Grimsby 0 Pompey 1 '“ Neil Allen's match report

As Pompey's exuberant band refused to leave their Osmond Stand stage, Paul Cook stepped up for his own encore.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 11th December 2016, 11:31 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th December 2016, 1:54 pm
Kal Naismith scores Pompey's winner at Blundell Park Picture: Joe Pepler
Kal Naismith scores Pompey's winner at Blundell Park Picture: Joe Pepler

Hands positioned high above his head, he returned from the dressing room to applaud the endeavours of those remaining 1,110 supporters.

A credible draw had been transformed into a potentially season-defining victory in the dying minutes of their Blundell Park visit.

Of course the Cook era has been here before, a chest-beating triumph on their travels to dare suggest the promotion push has gathered crucial momentum.

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The last occasion was Luton, the previous away-day trip – and we are all aware of what happened subsequently.

Still, on Saturday it was a Scottish substitute who stole the show, weighing in with a late goal to hand the Blues a win at Grimsby.

To think Pompey’s preceding outing to that part of Lincolnshire more than 14 years earlier provided a comparable outcome.

Back then Celtic-product Mark Burchill was the hero, clambering off the bench to grab an 85th minute goal in a 1-0 victory.

That August 2002 result took Harry Redknapp’s side to the top of Division One, a position they largely maintained during the charge to the title.

Kal Naismith’s present-day intervention arrived a minute later than Burchill’s, nonetheless, the similarities are striking.

The manner of the scoreline may have been dramatic for Cook, yet was fully deserved as his team responded to their recent ills in impressive style.

Pompey’s boss craved a positive reaction from his stuttering side – and that is precisely what he received during a performance convincing in all but the number of goals scored.

No wonder, upon the final whistle, the Scouser pumped his fist triumphantly in Barry Harris-fashion towards the directors’ box situated in the facing stand.

The sense of relief was palpable, the latest molehill to pop up trampled upon successfully in a Blues job which continues to test his managerial skills.

A fortnight’s absence of game time had allowed the pressure within the confines of the training ground to build. How a footballing release was required.

The awful Stevenage defeat coupled with that half-time brawl had devastated the fine work at Kenilworth Road, while hatching doubts over dressing-room morale.

Club voices can preach about united fronts and unbroken team spirit, yet supporters seek tangible proof. On Saturday they were handed it.

Keeping faith in the same starting XI, in particular scrapping pair Christian Burgess and Michael Doyle, Cook threw down the challenge to his team.

What followed was an impressive opening 45 minutes against the Mariners, operating a high-tempo approach which swamped the hosts.

Crucially, as ever, all that was missing from that first half was a Pompey goal, yet the display was undeniably encouraging.

The Blues started strongly and maintained that stance, pinning Grimsby in their half, nullifying the undoubted threat of Omar Bogle and snaffling every opposition loose ball and misplaced pass with relish.

How Marcus Bignot must have craved that half-time whistle to rally his wilting troops in what had become a damage-limitation exercise.

Granted, the goalless scoreline was a concern for those of Pompey persuasion, the failure to capitalise when comfortably on top has been a regular occurrence.

Yet it was impossible not to be heartened by that opening half, delivered by a side whose inconsistency remains a long-standing ailment, much to the infuriation of the manager and supporters.

Those seeking evidence of dressing-room unrest and a divided camp would have been left disappointed, there remains an iron bond among this side, irrespective of the occasional spat.

However, while the performance was important in restoring the fans’ faith, ultimately Cook required victory to consolidate fourth spot in League Two.

That was provided by Naismith, the great fighter who continues to hammer home an importance to the team which grows by the fixture.

There was last month’s assist against Mansfield for the vital second goal, then a right-footed strike at Luton which sealed the victory.

His latest substitute cameo earned the Blues victory at Blundell Park, as well as emphasising his push for a first-team start.

Also throw in a stunning strike from distance in the Checkatrade Trophy against Bristol Rovers having been named in the line-up and the winger is a player in delicious form at present.

Naismith had been on the pitch for 10 minutes when Kayden Jackson brought down Carl Baker 25-yards from goal.

With Gary Roberts and Kyle Bennett having been substituted, a new free-kick taker was required – Naismith.

The ever-confident Scot stepped up to deliver a left-footed shot over the wall and into the top corner of the net to send those fans gathered behind the goal into raptures.

The clock displayed 86 minutes and again the substitute once told he had no future at the club was the inspiration.

A moment of magic and what appeared to be an encounter heading for an honourable draw was suddenly on track for another Pompey away win.

And how those players erupted into celebration.

Naismith hurtled towards the bench and his team-mates followed in pursuit, embracing the substitutes and piling body upon body in joyous embrace.

If anybody needed convincing there remains a strong bond within a squad burdened with promotion expectations, then that was the irrefutable evidence.

It just required the lead to be maintained, Cook throwing on Noel Hunt for Michael Smith in an attempt to continue challenging the visitors rather than going for more defensive bench options.

Despite five minutes of time added on, that Pompey advantage remained intact, the win was secured, as was a six-match unbeaten away record stretching back to September.

The Blues are a frustrating presence in League Two, well-equipped for promotion yet ingrained with an exasperating struggle to produce the necessary consistency.

At present, Fratton Park form provides a handbrake to aspirations of reaching the top three, while some will never stomach Cook’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system.

However, those present at Blundell Park on Saturday could not question the attitude and staunch togetherness of a team which should never be written off.