Bristol Rovers 1 Pompey 2: Match report

Jayden Stockley scores Pompey's winner against Bristol Rovers Picture: Joe Pepler
Jayden Stockley scores Pompey's winner against Bristol Rovers Picture: Joe Pepler
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Just two seasons ago, Richie Barker’s side went down to a 2-0 defeat at Bristol Rovers on this same ground on a depressingly dark afternoon just before Christmas.

Not one single Pompey player from that day was involved in this game.

Under Paul Cook, with different players, on a very different glorious afternoon, thankfully this Pompey side is totally unrecognisable from that one.

This one boasts a slick passing game, intelligent movement, individual ability, clear direction and some genuine steel to see out those tough spells in a game.

The badge on the shirt may be similar but this lot are worlds apart.

And surely we can all now agree this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction.

Climbing to the top of the League Two table after this 2-1 win, Pompey now look certain to be at least challenging for promotion this season.

Of course, that temptation to predict the future is always there.

Even when you are trying your best to stay in the present, it’s hard not to go a bit Mystic Meg and guess how that League Two table will look in May.

Not Cook, though.

He knows his promotion mission will not be achieved on a sunny September afternoon in Bristol.

Days like this one certainly help, though.

If you spend five minutes in his company, you’ll hear him use a phrase quite frequently: ‘We just keep going’.

It’s a mantra which will serve them well and has already been evident in the first few weeks of the season.

We are now nine games into the season – that’s just under 20 per cent. In 
Great South Run terms, we’re only plodding past HMS Victory. But these are increasingly sure steps.

There’s still a feeling Pompey have yet to get into their stride and there are bound to be some stumbles along the way.

But nine matches unbeaten and 19 points is enough to see them at the top of the pile at this early stage.

Aside from that league table, there was plenty more encouragement for the travelling Pompey fans to enjoy as their team clocked up a third away success of the campaign – a tally which has already matched the whole of last season’s efforts on the road.

The passing was sharper and there was more end product and menace.

Cook’s side certainly didn’t have it all their own way, though.

Adam McGurk’s ankle injury in the warm-up was not ideal but Jayden Stockley stepped up manfully and capped his performance with the finishing touch to a classy winner.

Whether McGurk’s absence played a part is open to question but Pompey were not quite at full throttle in the opening few minutes of the contest.

But after gaining control, they backed up it with the opening goal.

Kyle Bennett, who shone on the opening day of the season, had not been able to hit those same heights in recent weeks.

But a move to the right flank gave him a new lease of life after switching with Gareth Evans during that first period and the two combined to give Pompey the lead.

Evans had already gone close with a fine solo run past flailing Rovers defenders, only to see his shot beaten out by the goalkeeper.

But he timed his run between defenders to meet Bennett’s cross with a well-placed header beyond the keeper’s reach.

It looked a simple goal at first viewing but there was more to it than that with intelligent movement and an assured finish from Evans – who was in fine form, particularly in the first half.

That extra movement was a key factor in the team’s performance as Adam Barton – in for his first League Two start in a revamped central midfield alongside Danny Hollands – added a different dimension with his passing ability.

There were some misplaced passes from both of them but their use of the ball opened up important pockets of space – something Cook has paid extra attention to on the training ground in recent times.

Pompey looked the better side for the majority of the half but were also indebted to new loan goalkeeper, Aaron McCarey, for a couple of smart stops as they reached the break in charge. The Wolves man pulled off two good saves in quick succession – one low to his right to prevent a deflected cross creeping in and then again soon afterwards to deny Jermaine Easter’s drive.

On this showing, the Irishman looks a very capable keeper.

However, he could do nothing about the Bristol Rovers equaliser soon after the restart, even though it went down as an unfortunate own goal.

With Rovers making a double substitution and switching formation, Pompey looked a yard off the pace as Daniel Leadbitter’s cross found Easter, whose first-time shot crashed back off the underside of the crossbar and went in off McCarey’s backside.

While McCarey was probably cursing his luck, he might have given his woodwork a gentle tap of thanks as Easter capitalised on the only error from the outstanding pairing of Christian Burgess and Matt Clarke, letting fly with a shot from 30 yards that rattled the post.

Pompey needed a pick-me-up and they got it as the game ticked into the final quarter. Cook turned to his bench and saw Gary Roberts. The former Chesterfield man – just back from an ankle injury – was introduced with 22 minutes left to replace Conor Chaplin, who wasn’t at his best.

Chaplin missed a sitter of a header in the first half, although it would have been ruled out for offside anyway, before he was booked for diving in the second period.

The youngster appeared to offer a quiet apology to his opponent moments after his tumble, which suggested the referee had made the right call.

But just in case we didn’t already know, Roberts is a quality player and made an instant impression, releasing Bennett away down the right, only to blast his shot wide.

And the former Chesterfield man was then heavily involved in Pompey’s winner – a cracking team goal that was too good for League Two and epitomised Cook’s philosophy in the passing game.

As passes were exchanged into midfield, Roberts fed the lively Ben Davies, Stockley nipped in to space and ahead of the goalkeeper to get an outstretched foot to a lovely cross.

It looked like the telling blow and Rovers had no answer as Pompey saw the game out with relative ease.

The manager and his players will be keen to keep their feet on the ground at such an early stage in the season.

But he can’t stop the the rest of us getting just a bit excited now.