Pompey 1 Carlisle 0 - Neil Allen’s match report

Michael Smith scores Pompey's winning goal against Carlisle Picture: Joe Pepler
Michael Smith scores Pompey's winning goal against Carlisle Picture: Joe Pepler
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And so where there is life, there is Hope.

Thanks to Carlisle United’s Hallam, there is certainly a healthy glow and strong heartbeat about Pompey’s automatic promotion attempts at present.

With seven matches remaining, Paul Cook’s side stand five points off the top three with a game in hand.

The visit of Plymouth on April 16 continues to standout as the pivotal encounter in the bid to depart League Two through conventional means.

In the meantime, Pompey are alive, their promotion aspirations vibrant. Momentum is gathering.

They have still to string together three successive league wins, the latest attempt to be staged at Dagenham & Redbridge next weekend.

Yet the Blues have now lost one of their last eight matches and cradle the best defensive record in the division.

It is shaping up for a fascinating crescendo to the campaign – and this time the fear of relegation does not grip the Fratton faithful.

On Saturday, the latest win was achieved in efficient fashion, driven by a vastly-improved second-half display over the Cumbrians.

The scoreline could have been more handsome, Adam McGurk striking the far post while attempting to double the slender advantage.

As it was, Michael Smith, the striker so admirably turning around opinion through consistency and tireless endeavour, settled the issue.

But Hope’s remarkable 83rd minute miss was just as game defining.

Only come the summer will we be accurately aware of how integral that moment was to any successful promotion.

Although the striker who once scored a hat-trick against Andy Awford’s Pompey while representing Bury unquestionably leant a helping foot on Saturday.

Recalled to the starting line-up having not even made Keith Curle’s 18-man squad for the Bank Holiday Monday victory over Bristol Rovers, the ex-Everton youngster had to score.

With seven minutes remaining, substitute Derek Asamoah drilled the ball in from the left and there was Hope arriving at the far post.

The merest hint of a touch was required from his position a yard from the goal line, yet improbably no contact was made.

The former England under-19 player ended up in the back of the net rather than the ball, while those rejoicing 361 away fans had to abort their lift-off.

A let off for the hosts, although another late leveller would have been a screaming injustice considering their dominance over the Cumbrians.

As it was, one goal was enough to decide the outcome on an afternoon several other results fell kindly for Pompey.

Granted, it lacked the destruction witnessed on many occasions at Fratton Park this seasons, most recently the Good Friday 4-0 triumph over Notts County.

However, Cook’s troops dictated the second-half with such diligence and superiority that the visitors struggled to venture of their own half.

As for Carlisle’s Mark Gillespie, the chant of ‘Dodgy keeper’ was removed from storage, dusted down and given an airing by the crowing Fratton end.

It was his error on 57 minutes which provided the opportunity for Smith to net the second goal of his Pompey loan spell.

The stopper crucially misjudged Kyle Bennett’s curling right-foot effort, clawing it out rather than effectively dealing with the danger.

And there was Smith to swiftly react and slot home from a tight angle to cap an impressive personal turn.

Not that such moments of fortune from Hope and Gillespie should be allowed to diminish a thoroughly-deserved Pompey victory during this crucial part of the season.

Cook’s team were excellent value, raising their game considerably following a tight opening 45 minutes during which neither side warranted the lead.

The interval goalless scoreline was a perfect reflection of the pattern of play – yet it was a very different Blues which came out for the second period.

As for Carlisle, they failed to muster a response as they slipped to a defeat far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.

In doing so, Pompey carved out a 17th win of the league campaign – the highest victory return since the 2002-03 promotion season.

With seven matches to play, the Fratton faithful can expect that tally to be considerably added to during the on-going push to leave the bottom division of the Football League.

For his team selection, Cook opted to retain the side which thumped Notts County.

That meant Paul Jones continuing in goal despite the availability of Ryan Fulton following his Scotland under-21 call-up.

Jones had been earmarked to start against AFC Wimbledon on Bank Holiday Monday, only for a waterlogged pitch to intervene.

Yet he remained in the side on Saturday, Fulton instead replacing Alex Bass as the bench’s substitute keeper.

Another clean sheet and suddenly Jones is bang back in favour as he bids to prove to Cook he has a Fratton future following a frustrating personal season.

Elsewhere in the side, Smith was again preferred to 11-goal top scorer Marc McNulty, while McGurk continued in the attacking right-sided position usually occupied by Gareth Evans.

Once more, though, no squad presence for Ben Tollitt, Adam Barton and Jack Whatmough.

The first-half which unfolded was a stale affair, with both sides struggling to create. Although Danny Hollands did strike several shots from distance wildly off-target.

Perhaps the best opportunity of the half fell to defender Mark Ellis, left free at the far post and responding with a left-foot effort which comfortably cleared the intended target.

At least a flat Fratton Park was lifted during the interval with the parade of former Pompey players as part of the club’s annual event.

More than 50 took part, including Svetoslav Todorov, Kit Symons, Linvoy Primus, Alan Rogers, Darren Anderton, Noel Blake, Bill Albury, Eoin Hand and Colin Garwood.

However, the Pompey of today raised their display several levels once they returned to the pitch to clinch another important win.

Bristol Rovers, Plymouth and Accrington all stand five points ahead with an inferior goal difference and having played a match more when compared to the Blues.

Clearly this promotion race is going to go to the death – and Hope remains.