Pompey 2 Northampton 0 – Neil Allen’s match report

Gareth Evans opened the scoring for Pompey with a 41st-minute header Picture: Joe Pepler
Gareth Evans opened the scoring for Pompey with a 41st-minute header Picture: Joe Pepler
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So a new low for a competition which stubbornly refuses to tap out and concede defeat.

Its latest accomplishment is to produce the lowest recorded Fratton Park attendance on a Saturday.

Last weekend, there was barely a home seat vacant to welcome Plymouth during a campaign in which no crowd has dropped below 17,118.

On Saturday, there were 1,780 present for the Checkatrade Trophy, swelled by 128 from Northampton.

Yet while the beleaguered competition continues to be a fixture schedule irritant to the vast majority of football fans, there can be no ignoring its continued positive impact on Pompey’s season.

For all its undoubted flaws, of which there are bountiful, the cup so many supporters long for elimination from is underpinning Kenny Jackett’s maiden campaign.

Assistant boss Joe Gallen has repeatedly spoken of how the competition ‘has been good to us’ – and the clash with Northampton provided another helping hand.

Not even a month ago Pompey headed to Charlton in the Checkatrade Trophy striving to avoid a fifth straight defeat in a run stirring a little unrest among the impatient.

Now it’s five wins out of six in all competitions, with a place in the last 16 reward for Saturday’s comfortable 2-0 triumph.

As for the League One table, the Blues reside in eighth place, out-performing the three clubs which accompanied them away from the bottom division.

Perhaps most crucial of all, the competition has breathed new life into the Fratton careers of Danny Rose, Gareth Evans and Kal Naismith.

Admittedly a swollen knee sidelined Naismith for the Cobblers’ visit, yet Rose was once again man of the match while Evans’ opening goal set the hosts on their way to victory.

The trio were recalled for the trip to the Valley 28 days ago and – fitness permitting – have remained fixtures in the side ever since.

Their influence cannot be down played, neither should the upturn in form be explained as the triviality of coincidence. It is a re-emergence which is proving pivotal.

To think it took the Checkatrade Trophy and the desire to rotate players away from the league programme to force a path back into the first-team.

Yet that has proven entirely the case for three regular members of the League Two title-winning side who, at one stage, were facing a bleak Fratton Park future.

For those present on Saturday – and the audience watching streamed action through iFollow – the match demonstrated Pompey’s progress, both in terms of the cup and as a footballing unit.

The Blues were efficient and highly comfortable in dispatching a poor Northampton side clearly deserving their presence in an ongoing relegation fight.

Had it not been for David Cornell, the keeper rolled out for Cobblers cup competitions, the scoreline would have been considerably more emphatic.

As it was, Evans and O’Keefe each netted to claim an outcome even Derek Adams would have found difficult to dispute.

Maximum effort, yet minimum of fuss. While hardly a swashbuckling display, it was, nonetheless, impressive in the manner it was achieved.

Evidence again of how the side is developing under Jackett, with what appeared to be a selection revolution having eased down to an evolution – and Rose, Evans and Naismith at the hub of it.

Indeed, Jackett chose a strong starting XI against Northampton, albeit influenced by niggling injuries to a number of potential picks.

Naismith was joined on the sidelines by hamstring victim Oli Hawkins, while a thigh issue for Ben Close ended his ever-encouraging run in the side.

That meant three alterations to the team which defeated Plymouth 1-0, with Curtis Main, Christian Burgess and O’Keefe handed recalls.

It was, of course, Main’s goal which had given the Blues victory at Charlton last month to embark on this current impressive run.

The striker should have repeated the trick on Saturday, yet missed a wonderful opportunity in the second half when slipped in by Conor Chaplin down the right-hand side of the penalty area.

Instead Main drove his shot wide of the far post when, in truth, he should have done far better.

On another occasion, he attempted to divert Rose’s swerving left-foot shot past the keeper via a close-range backheel.

Yet Cornell saved, while Main was flagged for offside, with Rose insistent his own attempt was already heading for the net without such intervention.

In fairness, Main was later denied by the superb Cornell, who in the final 15 minutes was inspirational during a string of saves.

The former Swansea keeper who once spent a month at Fratton Park in a loan spell yet never featured, had also somehow managed to nick behind an Evans left-foot shot late in the first half.

But the midfielder would break the deadlock on 41 minutes as he registered his first goal of the campaign.

Brandon Haunstrup initiated the move, bringing the ball out of defence following a Northampton corner and feeding the ball inside to Evans, who in turn spread it wide to the left to Chaplin.

Evans, skippering the Blues, maintained his run and was present in the box to head home Chaplin’s measured delivery.

It was a magnificently well-worked goal, one to grace any match let alone a Checkatrade Trophy affair so sparsely attended.

However, Northampton almost levelled on 53 minutes when Ash Taylor rose at the far post to meet Lewis McGugan’s right-wing corner.

Yet somehow Luke McGee flung himself to his right to keep out the ball with a breathtaking save when a goal seemed a certainly.

It would prove to be the only meaningful goal attempt by Hasselbaink’s side – and thankfully Pompey’s keeper was equal to it.

The match was wrapped up, though, on 58 minutes through the returning O’Keefe in another excellent move.

Nathan Thompson pulled the ball back from the right and the midfielder galloped onto it to produce a first-time right-foot finish into the far bottom corner of the net.

Plenty of time remained, yet victory had been assured and with it further progress in the Checkatrade Trophy.

And while supporters refuse to accept its existence, how Jackett must be embracing the competition.