Having suffered two successive defeats it was important City got back to winning ways soon, although surely only the most optimistic of City supporters will have seen the visit to table-topping Portsmouth, rather than the weekend’s trip to bottom club Newport, as the place where the losing run would end. Football, however, is a strange and wonderful game that can throw up surprise results at any point, and so it was that a heroic defensive display and cutting edge up front saw City emerge unlikely winners.
Paul Tisdale made three changes to the line-up, with Craig Woodman and Matt Oakley left out of the 18 with Jordan Tillson and Manny Oyeleke coming in, while Arron Davies came in for Will Hoskins who dropped to the bench – the team was therefore: Olejnik in goal, Moore-Taylor and Ribeiro full-backs, Brown and Tillson in the centre; Davies, Oyeleke and Noble in the middle with Holmes, Wheeler and Grant up front. The bench comprised Pym, Butterfield, Morrison, Hoskins, McCready, Nicholls and Nichols.
Right from the off it was apparent why Portsmouth sat atop the table, as their movement was effervescent, and they should have been ahead in the first couple of minutes – the ball was pulled back from the left flank to Gareth Evans on the edge of the box. His initial effort was superbly saved by Olejnik but broke back to him, again he struck well but for the first, and certainly not the last, time in the match a City player flung himself across to block. The behemoth striker Jayden Stockley should have done better seconds later in the same move with a far post header but it went wide. City were under the cosh as Portsmouth utilised their flanks to launch wave after wave of attacks, surely a goal would come soon.
And it did. But not to the home side. The classy Danny Hollands for once dawdled with the ball around half way. David Wheeler spotted this and robbed him of possession then turned and headed towards goal. The defender looked to force him wide and seemed to have succeeded, but Wheeler got his angles spot on to finish expertly in the far corner past the helpless McCarey. Portsmouth resumed their attacking play and again should have done better with a couple of efforts from range, while City showed a little more attacking adventure and, from a corner, Wheeler’s header had to be dealt with by McCarey. City had started to contain the wide play and packed the middle, leaving Pompey looking slightly short of ideas as the half wore on. Just as the clock ticked over into added time, a foul on David Noble appeared innocuous enough, but clearly it had an effect as Noble failed to appear for the second half, replaced by the veteran Danny Butterfield.
City came out in the second period attempting to keep hold of the ball in order to take the sting out of Portsmouth, and it seemed to work as the opening exchanges of the half were fairly nip and tuck. The first booking of the match came as Lee Holmes made a burst down the middle only to be upended by Christian Burgess. Ribeiro might have done better with a shot that was well saved by McCarey, but less than a minute later all was forgotten as City went 2-0 up. As Portsmouth looked to break down their right Jordan Moore-Taylor put in a crunching tackle that had the home fans up in arms but the referee correctly saw nothing wrong. The ball was chipped forward to Holmes galloping down the left behind the defence. Holmes put in a cross that McCarey could only palm away, the ball bounced up into the path of Davies to head home.
What then followed was essentially 35 minutes of attack vs defence, as Portsmouth laid siege on the City goal, pumping cross after cross into the box that City’s defence, midfield, attack, the cleaning lady all defended heroically. A second Portsmouth booking followed when Kyle Bennett clattered into Joel Grant as he tried to break away from the edge of his box – one of those that could easily have seen the ref head for his other pocket but he showed leniency. City thought they might have had a penalty shout when Holmes was sent tumbling, although in truth he was looking for it somewhat. City made a couple of substitutions, with McCready and Hoskins replacing Grant and Oyeleke respectively as Portsmouth became ever more desperate, the fans behind the goal yelling for a penalty or two while displaying incredulity at a couple of free kick awards for City that in fairness looked quite soft. Chances came and went, most notably when Butterfield cleared off the line and Matt Tubbs, usually so deadly in front of the goal, could only head a fraction over from close range.
Into the final minute of stoppage time and City’s hopes of a clean sheet were dashed in ridiculous circumstances. Gary Roberts thought he had been fouled 30 yards out, and gathered the ball in his arms as he fell. Realising there had been no whistle, he got up and carried on, hitting a shot that deflected wickedly past Olejnik. The players all saw what had happened, the fans all saw it, how did the officials miss it? A real blot on the copybook of Mr Kinseley, who up to then had been enjoying a fine game (although the home fans seemed to disagree!). City players are not normally given to histrionics, so when they are in the face of the referee pleading, it’s pretty apparent a mistake might have been made…! In any case, as Portsmouth launched a high ball towards the box from deep, Mr Kinseley blew his whistle to end a pulsating game.
This was a crazy result in the circumstances. Portsmouth must have put in around 50-60 crosses during the match, all dealt with by City with varying degrees of comfort – your reporter made comparisons with a Manchester United match under David Moyes (West Ham?). City’s defence, which started off as a back four and ended it about a back nine, threw themselves at everything to keep the ball out of their net until the unfortunate ending. Portsmouth on this evidence will be dishing out a number of hammerings to teams, their movement was fantastic and they just needed a bit more luck (or skill) in front of goal, and will surely be heading back up the leagues soon. City, meanwhile, needed a morale booster after confidence-sapping defeats to Accrington and the anti-Football mob just off the M40, and they got it in real scrapping style. There would have been a number of candidates for City’s MOM, your reporter lumped for Jordan Moore-Taylor, in a slightly unfamiliar left back role he excelled throughout, and his tackle which led to the second goal was a defining moment in the game.
Onwards and upwards, hopefully the visit to crisis club Newport on Saturday won’t be an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” event!