Cod Almighty | Match Report
by Tony Butcher
8 January 2022
Weather forecast - frequent, heavy rainstorms in the South, with strong gusts of wind (the sort of rain where you'd be dryer having a bath). Portsmouth have an open terrace for away supporters. Town form - dreadful. The portents were ominous. Why go? It could be the turning point. It is, after all, a perverse sport, with Town the most perverse team.
The weather was clear, with an occasional breeze, but with grey clouds in the distance. Town warmed up in the old-fashioned way (no fancy team building nonsense this week). The build up to the game included taped interviews with players and Alan Ball piped over the tannoy. The Portsmouth player identified Town as "one of those teams that puts together five or six wins on the run and is up there" and that Town are the "dark force of the First Division" - or it might have been "dark horse", but I prefer the misheard version.
Town lined up as follows: Coyne, Butterfield, Gallimore, R Smith, Groves, Donovan, Burnett, Coldicott, D Smith, Lester and Ashcroft. The subs were Croudson, Black, Allen, Clare and Pouton. Usual 4-4-2 formation with Groves at centre-back and everyone else in their usual positions. Burnett was pronounced Burn-it by the burring announcer, with Butterrrrrrrrfield too. Around 150-170 Town supporters sat in little groups around the open seating.
Town kicked off away from their supporters, towards the left as seen on TV. Within 30 seconds Town should have been 1-0 up. A headed clearance bounced over a centre-back and Ashcroft was away, bearing down on the Portsmouth keeper (a Mr Andrew Pettersen). Pettersen spread himself low way too early and Ashcroft, centrally placed and from the edge of the area, sliced a toe poke six or seven yards wide.
Town started very brightly and looked to be professional. The defence was very well-organised and the attack looked dangerous. After 10 minutes Coldicott intercepted a loose pass on the right of midfield near the centre circle. He passed forward to Lester, who had drifted away from his marker. Lester turned and threaded a pass outside the retreating centre half to Ashcroft, who had run between the centre-backs. Ashcroft took the ball to the edge of the area, awaited Pettersen's challenge and drifted past him, to the keepers right. It seemed to take an eternity for Ashcroft to place the ball into the net, but he did so. A thoroughly deserved lead as Portsmouth, up to that point, had not had a shot - merely a couple of weak crosses which had gone out for goal kicks. Town on the other hand had looked dangerous on the counter attack, with a couple of moments of danger caused by Ashcroft and Lester linking well down the middle.
For the next 20 minutes Town continued to have the game under control, and were the only team threatening to score. During this period Town had the following chances:
a) Lester spun away from his marker, to the left of goal, and flashed a left-footed drive across the face of the goal;
b) A corner on the Town left was headed back across goal by Groves to Burnett who, with his back to goal, flicked it with the outside of his left boot about a foot over the angle of post and bar;
c) Lester and Ashcroft linked down the centre, with Ashcroft eventually chipping over the back of the defence to D Smith whose attempt to bundle the ball towards the goal was blocked; and
d) A penalty claim by Ashcroft after he fell under a double challenge. It was at the other end so I couldn't see clearly. So it was obviously a penalty. Obviously.
After 30 minutes Portsmouth broke down their right and crossed to the centre, about 12 yards out. The resulting header went three yards high over the bar. That was their first attempt on goal. Two minutes later Town easily broke up another flowing Pompey move and Groves rolled the ball back to Coyne. Coyne casually stroked a pass towards Gallimore, except he massively underhit it, and it went straight to the right-winger Panopoulos. He advanced towards Coyne, rolled it sideways past him, and fell over Coyne as he dived (this may read ambiguously and that's deliberate - there were two dives by two players). As Coyne had missed the ball it was a penalty, despite the obvious dive by the Pompey player, but Coyne shouldn't have been sent off. The ball had gone to Groves and R Smith anyway, and there was a Town player back on the line. The referee (Mr Olivier) did not have a clear view of the incident yet had no hesitation in sending Coyne off. With a name like that you'd have though he would have recognised theatrics when he saw it.
Croudson replaced D Smith (with Town eventually going to a 4-3-2 formation) and very nearly saved McLoughlin's penalty, which was hit at waist height to his right. Portsmouth visibly attempted to raise the tempo of the game, which resulted in some frantic play down the wings, with a couple of crosses flashing in, but only one attempt at goal. Some pressure down the Town left resulted in a cross to the centre right of the area, where a header was sent straight at Croudson - I think I'll put that down to great positioning by the Kitten. Town reached half time comfortably, despite the referee somehow finding five minutes of extras.
In all Portsmouth had created only two headers and a penalty in the first half. A pathetic number of efforts for a home team (even on the bad days Town produce more than this!). Portsmouth attempted to play football through midfield but went sideways all the time. When it was 11 against 11 they never got near the Town penalty area, and, frankly, never looked like scoring. Town, in contrast, had been superbly organised in defence (including the midfield) and looked dangerous on the break, even when they were down to 10 men. They were playing as a team, a whole unit, with team spirit. This was apparent before the sending off. It was heartening, but hugely frustrating as Town (or rather Coyne) had allowed an inferior team a chance to save a game they deserved nothing from. 1-1 was much more than Portsmouth deserved at half time and the (numerical) advantage lay with them.
One more word about the referee. Poor. He failed to book Burnett for elbowing and kicking in a flying challenge, nor did he spot two (accidental) handballs by Town defenders; similarly he was lenient on Portsmouth challenges and failed to play advantage when Town attacked.
The Town supporters were a little despondent at half time, thinking that Town had blown it. At least it hadn't rained by half time.
No changes were made by either side at half time. The expected Pompey charge never really materialised (until the last 10 minutes). Town filled in, blocked, harried, covered and tackled constantly, never allowing Portsmouth more than a glimpse at Croudson.
Pompey's chances in the second half were:
a) A cross from their left was back headed just over the angle of post and bar, from eight yards;
b) Croudson missed his punch at a corner from their right and a defender headed five yards over; and
c) several scuffed and mishit shots from outside the area, none of which were of any danger.
There was a lot of pressure, mainly in the last 10 minutes when the full-backs (principally their left-back) pushed forward to play as double wingers, resulting in a lot of crosses. However Town's back line just headed everything away, and Croudson came off his line to pick up any through balls and knock downs. Despite the natural pessimism of the travelling Mariner the feeling was that Portsmouth were never, ever going to score against this Town team.
Town continued to be dangerous on the break. The midfielders did a superb job in breaking up Portsmouth's attempts to play through the middle of the pitch by intercepting defenders' passes and dispossessing near the half way line. The counter attacks were always supported from midfield as well. Lester and Ashcroft were a constant irritation to Portsmouth defenders (rather than Town supporters), who failed to mark them tightly enough. They used the space they were given excellently and from one such break Town got the deserved second goal, after 20ish minutes of the half.
Coldicott dispossessed a Pompey player near the half way line. He passed forward to Lester, who had drifted into a space between the opposition defence and midfield. Lester set off on a dribble from the half way line to the edge of the penalty area, taking on four players (he didn't so much beat them, as draw them towards him). He LOOKED UP(!) and passed to the unmarked Ashcroft, to the right of the Portsmouth area, who haughtily controlled the ball, feinted to go one way and then crossed into the near post. Lester missed his first attempt at shooting; his second was blocked; his third was pushed aside and Coldicott ran in and hooked the rebound inside the keeper's right-hand post. Crowd and player pandemonium.
Portsmouth didn't respond with any gusto to what ultimately proved the winner. The Portsmouth supporters had long since been reduced to silence and they began to grumble as pass after pass drifted out of play for Town throw-ins. In the end they were jeering when an attack failed (and at the end booed them off). Enough of Portsmouth - they were no better than Walsall.
With 15 minutes to go Burnett was replaced by Pouton. Burnett had brought some calm and tempo to the Town midfield, but his major contribution was his work rate and firm tackling (a trait often overlooked). Offensively he was involved in an intelligent and varied Town corner routine. Everyone ran into the area (except Burnett), so Donovan clipped a low pass to Burnett on the edge of the area. Burnett's shot was blocked for another corner, but at least it was a variation.
Pouton was involved in three of the better breaks in the last few minutes, his driving runs from midfield caused Pompey problems. It is still a shame about his shooting - from one of these runs he got as far as the edge of the area, looked to pass but saw he had a huge gap. So he scooped a left foot shot six yards high and wide. Apart from that shot Pouton fitted perfectly into the team, even producing a sliding hook tackle in injury time to stop someone getting a cross in.
Black came on for Ashcroft with five minutes left and he too produced the required work ethic and intelligent team running. Town didn't produce too many chances in the second half, though there were many dangerous breaks from which Portsmouth were forced to clear from inside their area. Apart from the efforts mentioned previously Lester controlled a long high clearance on the edge of the box, turned his defender and curled a shot low to the keeper's left.
After three minutes of injury time the referee finally blew for full time. Absolutely fantastic. There can be no criticism of any player (apart from Coyne) for this performance. A team at last. It was so reminiscent of the games from last October to January - sheer professionalism, with everyone playing for each other. The team spirit has been found again. Some players have not yet been mentioned, but this is only because they weren't part of any of chances created, not because of a lack of effort or skill. Donovan was a revelation. He ran around for the whole of the game, covering at right-back, left-wing and then up in attack. There was no sign of the past year's diffidence. Lester and Ashcroft played intelligently, the former with some awareness of his colleagues, and the latter with a little more determination than recently. McDermott was not missed, nor was Handyside - there can be no higher praise for the performances of Butterfield and Groves. Croudson was not called upon to make any saves, but appeared to be positive in collecting the ball. And R Smith was his usual tower of strength.
There were no poor performances, except by the referee. Town are back as Town. Great. Super.