Momentum checked. Defensive deficiencies exposed, and our recent good form, in terms of results, if not necessarily performances, brought to a shuddering halt. Of all the things I’ll miss, if and when we do finally escape this league, the drone of ‘Play Up Pompey’ certainly won’t be one of them.
On Saturday, it made for a suitably grim soundtrack, as the showdown at Fratton Park, in a game against last season’s nearest and dearest, proved to be our undoing.
Simply put, you know exactly what is on the menu when you pitch up on the south coast. As we learned, often painfully, last season, Kenny Jackett’s team are direct, and have no qualms about roughhousing you off the pitch.
We needed to play smart, streetwise football, and we failed to do so. A lesson not learned.
There is no doubt that we paid the price for too many poor individual performances on Saturday. George Dobson, the subject of growing criticism in recent weeks, turned in another erratic performance, whilst in attack, we were alarmingly blunt.
With absolutely nothing coming off for Charlie Wyke, and Chris Maguire enduring an equally barren afternoon, it simply didn’t happen for us in front of goal, despite Luke O’Nien rattling the frame with what surely would’ve been Sunderland’s goal of the season had it gone in.
At the back, things were, frankly, dreadful. The direct approach of Portsmouth put our defence under immense pressure, and we quickly fell into a state of disorganisation, with Jon McLaughlin endured a testing and nervy afternoon.
We were caught completely cold for both of Portsmouth’s goals, as a total failure to clear the danger resulted in us paying a heavy price. After the improvements in our defensive performances in recent weeks, this was a bad day to turn in such a poor effort.
On Saturday night, as the inquest began, the narrative of ‘recent wins had papered over the cracks’ was rearing its head once again, in something of a throwback to the Jack Ross era.
Harsh or accurate? Surely, given our ambition of promotion, and at a time of the season where fixtures are coming thick and fast, wins are everything. Post-Tranmere, I argued that aesthetics and beautiful football mattered not one jot, because we’d pocketed the three points.
Had we done the same on Saturday, I suspect that complaints would’ve been few and far between, such is the fine line between panic and satisfaction that we are currently walking.
Taking a broader perspective, the burning question is: what kind of shape is our squad in, and is this a group of players capable of stitching together the kind of run which can provide a platform for promotion?
Sunderland’s transfer business this January was, for my money, just about on the right side of decent. We’ve added some depth in defence, and hopefully in Josh Scowen, some extra bite in midfield.
Yes, our lack of a deadly striker was not addressed, and Parkinson’s apparent strategy of sharing the goalscoring duties around is certainly a risky one, but given that no team is running away with the league, who’s to say it is doomed to fail?
As for Stewart Donald, he will doubtless be subject to continued criticism - not least if our missed target, Liam Boyce, finds some consistent form for Hearts, which will place extra emphasis on Parkinson and the players to deliver. Can they handle the pressure as the games tick by?
We now face two seismic and potentially season-defining matches against our fellow promotion-chasers Ipswich, followed swiftly by the visit of Rochdale to the SOL. Changes really ought to be rung.
Will Alim Ozturk return, to hopefully oversee a calmer defensive performance? Will Scowen finally get his chance to shine from the beginning of the game? At home, there’ll be no hiding place. Amends must be made and the mistakes of Saturday put right.
The next two games will be an acid test of our promotion credentials. Should we fail to take maximum points from them, the tension-wracked prospect of a playoff run will loom large, and after last season’s heartbreak, that is not a prospect that many of us will find particularly appealing.