Brett Pitman is back to fire up key win – Neil Allen’s match report as Portsmouth beat Walsall
Brett Pitman was granted his reprieve – and how Pompey reaped the rewards at the Bescot Stadium.
With their promotion push faltering, the striker’s 14-minute Charlton cameo had brokered his way back into the starting XI.
A first start in 10 matches, a period which also saw Pitman omitted from Kenny Jackett’s squad on five occasions, despite fully fit.
Yet he arrived back from the cold at Walsall, inspiring a timely 3-2 success in the process.
The Blues maiden league away victory of 2019 was secured through Omar Bogle, Viv Solomon-Otabor and, of course, that man Pitman.
Certainly there was a degree of inevitably the skipper would weigh in with a hefty contribution upon his comeback.
Initially that occurred from a 13th-minute penalty, following a push on Nathan Thompson inside the box.
There was, however, more to come from the 31-year-old, who operated as a number 10 behind lone striker Bogle on the evening, replacing Gareth Evans.
It was his tackle and intelligent pass which set Jamal Lowe racing away to tee Solomon-Otabor up for the third on 68 minutes.
Admittedly, as ever with Pompey at present, the outcome was not entirely smooth, allowing Walsall to pull two consolation goals back through defender Jon Guthrie.
But a victory it was, closing the gap behind the automatic promotion spots to six points with nine to play following Barnsley’s goalless draw with Sunderland.
And for Pitman, a return to the first-team fold – and how his team needs him at present.
Jackett was deprived of Ronan Curtis before kick-off, the Irishman having trapped a finger in a door earlier in the day.
The unusual injury echoed Richard Hughes’ predicament in January 2003, when the midfielder lost the tip of a finger in similar circumstances at Pompey’s training ground.
Curtis’ absence prompted a recall for Viv Solomon-Otabor on the left-hand wing as one of three changes to the side which lost 2-1 at Charlton on Saturday.
Elsewhere, there was the intriguing return of Pitman, forcing his way back into the side following a spell out of favour to serve behind Bogle.
Bogle, recovered from a hamstring problem, came in for Oli Hawkins as the lone strike, with Hawkins joining Evans on the bench.
There was once again no room for Lloyd Isgrove and Louis Dennis, while Andy Cannon, Bryn Morris and Jack Whatmough remain in the treatment room.
When the match got underway, Bogle was presented with the first opportunity on seven minutes.
Ben Close won possession and slipped in the striker down the right-hand side, the loanee then curling a left-footed shot which Walsall’s keeper saved low down.
Clarke then had to receive medical attention off the pitch having damaged his nose, with blood impacting upon his shirt.
The central defender was still not present when the Blues broke the deadlock on 13 minutes.
Lee Brown’s cross from the left was heading for Nathan Thompson, only for Morgan Ferrier to inexplicably push the right-back over in the penalty area.
Pitman stepped up and planted the spot kick right-footed into the far corner, sending Liam Roberts the wrong way.
Moments later, Clarke returned to the field wearing a bandage and with cotton wool up his nose following a five-minute absence, only to then be booked.
He fouled Liam Kinsella just past the halfway line on 16 minutes, yet Walsall’s free-kick came to nothing.
Pompey carved out another opening on 21 minutes when Jamal Lowe mis-hit a left-footed attempt from just inside the area.
Solomon-Otabor did his best to retrieve the situation from the angle, yet couldn’t get his shot away and the opportunity had gone.
At the other end, an uncharacteristic mistake from Clarke, letting the ball go under his foot, allowed Ferrier a path into the penalty area.
The attacker’s fierce angled shot was parried by Craig MacGillivray, with the keeper pouncing on the rebound before a home player could follow up.
On 25 minutes the Blues increased their advantage through a classy finish from Bogle.
MacGillivray’s booming kick out of his hands found its way through to the striker, who lobbed the keeper with a first-time left-footed shot which found the net via the inside of the far post.
It was a wonderful moment, with Bogle heading into his own half of the field to take the applause from visiting fans positioned at the opposite end of the ground.
Lowe had the ball in the net moments later following a quickly-taken free-kick, but referee Trevor Kettle ruled Walsall’s players had not been ready, so brought play back.
Inevitably, Pompey’s players felt hard done by, in particular Lowe, whose first attempt had been saved by the keeper, before following up to finish into an empty net.
Kinsella became the first Walsall player to be booked, following a late challenge on Tom Naylor which completely took out the midfielder.
A wonderful ball over the top from Pitman on 38 minutes then sent Lowe racing clear, but the winger’s first touch was poor and the keeper was allowed to gather comfortably.
The Blues headed into the interval 2-0 up, yet suffered a scare within a minute of the restart.
A ball over the top allowed Josh Gordon a sniff of goal, but the diminutive striker’s header lacked enough loop to clear MacGillivray, who claimed it high above his head.
On 51 minutes, Gordon swung in a dangerous ball from the left which the diving Brown managed to head behind for a corner under pressure.
Walsall were enjoying far more of the ball, playing tidily, with the Blues often forced to hack the ball long in an attempt to clear their lines.
Yet it was 3-0 on 68 minutes after Pitman won possession of the ball on the halfway line.
The skipper proceeded to prod the ball down the right channel into the path of Lowe, who unselfishly squared for Solomon-Otabor, who took a touch before calmly finishing into the far bottom corner.
Immediately Walsall made their first substitution of the game with Joe Edwards replaced by Corey Blackett-Taylor.
Bogle’s involvement ended on 74 minutes, replaced by Vaughan to end a fine goal-scoring return.
Walsall pulled one back in the 75th minute when George Dobson’s left-wing corner was headed home at the far post by Jon Guthrie.
Then two minutes into time added on, Guthrie grabbed another, turning home the ball at close range.
But Pompey hung on for a crucial win, with nine massive matches remaining.