Pompey 1 Gillingham 3 – Neil Allen’s match report

Lee Martin scored for Gillingham against Pompey. Picture: Joe Pepler
Lee Martin scored for Gillingham against Pompey. Picture: Joe Pepler

Jackett: Fourth place now open to Pompey

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The tantalising trail of breadcrumbs lead to the door of the play-offs.

A mere five points, teases the table, and the delectable reward can be Championship football.

The siren-like lure is undoubtedly enchanting yet, for Pompey, brutal reality is delivered by sobering occasions such as Saturday.

With a click of the fingers, the trance has been dispersed and the stark truth of the situation glares back.

For while aspirations scream play-off push and the League One table offers such heart-pounding optimism, the fact remains Pompey are simply not in shape to succeed in playing catch up.

The Fratton faithful are pragmatists, battle-hardened through lengthy battles with fakes, fantasists and frauds to have previously occupied their club.

They will not be swept along by persuasive monologues on top-six qualification and pledges of a blistering finale to quicken the pulse.

Nothing wrong with a generous helping of hope and yearning, of course, yet in this instance such chest-beating words are misplaced.

Pompey are not equipped for a genuine and sustained play-off challenge – a true form once again unmasked against Gillingham.

In fairness, a top-10 placing should be considered a success, an encouraging foundation during a first campaign back in League One.

Presently Kenny Jackett’s men are 12th as their skiddy slip down the table continues to frustratingly gather momentum.

Yet a minimum of two more places advanced in the final 10 matches should be the prudent objective of the Blues, rather than attempts at lassoing the moon.

This season’s path was chosen during the January transfer window, with sights lowered as a consequence. The play-offs can still be glimpsed, but the distance is too far to travel.

If ever such a fruitless pursuit was demonstrated, it was against improving Gillingham.

For the opening 45 minutes, a Pompey side much-altered in both personnel and system were refreshing, offering mobility and energy to deservedly take a lead into half-time.

Jackett introduced the 3-5-2 formation, with Kal Naismith and Jamal Lowe in attack, and as a team they swamped the visitors, dominating possession and dictating play.

Lowe had provided a 19th-minute lead, aided by the grounded Naismith, whereas the Gills couldn’t even muster an attempt on the home goal.

The only disappointment from this vibrant Blues didn’t head into half-time with a more convincing lead which their play deserved.

What followed was the revisiting of the erratic underbelly this young and inexperienced side possess which renders it improbable to stage a sustained play-off onslaught.

For all Pompey’s first-half excellence, they were awful after the interval as Gillingham rattled up three goals to claim a 3-1 success.

From the standard of two of the strikes and the manner they fought back, it was certainly deserved as the hosts limped to the final whistle, unrecognisable from earlier.

Granted, the recalled Connor Ronan struck the far post with a swiftly-taken free-kick when the scoreline was deadlocked in the second half.

Meanwhile, Dion Donohue had a wonderful opportunity to level at 2-1 after teed up by Naismith, only to elect for power and blaze it wide.

Yet taking into account their level of performance during the opening 45 minutes, the showing after interval was alarming from Pompey and deeply frustrating.

For successive matches, boos emanated from a home support baffled by the extremes of display they had just witnessed.

Of course, the bigger picture portrays a run of two months and 11 days since last tasting victory on home soil. That’s six League One games and one Checkatrade Trophy outing – and includes five defeats.

In total, two points from a possible 18 have been amassed at Fratton Park in 2018. Alternatively, it can be rebranded as the outcome since Danny Rose was injured.

On Saturday, the popular midfielder occupied the press box, featuring as Express FM’s summariser, and how supporters continue to wince at his on-pitch absence.

His is not the sole miss at present, however, with injuries continuing to wreak havoc. Indeed, the lengthy casualty list has a massive influence on this current decline.

Along with Rose, also missing are top-scorer Brett Pitman, Gareth Evans, Stuart O’Keefe, Stephen Henderson, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis and, from Friday, Oli Hawkins.

In addition, Nathan Thompson has one final match of his suspension to serve, at least offering hope of some calvary reinforcements.

Robbed of such experience and talent, it has decimated Pompey’s results since the turn of the year. The outcome cannot be so surprising.

Such circumstances must be considered when fairly evaluating Jackett’s ongoing performance as Blues boss with this patched-up team.

His side, when at full strength previously, accrued nine wins in 11 matches during a period which stoked up ambitions of play-off qualification.

It is not unreasonable to expect an improvement in results when they steadily begin to stream back into his first-team squad.

In the present, however, Jackett must deal with the aftermath of Gillingham and somehow build up the battered confidence of his youthful side.

On Saturday, Hawkins’ hamstring injury collected in training prompted the ripping up of a system drilled all week which would have employed Jack Whatmough in midfield.

Instead the Gosport youngster marked his return following six months out with knee damage by lining-up in a back three, with Sylvain Deslandes handed a home debut at left wing-back.

Those alterations appeared favourable in the first half, with Lowe rifling a shot into the roof of the net for the opener.

However, the forward missed other chances, including a one-on-one, when right-back Luke O’Neill intervened with an excellent covering challenge.

Yet the game turned at the interval, with the introduction of one-time Pompey loanee Conor Wilkinson.

On 48 minutes he levelled with a magnificent solo run and finish, with Lee Martin adding two more from outside the box to secure a Gills victory.

The League One table may suggest otherwise, but forget the play-offs, reality dictates more pressing matters exist.