Cheltenham 1 Pompey 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Cheltenham goalkeeper Russell Griffiths' fumble from Carl Baker's cross presented Michjael Smith with his equaliser against Cheltenham Picture: Joe Pepler

Cheltenham goalkeeper Russell Griffiths' fumble from Carl Baker's cross presented Michjael Smith with his equaliser against Cheltenham Picture: Joe Pepler

Nathan Thompson skippering Swindon Town

Pompey to tap into Thompson’s leadership

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There had been 250 present for Michael Smith’s first-team audition.

Albeit an approximate figure, the Westleigh Park turnstiles unable to calculate the precise figure until the following day.

Still, last Monday the out-of-favour striker was offered 90 minutes to once again catch the eye of the watching Paul Cook.

Smith may not have registered in that reserve run-out against Wolves, nonetheless manager and coaches were delighted with his overall contribution.

Come the end of the week, the applause would emanate from the Fratton faithful following a decisive Whaddon Road cameo.

The 25-year-old has struggled to convince since a summer switch, a recruitment initially well-received.

Shoved aside by Conor Chaplin’s march into the first-team and the return of Noel Hunt from injury, Smith has barely been glimpsed in league action since the opening month of the season.

A substitute entrance against Mansfield last weekend was his first League Two appearance since September’s defeat at Blackpool.

There exist genuine doubts whether Pompey’s present side is better than the one which last season reached the play-offs.

So how they require a fully-functional and in-form Michael Smith amid their ranks.

Following a pedestrian start to life as a Fratton Park loanee, the striker eventually proved himself a worthy addition during last term’s charge for sixth spot.

It has been a similar trudge since signing for Pompey for an undisclosed fee from Swindon, a Checkatrade Trophy performance at Yeovil aside.

Timely then that Smith would choose the customary draw with Cheltenham to register his first league goal of the campaign.

That’s five encounters and five stalemates against the Whaddon Road club since first making acquaintance in the 2013-14 season.

Supporters can cite the fixture as a match they should win, except they have never defeated the Robins. Let’s not forget, during that period they have also so far failed to depart League Two.

Yet it was substitute Smith who was the surprise hero to eke a point out of a clash which appeared to be ending in a Pompey defeat.

Trailing 1-0 with eight minutes remaining, Carl Baker, enjoying one of his finest performances for the club, surged down the right and whipped a low cross from the byline.

Cheltenham keeper Russell Griffiths, for so long an impressive barrier to the Blues’ goal attempts, fumbled the ball.

There was Smith to finish from a tight angle and milk the adulation from the 1,537 travelling support packed at that side of the ground.

A first League Two goal since netting at AFC Wimbledon in April and the perfect pick-me-up for the softly-spoken Geordie who has endured a painful time at Fratton Park since his permanent arrival.

In addition, Chaplin must serve a one-match ban for Tuesday’s visit of Luton, ensuring there is a striking spot up for grabs.

With Curtis Main still sidelined with an abdominal strain, it is a straight shoot-out between Smith and Noel Hunt for that lone role.

Not that Smith’s introduction from the bench should have been required to salvage a point for Cook’s men.

The visitors wastefully spurned a number of gilt-edged scoring opportunities long before the tall striker’s rescue mission.

The start of the second half alone saw the Blues produce a devastating spell of football, yet somehow the hosts managed to emerge unscathed.

Smith later revealed his manager had told the players he regarded it as Pompey’s best period of attacking football this season.

For those present, it was baffling how such superiority failed to provide a goal – only to find themselves behind in the 65th minute.

As crucial as Smith’s contribution was, in truth the Blues should have wrapped up victory well before he was summoned for assistance.

And in that respect, the trip to Cheltenham represented two points dropped rather than one earned, no matter how tough the opposition were to crack.

The first half saw a stunning point-blank stop from Griffiths in the 41st minute after Baker had met Gareth Evans’ right-wing delivery with a diving header.

Kyle Bennett and Danny Rose fired in shots from distance which were comfortably dealt with, as was a Baker half-volley.

While at the other end, Danny Wright had impassioned pleas for a penalty waved away after tumbling while flanked by Michael Doyle and Christian Burgess.

At half-time it was goalless, yet the visitors had looked the better team during that opening period, demonstrating good football for sizeable spells.

Then arrived the second half as Cook’s men lay siege on Cheltenham’s goal with six chances in the first seven minutes.

Baker put Gary Roberts through, obligingly on an angle to enable him to cut in from the right, but his curling left-foot shot was easily blocked by Griffiths.

The keeper then saved low down a far-post header from Conor Chaplin following Evans’ cross.

Bennett struck the right-hand post with a shot from just inside the penalty area, while Enda Stevens’ drive was met with a low catch.

Then Roberts weaved a ball through to Chaplin which was met a fraction of a second first by the overworked Griffiths.

And when another Bennett shot was beaten out, subsequent appeals for a Cheltenham handball from Chaplin earned him a yellow card for his protests.

His tally now up to five, he subsequently misses the trip to fourth-placed Luton.

On 65 minutes, Burgess’ ugly challenge on Dan Holman narrowly inside the Cheltenham half earned him a yellow card and the hosts a free-kick.

James Rowe delivered it into the box and, with Danny Wright winning the first header, the ball eventually fell for Daniel O’Shaughnessy, whose shot was partially parried on its way into the net by Forde.

The visitors immediately wilted and, in the 72nd minute, Rob Dickie should have sealed their victory from six-yards.

But this was Smith’s opportunity, a chance to win back some Pompey support. Hopefully it is the kick-start for much better things – for everyone.

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