Luckless Pompey went down to defeat on New Year’s Day as they suffered late heartbreak at Southend.
Richie Barker’s side deserved at least a point for their performance, conceding a winner two minutes into stoppage time as Ryan Leonard bagged his second goal of the game.
Sonny Bradley had put the Blues ahead on the half-hour mark with his first goal for the club as Pompey turned in an excellent first-half display.
But Leonard’s deflected drive restored parity just before the break and he saved up another late show to steal all the points for his club with a sweetly-struck shot that flew into Trevor Carson’s bottom corner.
Ahead of the game, Barker fooled everyone attempting to predict the Pompey line-up once again, as he made another four changes to the team that drew 0-0 with Northampton.
Out went Danny East, Johnny Ertl, Romain Padovani and Patrick Agyemang as Bondz N’Gala, Jack Whatmough, David Connolly and Ryan Bird returned.
When Barker starts to remould his squad over the coming days and weeks, few players will be able to argue that they haven’t been given a chance to impress the new manager.
It left plenty scratching their heads in attempting to work out the formation before kick-off and was presumably designed to do the same to Southend.
It certainly had the desired effect for the first half as Pompey bossed an entertaining contest to such an extent that they should have been ahead at the break.
Some believe too much emphasis is placed on formations or systems and the more important part of the game comes from whether the team can actually pass the ball to one another, create opportunities and keep them out at the other end.
In League Two, some of the nuances of a subtle tactical move may be lost among the bombardment of long balls – especially some of the more direct sides.
The key question was over the selection of Whatmough in midfield, but the 17-year-old showed he was unfazed at the positional switch within the first 90 seconds with an assured pass to release Ricky Holmes to race away and get the first shot on target.
But the theme behind an excellent opening to the game from the visitors was some sharp passing and much-improved movement that was so often missing from their play in the dour 0-0 draw with Northampton.
The fact that they were creating chances and looked a genuine threat every time they went forward was giving Pompey plenty of belief and they should have been ahead long before Bradley broke the deadlock.
With a strong wind at their backs, Pompey were enjoying the advantage with Marcos Painter going close with a swirling free-kick that Southend keeper Daniel Bentley did well to palm over from his top corner.
But Holmes – who was released by Southend as a youngster and had made a bright start to the contest – saw his game ended early as he was left with a head injury after going close to opening the scoring with a brave header that Bentley did well to save.
That saw Ashley Harris introduced for his first action of the season as a substitute and it was his corner that Bradley was on hand to power home.
Chances went begging, with Bentley excelling himself in the Southend goal to deny Jed Wallace twice, while N’Gala went closest with a powerful header that somehow stayed out at the near post.
After Connolly was booked for a late challenge on Mark Phillips, Pompey finally got the breakthrough they deserved as Bradley timed his run to perfection and gave Bentley no chance from close range.
While Southend had been outplayed for much of the half, they did have their moments before United boss Phil Brown decided he’d seen enough with 40 minutes on the clock and made a tactical substitution to bring on an extra striker.
Leonard had already served warning of his ability with a 70-yard run from a Pompey corner, only for his shot to be straight at Carson.
But the Southend midfielder got the slice of luck from the edge of the box after dummying his way past Whatmough and cracking home via a deflection that was enough to beat the Blues keeper for the equaliser.
It was harsh on Pompey, who had turned in their best performance by a distance under the new manager and should have been at least a goal up at the interval.
But with many predicting a different second half with such a fierce wind influencing the game, it was a bitter pill to swallow in the final minute of an impressive half.
Sure enough, the second period was an entirely different matter with the home side doing the majority of the pressing as Pompey’s early fluidity and rhythm ground to a worrying halt.
Of course, the conditions will have played a part – and there is nothing to ruin a match like a strong wind – but the tackles that Pompey were winning in the first 45 minutes were being lost and the clever pieces of interchange were left wallowing in the mud as the surface became more and more boggy.
As an attacking force, Pompey were limited to set-pieces, until a fine run from Thery Racon midway through the second half teed up Harris, only to fire over the bar wastefully.
Joe Devera was even more wasteful just seconds after the introduction of Agyemang as a substitute, with the striker holding the ball up and laying off for the defender to swing a boot with the conviction of a man who doesn’t score often.
While Southend were enjoying more territory and possession, they were struggling to create many clear chances with Carson equal to everything they did throw at him from distance, including Kevan Hurst’s attempt to beat him at his near post.
Wallace continued his own personal quest to register a world record for the number of times you can hit the woodwork in one season with a fabulous curling attempt 11 minutes from time, that had the keeper totally beaten, only to see his effort crash back off the crossbar.
But with the game heading for a draw it was Southend who snatched all three points Leonard’s late strike two minutes into stoppage time with a fizzing low drive that gave Carson no chance as it buried itself in the bottom corner from 25 yards.
Pompey have had to wear some tough moments at times this season and many of them have been through their own failings.
But this time, Barker’s side certainly deserved more than what they got.