A new dawn but familiar deficiencies condemn Portsmouth to more opening-day pain on road at Shrewsbury - Jordan Cross' big-match verdict
Hope hummed and optimism bloomed at the dawning of a new season.
The perennial emotions of anticipation and no little expectation spilled forth in the Shropshire sunshine, as Kenny Jackett’s Pompey 3.0 were welcomed into the boisterous bosom of those who hold their club dear.
Memories of opening days of yesteryear sprung to mind as buoyancy spread across the 1,714 supporters, who travelled with cheer and told their tales between sups of pre-match pints.
The rest reflected back home on Guy Whittingham’s Bristol City hat-trick leaving Andy Cole in the shade in ‘92, a Paul Merson-inspired Blues serving notice of what was to come against Forest in ‘02 and then the pinching disbelief of the football world tuning in to see Premier League Pompey ground Villa 12 months later.
What about givin’ it large to Liam Gallagher before kick-off at Manchester City in ‘97? Kanu being dragged from his local park to play Blackburn off Fratton Park nine years later and hadn’t we had some opening-day Salop success before?
Ah, yes. But for all the moments of light to reflect on, the history books also tell of those anti-climatic afternoons which have peppered the past on the first league day.
The 4-1 pain at the dawning of the first full season of the community era against Oxford United six years ago, the FA Cup holders taking a 4-0 tonking at Chelsea in 2008 and the many frustrating afternoons on the road which formed the 31 years on their travels since a maximum return was harvested from the first league fixture.
The fact it arrived against the Shrews in 1988, gave those of a glass-half-full persuasion fuel for their positivity and even confidence at some statistical symmetry unfolding.
But those longer in the tooth knew to remain wary. The more cynical in royal blue shook their head in the knowledge nowt comes easy with Pompey. And so it proved.
And for all their freshness, six debuts and summer expenditure there was a familiarity to the shortcomings of Jackett’s men from the end of last season to rue, at the end of a day which looked to offer so much.
In their now usual 4-2-3-1 formation, this was once again a team in their manager’s image. Business-like, professional and sturdy. Made for the road.
From a defensive standpoint, Pompey remain an almost comfortable watch on their travels. It was clear it was going to take something special to prise them apart on Saturday. But more of that in a moment.
With Pompey’s dogs of war sat in front of the back four, the Scottish deerhound and English mastiff snapped and snarled and particularly in Tom Naylor promoted positive play in the first 45 minutes, alongside Ross McCrorie.
It’s what happened when getting the ball in the wide areas to wreak havoc which ultimately led to it all unravelling in the west midlands.
It’s written in the tactical tablets, that when facing a wing-back formation there’s space to exploit in wide areas. It was something which would’ve undoubtedly been a significant area of focus in the build-up to the curtain-raiser.
So the manner in which Pompey’s final ball consistently let them down as they worked it down the flanks was galling, and ultimately costly.
Time and again in the opening stanza the lines were fluffed. Never a man to dodge the issues, Jackett not only pinned down the problem the area, but the cost in succinct fashion.
‘Our crossing, particularly from the right, wasn’t very good.’ said the Pompey boss. ‘The quality of the crossing wasn’t there. It was the biggest issue. It’s cost us the points in the end.’
The hilarious Pompey Memes took another tack in an Inbetweeners-inspired assessment of the key factor on Twitter. The light relief was appreciated on the return south.
The inability to make more of good crossing situations or for the side’s creative players to beat their opponent one v one, (or even two v one) was the fundamental issue in failing to turn possession into something tangible.
The numbers read 63 per cent of the ball resided with Pompey, resulting in 10 corners and 15 shots.
For all of that, the best opening of the first 45 minutes arrived as the result of physical bashing for Christian Burgess from the old warhorse Steve Morison, which preceded Jackett’s old Millwall striker fizzing a half volley just over the top.
Pompey’s premier source of ammunition and best performer on the day, Lee Brown, saw his arcing cross-shot tipped away six minutes after the restart, before his delivery was turned just over the bar by the outstretched leg of Donald Love.
If effective possession is nine tenths of the football law the visitors didn’t have nearly enough of it, though, paving the way for that old truism you’ll pay for not making the most of dominance of the ball to condemn Pompey.
The fact it was a football fairytale as Shropshire teenager Ryan Giles won it with a Roy of the Rovers hit from 25 yards on his league debut, was of little consequence to those away fans left disappointed on the first day again.
Nor would the reality fortune deserting their side late along with outstanding defending would ensure they left New Meadow empty handed.
John Marquis had taken a battering from Shrewsbury’s fearsome defensive trio in search of a clear sight of goal. When it arrived from Brown’s 74th-minute free-kick he found the outstanding Ethan Ebanks-Landell’s long limb in the way on the line.
The word from the away dressing room was Burgess was the unfortunate fall guy, as Ronan Curtis goalbound thump was deflected over with the last kick of the game.
By that time frustration had mounted and finally boiled over as McCrorie was dismissed on his debut for a late lunge on Love, and a second yellow card. The football historians tells us he’s the first Pompey player to do so on his bow since David Hiller saw red at Oldham in 1996.
The hands were raised in admission of guilt for the prospect much is hoped for this season.
‘It’s a frustration but also a learning experience for a young player,’ Jackett said at the end of an afternoon which was dispiriting but hardly cause for hand-wringing at this formative stage. Not just yet anyway.
Like McCrorie, however, his Pompey team-mates have to learn from their opening-day deficiencies. And learn quickly.