Notts County 2 Pompey 1

Alan Sheehan scores Notts County's winner Picture: Joe Pepler
Alan Sheehan scores Notts County's winner Picture: Joe Pepler
Pompey skipper Brett Pitman

Pompey boss: We must sharpen up attacking ideas

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Paul Cook has been busily patching up the holes threatening to sink Pompey.

Yesterday, however, the leaks sprang up elsewhere as the Blues suffered a maiden league away defeat this season.

Cook’s defensive unit has long been a reliable and effective presence during their adventures around League Two’s top three.

Instead it has been an inability to break sides down at the other end of the pitch to have provided the chief concerns over their continued progress.

Yet against Notts County, gaping errors in defensive situations were responsible for their failure.

Certainly Pompey were worthy of a point in an entertaining and often open affair at Meadow Lane in front of a crowd made up almost a third of away followers.

The Blues are generally afforded more space to breathe on their travels and granted a greater opportunity to display their attacking credentials.

Particularly during the opening 45 minutes against the Magpies Cook’s men were bright, imaginative and exciting, in contrast to home frustrations.

They even netted relatively early on through Caolan Lavery’s maiden goal of his loan spell from Sheffield Wednesday.

A neat build-up down the left resulted in Enda Stevens breaking down the left-hand side of the penalty area and squaring for the youngster to steer a shot home.

Barely three minutes later and the scores were level following a poor piece of defending, albeit admittedly uncharacteristic.

The second half would produce similar woe and finally, in their eighth away league fixture, Pompey had suffered defeat.

Enough to also knock them down to third spot as Oxford United ran out 5-1 victors at nine-man Stevenage to leapfrog above behind leaders Plymouth Argyle.

Up until the Meadow Lane encounter, the Blues had collected four clean sheets and conceded seven goals in their previous 10 matches. A statistic to be applauded.

It is important to take that into consideration before leaping up to damn the back four plus goalkeeper selected for yesterday’s visit.

Ben Davies, Christian Burgess and Stevens have been ever-present in the league programme, while Adam Webster has only recently so impressively replaced Matt Clarke.

It is a part of Cook’s side which has remained largely constant, even if injury has prompted three different goalkeepers to line up behind them.

At Notts County, the role of Brian Murphy in the defeat, however, must be questioned, with both goals arriving from distance.

Such has been Pompey’s strength to retain the ball and play in the opposition half this season, Murphy and Aaron McCarey before him have barely been given a thorough examination of their ability.

Murphy, though, should come under scrutiny for his part in both of the Magpies goals. Certainly he wasn’t solely responsible, but he contributed.

The first arrived in the 23rd minute when a free-kick from the left was flung deep into the penalty area and headed away by Pompey.

The ball fell to Graham Burke on the edge of the area who was allowed a touch before striking a left-foot shot into the top corner of the net.

Failure to sufficiently close down the midfielder in such an area was a concern, while Murphy was unable to keep out the subsequent shot.

Then on 77 minutes, Alan Sheehan took a free-kick positioned just past the halfway line and delivered it into the penalty area.

The ball missed both friend and foe of the Notts County central defender and ended up creeping in at the far post to become the decisive moment of the contest.

Another poor goal to concede in the match and ultimately would rob the visitors of at least a point.

There was no coming back and an encouraging display instead resulted in defeat in front of those 2,162 supporters of Pompey persuasion.

Suddenly it is no wins in three heading into next weekend’s visit of Macclesfield in the FA Cup first round. Another fine example of football’s fine line.

Cook had made two changes for yesterday’s trip, with Adam McGurk and Gareth Evans coming back into the side, Rommy Boco and Kal Naismith making way.

Evans’ presence was anticipated having served his three-match suspension following a Cambridge United dismissal, and a player possessing energy and the ability to score.

McGurk was an unused substitute in the goalless draw against Mansfield, but was restored to the side having convinced Cook he was now ready to feature following an ankle injury.

The forward unquestionably added a greater attacking edge to the side at Meadow Lane and remains a prized player capable of conjuring something out of nothing.

With three goals in nine previous appearances, the goal threat he provides is also crucial.

In only the ninth minute a clever through ball from McGurk picked out the run of Evans, who saw his shot initially blocked by the on-rushing Roy Carroll.

It was then left to Sheehan to clear the loose ball away from the goal line it was bouncing threateningly towards.

That moment arrived during a highly-promising opening to the game from the hosts as they forced a number of corners.

Yet the Magpies, with five wins of their previous six home fixtures, also threatened, particularly through ex-Fratton player Izale McLeod.

Murphy had to be off his line to block the path of the striker in the 13th minute and then the keeper beat out a shot from Burke.

The visitors, though, took the lead in the 20th minute through Lavery, who would go on to enjoy an eye-catching all-round performance.

That advantage, of course, lasted for only three minutes before Burke netted his leveller.

Pompey came agonisingly close to regaining the lead when Webster surged up field with the ball at his feet to dribble his way into the penalty area.

His subsequent right-foot angled shot smacked against the inside of the far post, depriving him of a stunning goal.

Still, Sheehan and his freakish free-kick would decide the destiny of the points 13 minutes from the end.

Cook talks about balancing defence and attack – yesterday it was at the back which failed to find equilibrium.