just 48 hours earlier, whereas our squad had had the entire pre-season (including a team trip to Spain) in which to prepare.
But we had an excellent chance of an early goal. Pugh passed to Thomas in the seventh minute and Thomas’ shot hit the post – right in front of the away fans. We really wanted to score in this half because this was where we’d get the best view. (Fratton Park is one of those old-fashioned stadia where you can literally have a pillar blocking your view.) But in fact the only goal of the half was at the other end – and was almost comical if you weren’t a Boscombe supporter. 18 minutes in, McLeod made a speculative long-range shot at goal, and Jalal seemed to have it covered. Indeed he appeared to grab the ball, but then fumbled it and it somehow slipped through his legs into the goalmouth. Three quarters of the stadium erupted into laughter and began to taunt him. Jalal was resultantly nervy for a while, but recovered and in fact in the second half made some impressive saves, including one early on when he was one-on-one with a Portsmouth striker. But thanks to this incident the half-time score was 1-0 to Pompey.
As so often happens, the other team seemed to ‘learn’ more during the break than we did. So they came on determined to exploit our lack of width, while we went on playing exactly as we had in the first half. Now that we supporters were behind our own goal, we could see that Elphick and Francis were having good games. But Daniels was again staying deep and not getting forward; while Addison – named as captain for the second match in a row but not yet officially announced as captain for the season – was making a number of errors. Two particularly bad passes gave the ball away and one nearly resulted in a goal for the home team. Our system wasn’t working but on this occasion, even when we brought on substitutes, we didn’t change it. On Tuesday we’d switched to a 4-3-3 but today we stuck rigidly to 4-4-2, perhaps to help the strikers get used to each other – first Barnard and Thomas and then Barnard and Tubbs. (Thomas was much better than Tubbs on the day – getting a number of promising shots in, even though he evidently couldn’t score - so I’d suggest the former partnership should be retained for future matches). But we did move O’Kane into the centre when Grabban came on wide right for a tiring MacDonald; and this looked a lot better. And O’Kane showed his flexibility by moving again (from left midfield to right midfield) when Arter came on for the intelligent but physically weak Partington. Unfortunately with Grabban’s first touch of the ball – and chance to become an instant hero – he slammed it over the bar when, with the Pompey keeper out of position, it looked easier to score. A woman near me remarked, “He did that Tuesday too.” Someone else replied, “Yes – four times!”
It would have been very frustrating if the match had stayed at 1-0 but fortunately, twelve minutes from time, Francis crossed the ball and Barnard – already my choice for man of the match – met the cross and headed home. It was at the far end of the stadium (both goals were), but our stand came alive. The jubilation, to be honest, was as much relief as anything. The question now is, can we build on this for our first home match of the season on Tuesday?
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Francis (7), Elphick (7), Addison (6), Daniels (6);
O'Kane (7), Partington (6), MacDonald (6), Pugh (7);
Barnard (8), Thomas (7).