A game of nerves, tension, and a scoreline that wasn’t exactly comprehensive, but as the final whistle blew on the latest instalment of our artificially-created rivalry with Portsmouth, a priceless three points was banked - and at this stage, that really is all that matters.
Whether it was 1-0 or 5-0, who cared, as long as we were on the winning side of the scoreboard?
After a first-half performance that often resembled an end-of-season kickabout on a Majorcan beach, the second half was a case study in concentration, resilience, and ensuring that the three points were not going to slip through our fingers.
This was a crucial victory, both in terms of confidence, and our position in the league.
Yes, games in hand currently favour others, but if we can eke out victories whilst not at our best, we ought to be able to keep up the pressure on Wigan, as well as keeping Rotherham at bay as well.
After a week that has seen the additions of Patrick Roberts & Danny Batth, we are certainly enhancing the squad to a level that is promotion-capable, but after a run of iffy recent results, Lee Johnson needed his players to deliver in a game that was always likely to be fraught & far from straightforward.
In many ways, this was as strong a test of our credentials as the two recent away trips had been, not least because there was an air of anxiety in the stadium on Saturday, which wasn’t totally unexpected. Could our players show that the previous home performance was simply a bad day at the office?
The early signs weren’t encouraging as Portsmouth made their intentions clear with plenty of hustling and aggression, and we looked timid in possession and ragged out of it. Nobody in red and white seemed to be able to control matters (the absence of Alex Pritchard certainly didn’t help in that regard) and it felt sloppy and sluggish.
Our home form this season has really been one of our ace cards, and in the early stages, it was far too passive & disjointed. Nerves? Possibly, but that was always going to be the case, and in the early stages, the players seemed to be unsure of the best way to handle Portsmouth.
It wasn’t until we finally seemed to realise that pressure on the ball can lead to mistakes from the opponent, which in turn can lead to goals, and that was exactly what happened.
Our harrying resulted in us gaining possession deep inside Portsmouth’s half, and the brilliant Ross Stewart turned provider for Elliot Embleton, who slotted home for a much-needed, if barely-deserved opening goal. At that moment, it was as though the tension has been relieved & we could finally loosen up and start playing with freedom.
The second half was a curious watch, as we sought to press home the advantage but in a style that was much more composed and measured. Corry Evans, a marginal influence in the first half, raised his game superbly, and we slowly started to dominate proceedings, keeping Pompey at arm’s length and rarely looking flustered while doing so.
We did have chances to give ourselves more breathing space, as efforts from Dan Neil and Embleton came to nothing, and glaringly when Dajaku could’ve squared the ball but opted to go for glory himself, but the most impressive aspect was how we controlled the game without losing our discipline and our shape.
Towards the end, there was one extremely nervy moment, as George Hirst headed over from a corner after being left unmarked. It was just a little reminder that the slightest slip in concentration could’ve been massively damaging, but on this occasion, it wasn’t a repeat of the frustrations we’ve endured this season when closing out games has been a bridge too far.
Individually, there were many performances to admire on Saturday.
Batth looks every inch the commanding, no-nonsense central defender we’ve needed for years, Dennis Cirkin upped his game impressively as the match unfolded, and Leon Dajaku showed that he is far more than a dynamic attacking force with the ball at his feet, with a relentless performance of workrate & pressure.
On the downside, Tom Flanagan’s confidence is clearly fragile, and a fully-fit Bailey Wright surely takes his place when he returns, and the alarmingly rutted state of the SOL pitch is an issue that is too glaring to overlook, albeit probably with little scope for improvement at this stage of the season.
This gutsy victory probably won’t end the childish & frankly boring ‘Streaky Lee’ angle, but the fact is that we’ve lost once in 13 league matches under Johnson. For any other manager, this kind of form would be considered normal & probably impressive, but Johnson isn’t being judged by normal criteria, as we know.
Next, it’s a trip to Bolton, where we have a chance to make amends for our last visit to Lancashire and pick up another victory, backed by what will certainly be a raucous travelling support!