Pompey 0 Exeter 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

David Wheeler scores the winner for Exeter against Pompey Picture: Joe Pepler
David Wheeler scores the winner for Exeter against Pompey Picture: Joe Pepler
Fratton Park. Picture: Joe Pepler

The Pompey fans hoping to assist in Fratton Park’s destiny

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January has almost expired, yet the Fratton faithful’s wait continues.

The League Two table suggests Pompey are promotion candidates, while quality within the squad reflects such lofty credentials.

However, compelling evidence has still to materialise.

Days like Exeter expose the glaring inadequacies of a side possessing an infuriating penchant for flattering to deceive.

And when such occasions arise, the top three represents a wholly-unrealistic destination.

For the Grecians, it was a fifth successive triumph during a 10-match unbeaten run contributing to a remarkable rise into the play-off positions.

Oh for Pompey to be blessed with a fraction of that consistency in both performances and results.

Instead, on Saturday Blues followers once again endured the demoralising fare the side have a tendency to serve up.

An exasperating fluctuation in another Paul Cook promotion-hunting season, yet such blips are occurring with worrying familiarity.

And, most alarming of all, there appears to be no solution to eradicating a weakness which doesn’t appear to afflict many of their rivals.

The employment of Conor Chaplin, the installation of the much-trumpeted 4-4-2, the exclusion of Gary Roberts and Kyle Bennett – yet still the successful answer eludes.

Replacing Michael Smith, who incidentally was considerably more effective than Chaplin against Paul Tisdale’s troops, is unquestionably the latest change being craved.

However, Pompey’s ongoing issues over consistency do not hinge on an individual or system. There remains an erratic nature embedded in this side.

It’s a dead weight threatening to condemn the Blues to a fifth season at this soul-destroying level of the game. Simply unthinkable.

Certainly on Saturday there was not the merest hint this team is equipped to launch a sustained attack on the top three.

Back in August, a dodgy penalty handed victory to Pompey at St James Park. For the return fixture, there was no such fine fortune. Neither did they deserve any.

Devoid of ideas, bereft of creativity, an over-reliance on a more direct approach, the shambling performance was largely uncomfortable viewing. Boos at the final whistle, of which there were many, were warranted.

Too many passengers and a side peppered with significantly below-par displays. Only the appearance of Jamal Lowe from the bench raising the pulse.

Truly dispiriting viewing amid the vast bulk of the 17,195 crowd.

But wait, that same XI appeared cast-iron certainties for glory during the majority of the first half in the previous match against Leyton Orient.

The only other team Pompey have so far inflicted the double over this term has been Luton – incidentally now edging ahead in the table on goal difference.

Leaders Doncaster Rovers – and now Exeter – are the only teams in the top 12 to have defeated the Blues in the league during the current campaign.

Such a record has assured Cook’s troops have been a fixture in the top five all season, admittedly an encouraging presence.

That, though, is not enough for this football club. Promotion is a must, while the play-offs represent nothing more than a convenient safety net.

Time then for Pompey to demonstrate they are capable of escaping the Football League’s bottom. At the moment, hard proof garnered through performances is severely lacking.

A mere nine days spent occupying the automatic promotion spots this season remains a statistic to concern supporters.

Granted, if the weather hadn’t intervened at Crawley last weekend, Cook’s men may have made the breakthrough – and what a signal that would have delivered.

As it stands, though, it could be the middle of February before that tantalising opportunity once again arises.

Of course, 19 matches remain, admittedly six of the bottom nine clubs are booked in to visit Fratton Park before the May 6 finish.

Meanwhile, Pompey stand four points off the promotion spots with a fixture in hand, creating a position of strength.

Irrespective of such plus points, the occasion of Exeter’s visit once more highlighted the consistency ills which continue to dog the Blues’ progress.

Cook retained the same team and substitutes bench which defeated Orient 2-1 a fortnight earlier, thereby not unreasonably opting to keep a winning side intact.

However, whereas they swamped the O’s from the first minute, on Saturday the tempo was puzzlingly flat during the opening 45 minutes.

Upon the second half, and particularly following David Wheeler’s decisive goal, the levels of energy and inspiration practically ground to walking pace.

The first half was a tight affair, few goalscoring opportunities for either side, although the visitors looked more capable through Reuben Reid and the immensely-promising Ollie Watkins.

Still, the goalless scoreline at the interval was a fair reflection and certainly acceptable to Pompey fans in terms of providing a solid platform.

There had been Smith’s 15th minute header from Enda Stevens’ left-wing cross which was solidly diverted well wide, while Carl Baker drew a scrambling save from Christy Pym.

At the other end, Watkins dragged a shot wide of the far post from a promising position carved down the right.

Regardless, all square and honours even from a first period which, if anything, demonstrated to home fans the calibre the in-form Grecians possessed.

Then arrived the second half and, on 57 minutes, arrived the decisive goal.

Reid produced a powerful, surging room before set upon on the edge of the area by a swarm of Pompey’s players.

Yet luck conspired against Danny Rose, with Michael Doyle’s prodded clearance cannoning against the shin of the midfielder and into the path of the unmarked Wheeler down the right.

The Exeter man did the rest, with a ferociously first-time right-foot finish which left David Forde with absolutely no chance.

Disappointingly, Pompey’s response was subsequently weak as they ambled to an eighth defeat of the campaign – more than any of the top eight.

Promotion candidates they may be, but the Blues are fumbling around rather than marching with a swagger.