Exeter 0 Pompey 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Gary Roberts scores his penalty. Picture: Joe Pepler
Gary Roberts scores his penalty. Picture: Joe Pepler
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Amid the stubbornly familiar concerns, there was something reassuringly different about Pompey.

It was reflected by the manner in which David Forde punched the ball clear, before producing a towering take from a corner.

Highlighted by Michael Doyle hurling his body into a ferocious shot, forcing the trajectory to turn away from goal.

And summed up by substitute Noel Hunt hogging the corner flag to cannily retain possession, winning two free-kicks in the process.

Almost six months earlier, St James Park had witnessed Paul Cook’s side gripped by panic as they surrendered a lead into stoppage time.

Then there was Saturday.

This time the Blues demonstrated admirable composure and a gutsy strength of character to ensure victory remained intact.

Those agonising dying throes were negotiated with a new-found mastery to suggest crucial evolution in the bid to achieve promotion.

Handed the breakthrough on 85 minutes through Gary Roberts’ penalty, the stinging Grecians’ final act was predictably testing.

An additional five minutes of time added on ramped up the drama, shots rained on goal and corners pumped into the box as desperation rallied the hosts.

And how a resolute Pompey stood firm.

Cook’s men were unconvincing in their overall victory, their football lacking its usual fluency, while Exeter’s keeper Bobby Olejnik was barely examined.

An average display, nothing more, nothing less, assisted by a highly-debatable penalty.

That slice of good fortune was provided by referee Gavin Ward in an encounter the Blues once again struggled to break down the opposition.

Nonetheless, it was a successive win following a stuttering start to the campaign which has attracted plenty of criticism.

Granted, Saturday failed to reassure on those creative issues, but Cook’s men demonstrated their ability to safely usher out a slender lead in the face of pressure.

Winning ugly is the usual description, a feature any self-respecting promotion team possess in abundance during the charge out of a division.

Leam Richardson afterwards spoke how last season Pompey would have conceded during such an encounter in stoppage time, depriving them of two points.

No such fate against Exeter and for those members of the Fratton faithful insistent there is a deja-vu about the Blues, this is one aspect which dares to hint at change.

Early days, admittedly, yet the visitors’ ability to negotiate such late pressure to preserve a slender lead augers well for the battle ahead.

Likewise, that is now a third clean sheet in four matches, a spell in which the towering presence of Forde continues to shine through.

The goals aren’t flowing for Pompey at present, yet at the other end of the pitch nor are they flooding in, irrespective of Burgess now on his third central defensive partner.

Tom Davies was granted his league debut on Saturday, with Adam Barton dropped to the bench and Jack Whatmough sidelined through injury.

In the background Matt Clarke is continuing his rehabilitation and will also get his chance as the campaign wears on, most likely sooner rather than later.

Davies, though, produced an assured showing, displaying fight and a defensive grit which compensates for lacking the comfort on the ball several of his rivals possess.

The summer recruit from Accrington was a welcome presence during the Grecians’ late onslaught and can become a vital player this season.

Of course, it should not be overlooked that the Blues’ first away win of the campaign arrived at a club with only two home victories in 2016.

Exeter have endured a poor start to the campaign and there were boos at the final whistle. Whether directed at the referee, manager or players it was hard to distinguish.

Forget the hackneyed soundbite of hard-earned point at a difficult place to play, such an outcome would have been deeply unsatisfactory for anyone with promotion aspirations.

Yet until Roberts’ late penalty, Pompey had mustered only one attempt to test Olejnik, a first-half shot from Curtis Main straight at him.

Similarly, Forde had little involvement during a fixture lacking in quality.

Also absent was Cook, having been banished to the St James Park stands courtesy of a two-match ban following his behaviour towards the match officials in the tunnel at Morecambe.

Re-housed in the side opposite the away dug-out, he used his mobile phone to pass on thoughts to assistant Richardson and other members of the coaching staff.

Cook could not have been happy with a first half in which there were plenty of Pompey shots from distance but sparse accuracy as Main and Carl Baker suffered from below-par performances.

Ethan Ampadu, the 15-year-old who earlier in the week established himself as Exeter’s youngest debutant, and Troy Brown were outstanding in defence to restrict close-range opportunities.

At one point Brown took an on-target Danny Rose shot full in the face as they continued to fend off the visitors.

After the break, Pompey enjoyed far more possession, yet once again lacked attacking inspiration to break down the hosts.

In addition to Davies, Cook’s other change to the side which defeated Colchester was introducing Milan Lalkovic for Kyle Bennett.

Curiously Bennett didn’t make the squad for the first time in his Pompey league career, despite being fit.

Instead the transfer-listed Kal Naismith found himself on the bench and his introduction alongside Noel Hunt on 74 minutes proved decisive.

Burgess delivered a measured ball out of defence down the left channel for Naismith, on for Lalkovic, to gallop onto.

Sweeney’s minimal contact with his shoulder sent him sprawling inside the box and a penalty was awarded.

The culprit and skipper Lloyd James were booked for their protests, while Roberts calmly netted his third goal in two matches.

The mission was not complete, however, there was still 10 more minutes to see out to preserve such a victory.

And this new-look Blues achieved it.