Pompey 1 Northampton 2 – Neil Allen’s match report

James Collins earns Northampton victory at Fratton Park Picture: Joe Pepler
James Collins earns Northampton victory at Fratton Park Picture: Joe Pepler
Joe Hancott in action for Pompey Reserves against Southend. Picture: Colin Farmery

Harris hails Pompey Reserves’ performance

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Kieron Freeman cut an awkward figure languishing at the rear.

As his team-mates pushed on with their Fratton Park lap of appreciation, the loanee dropped behind to play with his two young daughters.

The feet-shuffling discomfort of the situation was glaring following an ill-judged tackle which ended his Fratton Park career.

Certainly the full stop has been applied to the current guise of a temporary guest from Sheffield United.

Freeman’s subsequent automatic three-match ban rules him out of the duration of the play-offs.

Having started three successive matches, the 24-year-old was at last revelling in a run in Paul Cook’s side during a low-key loan spell.

Then a two-footed lunge on John-Joe O’Toole prompted a straight red card, tellingly without a glimmer of dispute from team-mates or manager.

To think Cook had omitted Michael Doyle, Enda Stevens, Christian Burgess and Danny Hollands from his starting line-up as a precaution against injury or suspension.

Of those, three remained unused substitutes, yet their bench presence was always going to be nothing more than ornamental.

With the play-offs looming, the manager was keen to protect his key performers, irrespective of potentially losing against champions Northampton as the outcome.

No chance either of rushing back some of the walking wounded for a quick thrill of a few minutes. There are far more important goals at stake.

And while Cook applied the cotton wool around Doyle, Stevens, Burgess and Hollands, another member of his squad succeeded in ruling himself out.

A deeply frustrating conclusion when, in truth, the scoreline mattered little.

It prompted a sheepish Freeman to blush as colourfully as the Cobblers’ shirts during the post-match bond with applauding supporters.

Of course, the former Forest man presently operates as a fringe player, Davies had already been assured of a play-off place even before his recall to Saturday’s side and subsequent elevation to the role of skipper.

Having been rested for two matches in a bid to ease the aches of a veteran who has now amassed 48 appearances during the campaign, Freeman had finally found a route into the team.

Upon Davies’ return, Freeman was asked to remain – only this time in a central midfield role.

His involvement lasted 47 minutes and robs Cook not only of crucial cover at right-back but also depriving the versatile option of a player who can serve in a variety of roles.

In addition, he started both legs of Sheffield United’s unsuccessful play-off clash with Swindon in League One last term. An experience the manager hoped could be telling.

Instead a side creaking under a late-season injury flurry now has another absentee, except he is fully fit.

Best-laid plans and all that. Unfortunately for Cook, he was unable to pull all his squad out of Saturday’s sun-packed encounter.

And the result, the true result which mattered, is Freeman is now absent while, worryingly, Ben Close appears to have become another casualty.

Pompey are still assessing the degree of injury to the youngster, who had to be substituted on 60 minutes for Adam May having crumpled to the turf.

It represented a first appearance since the disappointing 1-0 defeat at Barnet in February, with Cook nudging him out of the first-team picture.

Upon a recall designed to safeguard the availability of others, the youngster from Fratton instead finds himself sidelined.

A cruel outcome for a player who continues to retain a highly-promising future with the Blues, regardless of recent omission.

Yet the visit of Chris Wilder’s side was no trifling dead rubber, for the hosts there was still the play-off fine details to be established.

Victory would have clinched fifth spot and a Fratton presence in Sunday’s second-leg. As it is, they now have the perceived disadvantage of heading to Plymouth to complete the tie.

Incidentally, Argyle warmed-up with a 5-0 demolition of a Hartlepool side defeated by Pompey the previous weekend.

For the occasion, Cook instigated five changes, of which only the return of Michael Smith to Swindon represented a decision to be enforced.

Stevens was denied the chance to start all 46 League Two fixtures this season in favour of granting Brandon Haunstrup his Football League debut.

There was also a heartening landmark for Jack Whatmough, named in the centre of defence in place of Burgess for a first start since March 2015.

During that Cheltenham match he damaged knee ligaments – but on Saturday was at last back.

It was not all smiles for Whatmough, however, when he diverted Nicky Adams’ cross from the right past Brian Murphy in the 14th minute.

Elsewhere Davies reclaimed his right-back spot, Close came in and Adam McGurk was granted a place in attack against the Cobblers.

While Paul Jones added a goalkeeping presence on the bench having staged a remarkable recovery from thigh damage Cook originally believed to be season-ending.

The reins continued to be attached to Kyle Bennett and Marc McNulty who on Friday were running outside as they maintain their comebacks from injury.

Certainly there is a realistic possibility both will be in the frame in time for Thursday’s visit of the Pilgrims.

It was to be Kal Naismith, presently deputising for Bennett, who drew Pompey level on 48 minutes – within 60 seconds of Freeman’s departure.

What a goal it was too, collecting McGurk’s pass back to stride forward and unleash a viciously dipping, swerving left-foot shot past Adam Smith from 35-yards.

Pure brilliance from the winger who has now netted in consecutive matches as he enjoys a run in the starting XI during a season full of personal peaks and troughs.

In keeping with line, he missed from a yard late in the first-half, although Smith will no doubt take credit for a spoiling with a save at his near post.

Yet the match was settled on 81 minutes when David Buchanan drove in a cross from the left and substitute James Collins touched it home.

By that stage Davies was joined in a back four by three midfielders and had been asked to serve as a central defender for the first time in his career.

Not that any of it matters, though. Cook’s eyes remain rigidly fixed on a play-off driven exit from League Two.