Pompey 1 Carlisle 1 '“ Neil Allen's match report
Mark Gillespie illustrated how fortunes can change at Fratton Park.
Unfortunately, Pompey failed to turn over their own new leaf as familiar frustrations gripped the Fratton faithful.
So much for the fresh start heralded by the dawning of a new season.
It was four short months ago when Carlisle’s Gillespie departed the south coast with chants of ‘Dodgy keeper’ ringing in his ears.
Back then his handling misjudgment of Kyle Bennett’s curling right-foot shot saw the ball gifted to Michael Smith to net a matchwinner.
Coupled with erratic kicking game as his display unravelled, that April 2016 afternoon saw Gillespie establish himself as a sitting target for lashings of Fratton end humour.
Upon Saturday’s return, the 24-year-old proved inspirational, certainly the overriding reason why the Cumbrians scrambled an unlikely 1-1 draw
Pulling off a string of magnificent stops, almost exclusively confined to the second-half, he deprived Paul Cook’s men of a thoroughly-deserved triumph.
When Danny Rose did beat him from distance, the ball cannoned off the right-hand post as the hosts were forced to accept a draw.
For the start of the League Two campaign, the crowd of 17,570 would have anticipated bright beginnings at the sun-smothered Fratton Park.
All but the 481 Carlisle fans present craved evidence Cook’s revamped side have overcome their inadequacies in breaking down the most stubborn of defences.
Unquestionably the attacking midfield three of Carl Baker, Gary Roberts and Milan Lalkovic subsequently sparkled as the Blues registered 23 goal attempts and earned themselves 10 corners.
Meanwhile, Keith Curle’s side were challenged to negotiate the final 63 minutes with 10-men following Jamie Devitt’s sending off.
Yet the result ended in a draw and two points dropped by Pompey.
In fairness, this was a significant improvement on the side which often dredged up stagnated attacking displays on home turf last season.
On such occasions, the inability to create failed to match considerable domination on the ball and final-third possession.
Those issues decisively applied the handbrake to last term’s sustained push for automatic promotion.
However, a summer facelift, consisting of the arrivals of five new faces in Saturday’s starting line-up, brought promise of a different outcome.
Sadly the scoreline remained precisely the same, but there was hope.
Cook’s men were denied by Gillespie’s wonder show, poor finishing and also sterling defending from Curle’s organised side.
On another day it could have been a landslide in the south coast sun to ignite the promotion lift-off. Carlisle would not have had any complaints at such a fate.
Instead it succeeded in stoking up those nagging doubts that last season’s problems still exist.
The smattering of boos at the final whistle reflected early discontent among a few over the scoreline, in the process emphasising the level of expectations.
However, this is no time for grand inquisitions and writing off the team – and neither does the quality of performance warrant it.
Pompey played well, they battered the Cumbrians for the majority of the match, unleashing wave-upon-wave of attack.
The fact their goalkeeper was the outstanding performer highlights his own busy afternoon in keeping Cook’s side at bay.
This was no insipid Fratton showing from a side going through the motions, struggling to create in front of a crowd with the potential to inspire.
Putting aside the baggage from last season, it was an extremely-encouraging display, heartening at times.
Crucially, though, that second goal failed to arrive and with it the usual questions are again rolled out upon the occasion of the season’s opener.
Neither should the agony of a draw distract from the performance of Baker in particular, who was a class act.
Operating on the right of the attacking midfield three, his was an instant impact with cleverness on the ball and excellent work-rate.
In addition to a 42nd minute equaliser, the former MK Dons man proved to be Pompey’s most likely source of another goal and was thwarted by Gillespie several times.
Cook treasures his summer recruit’s willingness to shoot and clearly that has already added a new attacking dimension to the Blues’ play.
On Saturday it yielded one goal, on many other days there can be plenty more if he can maintain such a promising introduction to Fratton life.
Alongside him, Roberts was at his best with his vision and movement, while Lalkovic’s willingness to run at opponents was an eye-catching.
Baker and Lalkovic joined David Forde, Drew Talbot and Rose in making their debuts against Carlisle, while Michael Smith returned as a permanent player.
There were also new faces on the bench in Tom Davies, Noel Hunt and Curtis Main, reflecting Cook’s summer overhaul.
In terms of the starting XI, it was anticipated, with Jack Whatmough partnering Christian Burgess in the centre of defence and Lalkovic getting the nod ahead of Kyle Bennett.
Yet within 14 minutes of this new dawn the Blues found themselves behind when Shaun Miller slipped the ball inside to Reggie Lambe who finished from the angle.
Pompey’s central defenders questioned themselves for the goal – as did Cook afterwards.
On 28 minutes, with the visitors still leading, Devitt’s idiocy saw him handed a red card and suddenly the match was transformed.
It had been nine minutes earlier when he had been booked for a foul on Talbot – then he tugged at Roberts’ shirt in the middle of the pitch.
Baker netted the anticipated leveller on 42 minutes when he converted Roberts’ pass from the right and the Fratton faithful sat back for the winner.
Yet it didn’t arrive.
Gillespie saved low down from substitute Bennett, pushed two late Michael Doyle rockets brilliantly over the bar, denied Baker time and again, while the post also intervened and the out-of-sorts Smith was wasteful.
Pompey fans have been here before, but the number of chances created on this occasion suggests change has already arrived.