MK Dons 1 Pompey 2 – Neil Allen’s match report

Matt Clarke scored Pompey's equaliser on 84 minutes Picture: Joe Pepler
Matt Clarke scored Pompey's equaliser on 84 minutes Picture: Joe Pepler
Pompey chief executive Mark Catlin. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey closing in on Fratton Park friendly

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At Nyewood Lane, Jack Whatmough’s grand entrance was rightly heralded following the completion of another gutsy injury fightback.

Amid the bitter Bognor cold, Tuesday night’s reserve fixture also threw up Brandon Haunstrup’s comeback, while triallist Jonathan Douglas was handed an opportunity to impress.

Elsewhere, the presence of Conor Chaplin attracted little fanfare.

The skipper for the evening racked up 90 minutes in a low-key Premier League Cup match whose attendance figures were not announced.

Barely four days later and the 20-year-old was gleefully hurtling towards 6,257 Pompey supporters having secured a last-gasp triumph at the MK Dons.

Contrasting occasions, different environments, how swiftly footballing fortunes can transform.

Chaplin had totalled just a minute of game time during the Blues’ previous six League One fixtures.

To be precise, he had not featured for a single second of first-team league action during the winless start to 2018, despite named in the squad for each.

For Pompey’s ever-popular home-grown product, reserve outings at Nyewood Lane – and Privett Park before that – have become ever-more critical.

Starved of game time, the non-league venues have offered precious pitch presence during a period when a loan spell away from Fratton Park had grown increasingly appealing – by Chaplin’s own admission.

Cue Stadium MK on Saturday, with the forward introduced at the interval by Kenny Jackett and challenged to haul the team back from a 1-0 disadvantage.

It was fitting that Matt Clarke, on the occasion of his 100th Blues’ appearance, should draw the teams level in the 84th minute.

It’s highly unlikely the central defender will be around for another century of Pompey outings considering the blossoming talent has established him as the club’s prized asset.

Still, Clarke appeared to have secured Jackett’s men a late point in a game they had largely been second best since the 21st minute, when Ike Ugbo had handed the Dons the lead.

In truth, the hosts fully deserved a victory at that point during an open match in which both keepers starred, particularly Luke McGee.

Then, in four minutes of time added, Dion Donohue slung in a cross from the left which was steered into the box by the head of Brett Pitman.

Oli Hawkins snaked out a leg to hook it through some bodies and there was Chaplin.

From six-yards, he pounced to steer a first-time left-foot shot into the net and break the hosts’ hearts at the death.

A number of Pompey’s travelling masses had earlier walked out in disgust, consigning themselves to a disappointing 1-0 defeat against a side languishing in 22nd spot.

Yet those who remained were treated to a special finale – and the sight of Chaplin sprinting the length of the pitch to celebrate alongside them.

He later revealed the inspiration for such motives lay in a bet with Lowe during their half-time introduction, the scorer of a goal pledging to carry out an alternative lap of honour.

Nonetheless, for Chaplin it meant everything during what has developed into the most frustrating period of his Pompey career.

A consolation from the bench at Peterborough on November 21 represented his previous goal, sparking a flurry of seven successive appearances, four of them starts.

Then arrived the lull, igniting inevitable questions over Chaplin’s ongoing Blues future.

Certainly he has delivered a reminder of his finishing talents, Saturday marking his fourth goal of the season – all registered while serving as a substitute.

Now it’s a case of Jackett identifying where to position Chaplin in the side, as Pompey’s boss continues to search for his most effective lone striker and number 10 combination.

At MK Dons, Pitman was restored to the team following two matches on the bench, a leveller against Doncaster the previous week escalating his first-team claims.

The necessity for the suspended Christian Burgess to be replaced aided the skipper’s cause, with Hawkins dropping into the centre of defence to partner Clarke.

Pitman took on the mantle of lone striker, with Connor Ronan operating behind for successive matches, with Matty Kennedy and Gareth Evans out wide.

The second of the changes saw McGee restored in goal following Stephen Henderson’s thigh injury upon his second Pompey debut.

The summer arrival from Spurs would go on to produce a magnificent man-of-the-match display, with a string of fine saves to keep the Blues in contention.

Had it not been for his presence, Jackett’s troops would have been buried long before their glorious comeback, such was the open nature of the game.

Meanwhile, Burgess was accompanied by Stuart O’Keefe in watching the encounter from the packed away end, as the Fratton faithful seized control of Stadium MK during a first visit since October 2012 – and second in their history.

For the opening 21 minutes, Pompey were the better side, with Evans’ swivel and shot from the right drawing a superb save from Lee Nicholls.

Yet, against the run of play, left wing-back Josh Tymon fed Kieran Agard, whose shot was well saved by McGee only for Ugbo to follow up and break the deadlock.

It largely blunted the visitors, although Kennedy continued to send in crosses from the left, while a brilliant lob from Pitman was clawed over.

At the other end, McGee tipped Callum Brittain’s attempt wide, while he produced a wonderful point-blank save to prevent Scott Wootton’s header following a corner.

The interval saw Chaplin and Lowe replace Kennedy and Ronan, but the Blues continued to be indebted to McGee.

On 59 minutes he thwarted Ugbo in a one-on-one and, from the resulting corner, somehow tipped over Ed Upson’s smart back header.

In response, Wootton cleared off the line from Pitman, Nicholls saved from Evans and Hawkins saw his header from a corner strike the post’s foot.

Then, on 84 minutes, Evans played a short corner to Donohue, whose cross from the left was headed home by Clarke for the leveller.

And come the final whistle, the Stadium MK reverberated to renditions of ‘He’s one of our own’.