Pompey 2 Cambridge United 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Carl Baker celebrates POmpey's opener alongside Enda Stevens. Picture: Joe Pepler

Carl Baker celebrates POmpey's opener alongside Enda Stevens. Picture: Joe Pepler

Christian Burgess scores in the victory over Crawley in March Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey find new pre-season opponents

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The promotion party continues, so much for raging hangovers grounding Pompey’s high fliers.

It was largely swagger rather than stagger against Cambridge United at a buoyant Fratton Park fittingly bathed in glorious sunshine.

A day to toast their League One destination in front of a home crowd weighing in at 18,165 amid an intoxicating atmosphere.

Yet there remains a sobering thought – Enda Stevens.

On 20 minutes, Kal Naismith turned the ball into the galloping left-back’s path down the flank.

The outcome was a cross pulled backed for Carl Baker to strike left-footed first time to break the deadlock against Cambridge United.

Assist number nine of the campaign for Stevens, extending his lead in the Blues’ creativity charts with two matches remaining.

The likeable Irishman has been named in the PFA League Two Team of the Year, the EFL League Two Team of the Season and the EFL’s overall Team of the Season.

Expect him to also prominently feature when The News/Sports Mail Player of the Season vote is launched imminently.

Stevens is in the form of his life. He is also out of contract at the season’s end.

Amid the celebrations taking place in the present, there remain concerns the 26-year-old will not be part of the future.

The former Aston Villa man’s stock is undoubtedly high – and he’s in a position to capitalise as the existing deal ticks down.

Certainly few clubs in League One could match the Blues’ size, yet the lure could well emerge from a level higher, such is the high regard he is held.

In successive seasons, the likes of Jed Wallace and Adam Webster departed for Championship climes. Should Stevens follow suit, the difference is Pompey will not receive a penny.

The left-back has established himself as a key member of the Cook era, a presence demonstrated by 96 appearances and one goal.

During that time he has been absent from just two league matches to date, albeit rested from the Checkatrade Trophy and EFL Cup campaigns.

Still, as Cook prioritises tying down his existing squad for an assault on League One, Stevens represents the player he can least afford to lose.

Pompey’s boss favours his full-back make-up to be high-energy and attack-minded, almost employed as wingers.

On Saturday, Stevens, along with Gareth Evans on the opposite flank, continued to remind the Fratton faithful of their immense strengths in roles few are genuinely equipped to thrive.

Cook must retain both, particularly the irreplaceable Stevens, as he strives to build on the foundation of this promotion-winning campaign.

The indications are Saturday’s impressive debutant, Stanley Aborah, will be at Fratton Park next season and rightly so on such evidence.

Whether Stevens remains alongside him in that League One team is to be seen, yet unquestionably that outcome could represent Cook’s finest summer piece of transfer work.

In the meantime, matters are still not resolved in the current campaign. Such has been the hope generated by leaders Doncaster falling to successive defeats, the title is not yet out of the equation.

Rovers reside four points ahead of the Blues, with a visit from Exeter followed by Hartlepool away to come. Surely ample opportunity for Darren Ferguson’s men to capture the crown they have long seemed destined for.

Meanwhile, Plymouth are now two points ahead in second spot, ensuring Cook’s troops could yet finish higher in the final table.

Undoubtedly Pompey have the form advantage, a 2-1 victory over Cambridge making it 25 points from a possible 30 during this remarkable run following the Crewe debacle.

In recent fixtures, Pompey’s boss has tinkered with his team courtesy of injury and then curiosity, yet still they continue to register victories.

On Saturday he made three changes to the side which clinched promotion at Meadow Lane, alterations alluded to in the build-up.

Aborah, so patient since his February arrival on a free transfer, was finally handed a maiden Pompey start, while there was also a full debut for Nicke Kabamba.

Matt Clarke was the other arrival, returning from injury to replace Christian Burgess, who was rested from the squad.

Yet it was Aborah, in for Amine Linganzi and also omitted from the match-day 18, who shone the brightest on an eye-catching bow.

The midfielder sat alongside Michael Doyle in a holding role and exuded quality whenever on the ball, operating in a different time zone to those around.

His strength and the difficultly to bundle out of possession was also apparent, while it was his charge towards the penalty area which created the Blues’ second goal.

On 51 minutes, Aborah was floored 25 yards out, with Kal Naismith firing the resulting free-kick left-footed into the top corner.

That represented goal number 13 of the season from the Scot, whose ability to create has been a crucial aspect during the second half of the campaign.

Naismith will rightly accompany Stevens, Burgess and Clarke in the running for the numerous player of the season votes.

That 2-0 lead would prove unassailable, although Luke Berry’s 80th minute strike did offer hope to a U’s side harbouring play-off ambition yet outplayed at Fratton Park.

They barely mustered an attempt on David Forde’s goal – then their leading scorer stepped up with a stunning free-kick from 25 yards which found the top corner.

The Fratton faithful’s response was a rendition of ‘We are going up’ on a day in which the atmosphere was one to truly savour.

A vast array of songs were on the playlist of what had been tagged as the promotion party, while Cook’s men were as professional and committed as ever, irrespective of their goal now accomplished.

At the final whistle, three supporters broke South stand ranks to invade the pitch, despite club requests not to do so. The inevitable grander-scale occurrence is pencilled in for the final day against Cheltenham.

Before then, the Blues have two more fixtures to fulfil and first and second places to pursue.

While progress will hopefully also be made on securing a Pompey future for the talented Stevens.

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