Pompey 2 Rochdale 0 – Neil Allen’s match report

Brett Pitman gave Pompey the lead 34 seconds into the second half PictureL Joe Pepler
Brett Pitman gave Pompey the lead 34 seconds into the second half PictureL Joe Pepler
Luke McGee in action against Southend. Picture: Joe Pepler

Why McGee was crucial to Pompey triumph

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First arrived the crowning conclusion – then arrived the befitting beginning.

Fratton Park continues to deliver those pitch-perfect notes to its captivated audience.

Rarely can football be persuaded to recite scripted lines, spontaneity instead the erratic champion of the beautiful game.

Yet on Saturday, the outcome was enacted with delicious appropriateness.

New owners and a freshly-installed manager were handed a winning start to life on the south coast.

What’s more, the decisive goal-scoring moments were conjured up by debutant and skipper Brett Pitman.

Talk about instant impacts on a day, as ever, at the mercy of mischievous gods eager to spoil such showpiece occasions.

Oxford United on the opening day of the 2013-14 campaign anyone?

Of course, Pompey ended last season with a wonderfully-written 6-1 victory over Cheltenham and the League Two title.

The emotional event held on home soil also captured the final match of community ownership, to nearly wrap up the loose ends.

On Saturday we were back, a return to the League One environment and a fixture signifying the dawning of the Michael Eisner era following sweeping changes through the club’s hierarchy.

And the outcome was magnificently fitting in front of 18,009 supporters, incidentally the second-highest attendance of the day in the bottom two divisions.

Granted, there was not the swagger which accompanied last term’s charge to the title, while the display lacked the possession-based dominance Paul Cook revelled in, particularly at Fratton Park.

Kenny Jackett’s side were not at their best against an impressively-positive Rochdale team who made light of a numerical disadvantage to cause problems throughout.

Nonetheless, Pitman’s finishing powers inspired the hosts to a 2-0 triumph and, for all parties, this fresh start is encouragingly up and running.

Still, it’s important not to be swept away by the exhilaration on what can rightly be perceived in footballing terms as a perfect day.

Plenty to be heartened by, undoubtedly, yet, as Jackett admitted afterwards, much to work on, irrespective of the scoreline.

Keith Keane’s clumsy challenge on Conor Chaplin in the 21st minute ended Dale’s early dominance and generously handed an opportunity to the Blues.

Effectively it was a game-changer, although Keith Hill’s side can be proud with the manner they conducted themselves throughout.

Not even a hint of venturing to Fratton Park with a defensive outlook as they dictated play early on and then, from midway through the second half, applied constant attacking pressure.

Pitman’s second, two minutes into stoppage-time, provided the gloss to the scoreline, as well as relieving the nerves which had been building among the home faithful.

The visitors may have barely drawn Luke McGee into action, yet they did threaten the penalty area, prompting some brave defending at times from Jack Whatmough and Christian Burgess.

In mitigation, Jackett remains short of the central midfielder he is seeking to bring into the club, with Cardiff City’s Stuart O’Keefe being pursued.

Carl Baker remains the alternative and he partnered Danny Rose in the engine room, although the pair struggled to gain a foothold for periods.

Life continues following Michael Doyle’s summer departure – but the squad still lacks a replacement in terms of aggression and devilry.

Meanwhile, an injury to Milan Lalkovic during Wednesday’s training session robbed the Blues of a player pencilled in to start against Rochdale.

Instead, the reshuffle saw a shock first league start for Drew Talbot since August 2016, with Gareth Evans pushed up into midfield.

Even then, Pompey were forced into another rejig when debutant Tareiq Holmes-Dennis hobbled off with a knee problem shortly before half-time.

The outcome was Talbot moving to left-back and Evans returning to right-back.

Regardless, Talbot acquitted himself excellently, demonstrating a grit and professionalism to be applauded.

His last outing at any level was the friendly at Newport Isle of Wight, when he skippered the side.

Elsewhere in the starting line-up, Whatmough was preferred to Tom Davies, despite the latter seemingly having the selection edge during pre-season.

Meanwhile, with Evans returning to his favoured midfield role, there was no room to accommodate last season’s top scorer Kal Naismith, as he moved to the bench. Still, having negotiated a difficult start to the game, it was Chaplin who enabled the breakthrough.

After helping the ball on with his head down the right flank, he maintained his run and then retrieved it when Pitman appeared to be fouled.

The young striker surged forward positively and with purpose, bearing down on keeper Josh Lillis before Keane clattered into him.

A goal-scoring opportunity and Keane represented the last man – the red card delivered by referee Lee Probert was the correct outcome.

Although Pompey toiled when attempting to capitalise on that assistance, they finally broke the deadlock 34 seconds into the second half.

Pitman collected the ball down the left flank and when his Cruyff turn on Reece Brown failed to come off, he belligerently won the ball back to enter the penalty area.

The former Bournemouth’s man first shot was blocked but he was allowed a second opportunity and squeezed home a right-foot finish.

Yet that second decisive goal continued to elude and Pompey themselves were reduced to 10 men on 81 minutes following the departure of Jamal Lowe.

Having entered as a substitute on 39 minutes for the injured Holmes-Dennis, Lowe was punished for a raised foot on Jamie Allen as both attempted to meet a high loose ball just outside the Blues’ penalty area.

It prompted a tense finale as Dale strove for a late leveller.

However, Pitman had the final say deep into four minutes of stoppage-time, brilliantly connecting with Evans’ right-wing cross with a looping header from 12-yards out.

Clearly there will be more from the striker this season as he continues to impress.

And all smiles at Fratton Park on a perfect day to launch a new regime.