Pompey 4 Hartlepool 0

Caolan Lavery opens the scoring for Pompey Picture: Joe Pepler

Caolan Lavery opens the scoring for Pompey Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey keeper David Forde. Picture: Joe Pepler

Keeper’s role in Pompey rise lauded

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The boos have evaporated, the chatter about systems become muted, while the divisive issue of Kyle Bennett is yesterday’s news.

This is a very different Pompey to a month ago.

Paul Cook’s men have discovered their spark and with it the goals are flowing and Fratton Park is once again basking in positivity.

The Blues’ ills were never as life-threatening as the more hysterical elements of the Fratton faithful were having people believe during the AFC Wimbledon aftermath.

Improvements were required, undoubtedly, yet in the form of delicate tweaking rather than a clumsy overhaul of formation and personnel to a side then residing in fourth.

This is a Pompey squad which will finish in the League Two play-offs at the very minimum during the current campaign.

However, the past month has demonstrated they possess the capacity to realistically set their sights considerably higher than a Wembley battle for a League One spot.

Their league standing may be unchanged since that uncomfortable Wimbledon stalemate but the Blues have raised their game considerably, several gears in fact.

The recent statistics make pleasurable reading for even the most curmudgeon among the support.

Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Hartlepool was a third straight win at Fratton Park, with 11 goals scored and none conceded, 10 of which arriving in the last two home league fixtures.

Since Wimbledon, Pompey have netted 15 times in five matches and registered three clean sheets, including 2-2 draws at Carlisle and Wycombe.

In addition, at present no side in the country in any of the top four leagues can match the plus-19 goal difference of League Two’s fourth-placed side.

The jog has been replaced by a sprint as Cook’s men hurtle into the Christmas schedule with Northampton, Oxford United and Plymouth Argyle nervously looking over their collective shoulder.

Tantalising then that the next encounter is at the home of the Cobblers, who had Ricky Holmes net the winner in a 4-3 weekend triumph at Luton Town, on Saturday.

Of course, it would be folly to declare Pompey a problem-free zone, the sight of Christian Burgess leaving Fratton Park on Saturday wearing a protective boot raised the hackles of concern.

Regardless of the undoubted quality of Matt Clarke lying in wait, Burgess is a key figure in Cook’s side and a league ever-present in a settled back four.

It represents a rare down point during the past month which has also seen the Blues shrug off the extended absence of Gary Roberts and Matt Tubbs with the emergence of Caolan Lavery and Marc McNulty.

The on-loan duo lined up as strike partners in a conventional 4-4-2 against Wimbledon, while Bennett was placed among the substitutes in a match which drew a blank and a minority of boos.

The pair have subsequently scored eight goals between them in five games, clearly fitting snugly into the 4-2-3-1 system Cook advocates so strongly.

They have a lifted a side dominant in possession and strong in defence yet lacking a cutting edge and pace, to one which can infiltrate even the most stubborn of opposition defences, particularly at home.

Pompey’s boss had been searching for the fine-tuning to provide the missing ingredient to an otherwise highly-promising set-up which rarely looked able to be defeated.

Now he has uncovered the solution.

The fear is Lavery and McNulty’s parent clubs will recall both once their initial loan spells expire at the start of next month – and with it the Jenga tower comes tumbling down.

Yet the Sheffield Wednesday employers of Lavery are presently eighth in Championship, a position they have reached without utilising the striker for a single minute in the league campaign.

As for McNulty, he is well out of the plans of Sheffield United boss Nigel Adkins, even if the pressure is gathering over their disappointing 12th placing in League One at present.

In the meantime, the double act still have Fratton Park duties to fulfil and against Hartlepool they were at their delectable best.

Lavery was handed an immediate recall having been unavailable for the FA Cup clash with Accrington, replacing the match-winner Adam McGurk.

For Cook’s second change, Burgess returned to the side in place of Clarke, a widely-expected decision considering the central defender’s impressive showing this term.

And it was Lavery whose quality provided the all-important breakthrough and heralded a 4-0 success which could have been even greater.

On 33 minutes he collected a pass from McNulty and curled a delicious right-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area past former Pompey keeper Trevor Carson.

It was a wonderful moment for a player also marking his first Fratton Park goal – having previously scored in three separate away fixtures.

Barely four minutes later and the hosts had doubled their advantage when Ben Davies’ low right-wing cross was turned past his own keeper at the by Hartlepool defender Adam Jackson at the near post.

Despite the match being impeded by heavy winds, which rendered play at times difficult, for the second successive Saturday, the Blues retained their control throughout with Michael Doyle bossing midfield.

Pompey’s third goal arrived on 60 minutes when Enda Stevens crossed from the left and, although McNulty’s shot was saved, Gareth Evans was on hand to latch on to the rebound and apply a right-foot finish.

The excellent McNulty grabbed the goal his performance deserved in the 90th minute.

He ran on to Stevens’ defence-splitting throughball before calmly slotting home.

During four minutes of stoppage-time, both the Scot and substitute Ben Tollitt spurned excellent opportunities to make the scoreline even more emphatic, yet it remained 4-0.

Another superb display during a month which has seen the frustrations disperse and be replaced by greater belief among the Pompey fans that finally they could be escaping League Two this season.

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