Stevenage 3 Pompey 0 – Neil Allen’s match report

Matt Godden scores. Picture: Joe Pepler

Matt Godden scores. Picture: Joe Pepler

Christian Burgess. Picture: Joe Pepler

Defender’s Pompey League One promotion promise

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How the visiting fans roared with approval when Barney Willis delivered his prediction.

Pompey’s mascot foresaw a 3-0 victory when posed the question pre-game by Stevenage’s match-day announcer.

Not that the canny youngster specified the identity of who would be basking in such an outcome.

Still, even the lad with the Nostradamus vision couldn’t have predicted the precise circumstances in which the result would be achieved.

A missed penalty, striking the bar twice, down to 10-men for the final 15 minutes, it represented a dismal day for the Blues.

The team with the joint-best defensive record outside the Premier League had suffered their heaviest loss of the campaign.

Certainly not written in the stars or materialising through the impenetrable mist of a crystal ball. The 90-minute implosion was as dramatic as it was unexpected.

Dismiss any notion of hard-luck stories, however, Paul Cook’s side deserved little from their visit to the Lamex Stadium.

They were brutally dismantled by an impressive Stevenage side who effectively settled the occasion by the 46th minute.

Full credit to Darren Sarll’s energetic side, effortlessly prising open Pompey’s creaking 3-5-2 system to collect a ninth victory in 11 fixtures. This was no flattering scoreline.

Not that the Pompey presence of 1,390 were disheartened, they retain the confidence that automatic promotion is the season’s delicious destiny. Rightly so.

The outstanding progress made during the previous three matches was never going to unravel on the back of 90 minutes, as exasperating as it may have been.

No ugly reprisals, boos or abuse in retaliation to a comfortably below-par display, instead it was a classy reaction which left the people of Stevenage watching in wonderment.

Around 10 minutes from full time, a rendition of ‘We’re on our way’ was struck up, refusing to falter for at least half-an-hour after the final whistle.

Pleas over the Stevenage Tannoy failed to persuade them to disperse, while encroaching stewards merely strengthened the resolve to remain.

It took Cook’s re-emergence from the dressing room to eventually initiate the fans’ departure, returning to the pitch to once again applaud their backing.

Pompey’s boss has often referenced the previous away defeat at Wycombe in January as an occasion when the supporters’ post-match reaction hoisted his spirits.

Certainly he required a comforting arm around the shoulder having witnessed his side outplayed so effortlessly and his altered playing system exposed so alarmingly.

Blues fans may have remained upbeat with their side four points clear in the automatic promotion spots, yet the implementation of the 3-5-2 formation failed.

For the first time in his 99 matches at the Pompey helm, the manager lined-up with a back three and wing-backs. It simply didn’t work on this occasion.

The usually imperious Christian Burgess looked uncertain, the recalled Tom Davies rusty and the backbone of the Blues’ season crumbled as a consequence.

Pompey’s progress has been constructed upon a settled back four and goalkeeper, despite many still unconvinced over Gareth Evans’ presence in unfamiliar territory.

Following three consecutive clean sheets, Cook positioned Davies alongside Matt Clarke and Burgess, with Evans and Enda Stevens serving as full-backs.

It may have succeeded as a Plan B at Carlisle, albeit on that occasion Jack Whatmough introduced off the bench, yet at Stevenage it floundered.

Cook declined to discuss the reasons behind the system change when afterwards questioned by The News, his frustration at the result all too apparent.

His reticence to delve into analyse during the rawness of the post-match interview environment is nothing new. He was in no mood to alter that approach on Saturday.

Granted, change was forced upon him following injury to Kal Naismith and Kyle Bennett, two of his most outstanding performers for more than a month.

Yet instead of attempting to employ like-for-like replacements, or identifying as close as possible, Cook opted to change his 4-2-3-1 for the 3-5-2.

As a result, Noel Hunt came in to partner Eoin Doyle in attack, with Davies handed a first league start since October 22.

And, as a team, they never got going, surrendering the customary dominance on the ball and deprived of the recent fluency to have won so many admirers.

Yet it had been the visitors who provided the game’s first dangerous moment when Stevens galloped down the left on five minutes.

He pulled the ball back with Evans racing onto it to strike a first-time right-foot shot which crashed against the crossbar.

At the other end, on 11 minutes, David Forde saved Steve Schumacher’s free-kick and Josh McQuoid’s follow-up, before Clarke cleared McQuoid’s next shot over the line.

However, there was good fortune in Stevenage’s favour on 16 minutes when they broke the deadlock.

Luke Wilkinson received a throw-in and half-volleyed a cross from the right which ended up striking the bar.

The backpeddling Forde was caught up in the net as Jack King popped up to head the ball into the vacant goal.

There was nothing lucky about Borough’s second goal, however, just rank bad defending.

On 28 minutes, Hunt’s clearing header from a Schumacher free-kick fell to Jobi McAnuff, whose sublime ball to the far post picked out the unmarked Matt Godden.

Sky Bet’s February Player of the Month had time to steer home a first-time right-foot finish.

Then, on 33 minutes, Pompey again struck the bar, Carl Baker’s right-foot free-kick beat Chris Day, but not the woodwork.

The game was over 41 seconds into the second half when Davies and Burgess made a mess of stopping Godden and, when Forde saved, McAnuff followed up.

Burgess was sent off for a second booking on 75 minutes after obstructing Godden, while there was still time for substitute Conor Chaplin to embarrrasingly clip his 87th minute penalty straight into the arms of Day.

It was the outcome few had anticipated – but the fans are still adamant the future holds promotion.

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