Pompey 1 Stevenage 2 – Neil Allen’s match report

Blues keeper David Forde watches Matt Godden's shot enter the back of the net Picture: Barry Zee
Blues keeper David Forde watches Matt Godden's shot enter the back of the net Picture: Barry Zee
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They departed Fratton Park side-by-side, a poignant show of unity.

Yet a half-time spat had inflicted Christian Burgess with a cut head and wounded the pride of skipper Michael Doyle.

Paul Cook sought to go without both for the second half, administering his punishment by sidelining the scrapping duo.

The aftermath was Pompey condemned to a dismal defeat as once again they crumpled under the necessity for consistency.

Most disappointing of all, the 2-1 defeat to Stevenage had been entirely self-inflicted – on and off the field of play.

Little festive cheer then for Pompey’s players ahead of their Christmas party, scheduled to take place in London from that evening.

Although what unfolded during Saturday dictated the scrapping of such plans, along with the breaking of a management pledge for Monday off.

In terms of the club, the implications of Saturday’s antics are potentially far more serious than a few stitches and a cancelled reservation.

For once again, Cook’s side demonstrated a fragile mentality and disheartening inconsistency which has lingered since last season.

A performance high superseded by an abject low, it has become part of the Pompey DNA under Cook’s reign.

And once more it threatens promotion aspirations for a club which will spill considerably more blood than witnessed in the dressing room if not achieved this season.

The Blues occupy fourth place, a solid position from which an exit out of Division Two is entirely plausible and definitely achievable, no question of that.

However, irrespective of how talented the squad assembled by Cook over the course of his 18-month reign may be, there are underlying problems.

And Saturday highlighted the most concerning of all – an infuriating inability to maintain required performance levels.

Brawling colleagues do not necessarily indicate an unhappy dressing room, Alan Ball’s promotion-winning side of 1986-87 fought among themselves on regular occasions.

The likes of Alan Knight, Kevin Dillon, Mick Quinn and Mick Kennedy will testify it was the greatest team spirit they experienced during long careers.

Regardless, those Pompey players who did remain on the pitch against Boro also let down the fans during an appalling second 45 minutes.

Not helped by the absence of two stalwarts of the Cook era, granted, nonetheless Luton had been replaced by Stevenage.

Tellingly, few among those supporters gathered at Fratton Park could have been surprised at another brutal act of choking.

Still, last term Doyle shrugged off a broken shin bone and medial collateral ligament damage to his knee to remain the Blues’ fulcrum.

On Saturday, it took a scuffle with his own team-mate to finally dislodge him from Cook’s side.

The duo had arguably been the Blues’ best performers during an opening 45 minutes which began brightly before petering out.

Burgess was imperious in the air when dealing with their opponents’ penchant for long passes delivered early in the general direction of a twin strikeforce.

Skipper Doyle offered his usual midfield dominance, chasing, hassling and tackling to good effect, with the Blues on top regardless of the goalless scoreline.

Kyle Bennett had struck a post, keeper Jamie Jones then saved his far-post header from Carl Baker’s cross and there were other encouraging periods of attacking play.

There were no boos or murmurs of discontent from the Fratton crowd in recognition of a satisfactory – if blank – opening period.

However, Burgess and David Forde exchanged words while coming off the pitch at half-time. Subsequently, in the dressing room confines, niggles and accusing glances erupted into violence.

Doyle had initiated his retribution having initially, it is claimed, been man-handled by Burgess during another argument.

Jack Whatmough and Amine Linganzi were pushed into action, while the deposed duo spent the second half under lock down, away from the dug out.

Suddenly the Blues were challenged to see off Stevenage without the warring pair’s presence.

Certainly Cook must have been confident of still pulling off a result, hence the decision to discipline Burgess and Doyle immediately rather than waiting until the end of the game.

Yet the punishment not only affected the duo, it impacted upon the team as they failed to maintain an impetus they demonstrated in the opening half.

It truly was a different Pompey, in terms of personnel, performance and morale as the shell-shocked players stumbled to a deserved defeat to Darren Sarll’s men.

The fluency had evaporated, a raggedness about the Blues’ play had arrived and, on 71 minutes, they fell behind.

Enda Stevens carelessly lost possession in the left-back area and, with the hosts continuing to fail to clear, Steven Schumacher eventually drove a shot from the edge of the box through the legs of Forde.

Barely four minutes later and it was 2-0 to Stevenage, Forde’s poor clearance finding Charlie Lee, who lofted the ball forwards.

Matt Godden was initially blocked by Matt Clarke, but he pounced to drive the loose ball past Forde, once again through the legs.

On 80 minutes, Smith reduced the deficit latching onto Gareth Evans’ deep cross to take a touch before lashing a shot into the net.

In the final seconds, Whatmough planted a header against the post as Cook’s men came within a whisker of an equaliser. Instead it was defeat.

It was Cook himself who afterwards confessed to The News there had been a half-time ‘incident’ to prompt the removal of Burgess and Doyle.

Meanwhile, the rueful pair apologised to their team-mates.

Ultimately, Burgess and Doyle were the last of the subdued playing staff to depart Fratton Park, following a meeting with Cook.

Flanking each other, they obligingly stopped to sign autographs for supporters huddled in the winter cold beneath the Fratton end’s shadow.

An image of solidarity, peace reigning once more, now Mark Catlin will tomorrow hold his investigation.

Yet what cannot be repaired is the damage which inflicted defeat at the hands of Stevenage.