Rochdale 1 Portsmouth 3 – Neil Allen’s match report

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Fastening an illustrious blue plaque commemorating the significance of Spotland in Pompey history was not necessary.

After all, the lowest point in Pompey’s post-war existence is chiselled into the consciousness of all those unfortunate souls present.

Matt Clarke rifles home Pompey's third goal in their 3-1 Spotland triumph. Picture: Joe Pepler

Matt Clarke rifles home Pompey's third goal in their 3-1 Spotland triumph. Picture: Joe Pepler

The grimacing date of March 25, 2014, witnessed the Blues positioned 90th in the Football League following defeat at Rochdale.

It also represented the last stand of Richie Barker, the much-maligned boss who oversaw the ongoing plummet towards relegation’s fang-crammed jaws.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Saturday’s reunion with the Greater Manchester backdrop would yield League One’s top spot.

These days Pompey are situated 46 places higher than during that disastrous period as the club maintains its encouraging upward trajectory.

A 3-1 success signalled the perfect antidote when revisiting a ground which still drips poison of yesteryear, the dredging up of abandoned memories to inflict recoiling horror.

Spotland’s shuddering connotations have been in existence for four-and-a-half years. Perhaps it’s a fate destined to stretch eternity, nonetheless on Saturday a new marker was hammered into the ground.

Kenny Jackett’s side had to scramble back onto their feet following an early blow, an unpreventable opener which, in truth, should warrant praise rather than inquest designed to discredit.

Yet whereas Barker’s League Two team was devoid of spirit, confidence and ability, the set-up assembled by the current boss is oozing aspiration and promise – as demonstrated by this latest Rochdale outcome.

Saturday’s revitalising trip was one to inspire, purging the soul of past misdemeanours during previous encounters. Perhaps the chilling hauntings have now been exorcised.

Regardless, the Blues fought from falling behind on four minutes to return to League One’s summit and extend their unbroken start to the league campaign.

Currently set to 10, it equals an achievement last registered 34 years ago under Alan Ball in the 1984-85 Division Two season.

How sweet the moment must have tasted to Jack Whatmough in particular, the only survivor from that Barker 3-0 debacle, who served as a centre midfielder on that bleakest of evenings.

Instead Joe Devera and Bondz N’Gala had been preferred as the centre-half pairing by the former Crawley manager, with Ben Chorley absent through suspension.

On Saturday, the Gosport lad – whose dad hails from Rochdale and aligns himself with Manchester City – was back. Recalled to Jackett’s side and featuring impressively in a 3-1 triumph, no doubt in front of watching relatives.

Whatmough represented one of two changes to the side which drew against 2-2 against Wycombe – the other emerged as the Blues’ man of the match and inspiration.

Brett Pitman had been dislodged by Oli Hawkins from the league programme since half-time of the opening game against Luton.

He returned to the starting line-up 57 days later, in the process conjuring up a goal and an assist on the occasion of his 50th Pompey outing.

With 29 goals during that half-century of appearances, it’s an outstanding return from the striker who arrived in July 2017 from Ipswich for an undisclosed fee.

Assistant boss Joe Gallen afterwards admitted Pitman’s feat of netting in each of his previous three appearances made starting selection irresistible, signifying a switch with Hawkins.

What unfolded was a pivotal presence as the restored skipper with a point to prove marched his team to the top of League One.

There had been uncomfortable moments for Jackett’s troops, particularly in the second half as Rochdale dictated possession until Pitman netted his side’s second goal on 71 minutes.

The hosts applied constant pressure, forcing Pompey to bravely defend their penalty area while scrambling around for scraps of opportunity to themselves enjoy the ball at their feet.

Such a pattern had become evident after the break as the Dale stepped up. Yet Matt Clarke and Whatmough were immense, with Tom Naylor in front scampering after every distributed pass.

Once the scoreline became 2-1 in the Blues’ favour against the run of play, the match was effectively over.

However, the visitors had endured a dreadful start during a first half which would see them subsequently produce their best football of the match and enter the break 1-1.

On four minutes, Abraham Wilbraham, with back to goal, was almost 30 yards out when he killed the ball and swivelled.

The veteran striker then unleashed a wonderful right-footed half-volley which found the far corner of the net, leaving Pompey keeper Craig MacGillivray with absolutely no chance.

It’s was Wilbraham’s maiden Rochdale goal following a summer move from Bolton – and a sublime manner in which to open his account.

The Blues responded with Nathan Thompson’s fierce first-time drive crashing against the crossbar, having been teed-up by Pitman.

On 25 minutes, though, the scores were level after Ronan Curtis had initiated an attack down the left and fed the ball into his skipper’s feet.

Pitman, with back to goal, twisted and turned before eking out space to drive in a low cross turned into the net at close range by the sliding Jamal Lowe for his sixth goal of the campaign.

Pompey seized control of the half and at the break would have been disappointed not to have edged in front. Following the interval, they struggled to again meet such such heights.

Still, on 71 minutes, Curtis fed overlapping full-back Lee Brown and his first-time cross was steered home by Pitman inside the six-yard box.

The striker had done superbly to position his body across Ryan Delaney to make contact with a wonderfully-weighted clipped delivery from the left.

It was left to Clarke to seal victory on 81 minutes following Curtis’ corner from the right.

The forward’s cross was eventually headed out by substitute Calvin Andrew, before retrieved on the edge of the box by Clarke, who then turned and came back towards goal.

The defender took a touch, knocked the ball through Wilbraham’s legs and then rifled a ferocious left-footed shot into the far corner of the net from the angle.

A sumptuous finish and another three points from this ever-engrossing season which ensures new and far more palatable memories are being created at the likes of Spotland.