Pompey 1 Plymouth 2 '“ Neil Allen's match report
The vision of St George shambling across the North stand car park seeking his errant shield was a curious sight.
Still, hardly out of place considering the surreality surrounding Saturday’s footballing outcome.
The Fratton faithful could not believe their eyes as their side slipped to a defeat surely fatal to automatic promotion aspirations.
It was a result which, for so long, had appeared improbable, a rank outsider of a resolution between the two challengers.
The final whistle was met with stunned silence as Pompey’s largest League Two crowd of the season attempted to digest the unpalatable.
Unquestionably the pain would have struck sharply later, accompanied by the inevitable realisation of the significance.
Plymouth scrambled a 2-1 victory in a late show not even the most cheerfully optimistic among the 2,405 away followers saw coming.
As they justifiably celebrated, the majority of fans present on Saturday were left dumbfounded
Blues supporters have witnessed the far-fetched occurrence of a goalkeeping netting a stoppage time equaliser at Morecambe this season.
Incidently, that is the only time in the club’s Football League history that has manifested at either end of the pitch.
Strikes in injury-time against Stevenage, Carlisle and Exeter have agonisingly deprived them of triumphs.
Overall, that is now 13 goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of fixtures during the campaign.
Yet the Pilgrims’ ugly ducking transformation in the most dramatic of circumstances is perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all – and the most crucial.
It leaves Cook’s troops now six points adrift of the automatic promotion spots with a game in hand entering the final few weeks.
However, whereas defeat would have effectively banished Plymouth from the race, instead Pompey are banking on at least three teams above them to combust in their remaining four fixtures.
In truth, the chances are depressingly remote.
To make matters worse, victory would have left the Blues in control of their own promotion destiny, such was the encouraging outcome of results around them.
Still, the damage was inflicted within two ‘minutes of madness’, as branded by Cook in his post-match address.
Before the clock struck 84 minutes, the hosts had been impressively dominant over the team positioned one place above them in the League Two table.
During the opening 15 minutes Plymouth struck the inside of the post through Carl McHugh’s header in a strong start to proceedings which had Pompey tottering in a manner not before seen since Oxford United’s visit.
Yet steadily the hosts regained composure and would dictate proceedings with ease and confidence, inspired by the dogged duo of Danny Hollands and Michael Doyle in the holding midfield roles.
Once Michael Smith stooped to steer a low header past Luke McCormick from Matt Clarke’s long delivery into the box, the dismissal of tension was palpable.
It was comfortable viewing, there was a welcome calmness to Pompey’s play as they continued to apply pressure to the Pilgrims’ goal.
What was a frantic end-to-end affair in the early stages had settled into a one-sided encounter overwhelmingly in the Blues’ favour.
All that was missing was that second goal, a killer delivery to put an out-of-sorts yet belligerent Plymouth side out of their Fratton Park misery.
Yes, that cut-throat instinct which has eluded Cook’s men on many occasions this season, particularly in home fixtures.
Irrespective of such an absence, there was barely a whimper from the Pilgrims as an attacking force, although Peter Hartley did produce a powerful strike to Gary Roberts’ head with his elbow.
The wincing second-half challenge in the absence of the ball earned the central defender a yellow card, while left the midfielder feeling groggy and he subsequently was withdrawn on 75 minutes for Marc McNulty.
Moments after, Reuben Reid ominously appeared off the bench to replace Jake Jervis, the ex-Blues target having barely trained all week with a thigh problem.
Entering the final 10 minutes, Smith fired into the sidenetting and moments later, clearly still feeling the tiring effects of that attack, Kyle Bennett put him through down the left again.
This time it was a weak angled drive which McCormick easily dealt with by diving forwards to gather.
Within minutes the match had been turned on its head.
Clarke’s block resulted in a corner down the right-hand side and when the outstanding Graham Carey’s delivery arrived, Jamille Matt beat Paul Jones to the ball to head home an equaliser in the 84th minute.
The Pompey keeper’s handling had been impeccable until that point, managing to negotiate the Pilgrims’ height inside the six-yard box.
On that occasion, however, he allowed the on-loan striker from Fleetwood to get there first – and the scores were level.
If that wasn’t galling enough for the Fratton faithful, barely two minutes later substitute Gregg Wylde had given the visitors the lead.
It was Carey again crossing from the right and the midfielder was there to finish inside the box, the ball finding a way through Jones’ diving legs.
Suddenly the side scrapping to avoid falling further behind had the lead, in fairness demonstrating a resilience and self-belief which did their club proud.
Certainly without the creative prompting of Carey it would never have arrived, nonetheless the gutsy visitors had risen from the dead.
In contrast, for the shell-shocked Blues there was no coming back, failing to significantly threaten for the remainder, including five minutes of time added on.
The must-win fixture had been lost and surely with it automatic promotion hopes have dispersed.
Cook was remaining positive afterwards, refusing to surrender, a public attitude expected from any self-respecting manager in such circumstances.
Famously St George defeated the dragon against all the odds. Fittingly, that Pompey supporter in the car park opted to take his guise.
For the Blues now claiming automatic promotion equates to just as much as an improbable feat.