Walsall 0 Pompey 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Gareth Evans scores Pompey's winner against Walsall Picture: Joe Pepler
Gareth Evans scores Pompey's winner against Walsall Picture: Joe Pepler
Anton Walkes. Picture: Joe Pepler/ PinPep

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Pompey’s transformation continues at delectable pace.

And at the heart of this promising progression is a player who has maintained his remarkable annual evolvement.

Standing at 125 appearances, no player in the squad has represented the Blues more times than Gareth Evans.

He arrived in the summer of 2015 as a free agent, a goal-scoring right-sided midfielder raining crosses in from wide positions.

Paul Cook then converted him into a swashbuckling right-back with a penchant for penalty-taking as Pompey claimed the League Two title.

The current campaign has been a frustratingly fitful one for Evans, hampered by hamstring issues and spells on the bench.

Yet on Saturday arrived a fresh metamorphosis, remodelled as a central midfielder in a side gathering momentum nicely for the play-offs.

Kenny Jackett’s present system has reaped three victories, six goals and three clean sheets since its inception, kickstarting a spluttering season in timely fashion.

The Pompey boss identifies the switch as a 4-3-3 with ‘point down’, although there is an argument the eyes can see a 4-1-4-1 in action.

Regardless, Evans was employed as a substitute for 39 minutes in a central role during victory over Oxford United for the previous fixture, resulting in a 3-0 success.

At the Bescot Stadium he was elevated into the starting XI, replacing Connor Ronan in the centre, with Jamal Lowe occupying the right flank so preferred by the former Fleetwood man.

What followed was a magnificent driving display from Evans within a system which offered the flexibility to still whip those trademark deliveries in from the right-hand side.

Certainly he was the stand-out performer long before the decisive strike 79 minutes from time, his strong running and fitness levels dominating midfield areas.

It appears another reinvention for the ever-popular 29-year-old, whose supposed dislike for Pompey’s rivals down the road has taken on song form, often rolled out against Walsall.

It’s a talent for versatility which has seen Evans force his way back into Jackett’s side on several occasions this season – and, on Saturday’s evidence, he may well see out the campaign with his latest responsibility.

With Anton Walkes swapping jobs with Nathan Thompson to occupy a holding midfield role cum man-marking job, the back four had their protection.

In doing so, that allowed Evans and Ben Close the opportunity to push forward from the centre, with Close in particular offered several goal-scoring chances.

As it was, it was Evans who settled matters in the 79th minute as the visitors finally secured the deserved breakthrough in a match they suggested there was only one likely winner.

Pitman challenged aerially for the ball with it falling to Lowe, who laid a pass into the right channel and into the path of Evans.

From just inside the box, he struck a superb first-time right-foot effort which found the far corner of the net – and how those 1,458 supporters gathered behind the goal celebrated.

Evans’ last away appearance also resulted in a goal, arriving at Southend and proving to be his last touch having aggravated a hamstring injury in the process.

No such issue against the Saddlers as Jackett’s side comfortably held on for a triumph which maintains play-off interest with seven matches of the campaign remaining.

It represents an improbable position considering their form heading to Oldham several weeks ago, yet the availability of Brett Pitman, Thompson and, of course, Evans has boosted the side considerably.

Jackett also had Stuart O’Keefe and Oli Hawkins on his bench at the Bescot Stadium, marking their return from injury, although they were unused.

Pompey’s boss could even afford to leave out Conor Chaplin from his match-day 18. The striker had travelled, no injury was involved.

Elsewhere, Jack Whatmough and Matt Clarke’s central-defensive partnership has yet to be breached and they once again were outstanding, offering a defensive backbone previously lacking since a clean sheet against Bury in mid-December.

There were those among the Fratton faithful previously calling for the manager’s head, demonstrating similar feelings towards Paul Cook on occasions last season.

Yet buoyed by the return of senior players from injury and suspension, this is a very different Pompey proposition at present as they continue to pursue effectively two play-off spots on offer.

Certainly the impending visit of Cook’s Wigan side to Fratton Park will be an intriguing gauge of where the Blues are at present in terms of effectiveness against high-flying opposition.

Considering the Latics’ occupation of top spot in League One, it will be the toughest test yet during this rejuvenation which is raising hopes by the match.

In contrast, Saturday’s opposition are positioned four points above the relegation zone and had Dean Keates in charge for the first time following his arrival as manager.

Yet there was little feel-good factor around the Bescot Stadium, despite the return of a former popular player, with gloom gathering overhead during the fight to stay up.

The scoreline may have been narrow, but the match was there for Pompey’s taking. It was simply a question of when they could make their dominance count.

Saddlers keeper Liam Roberts had little involvement during the opening 45 minutes, despite a number of half-chances for the visitors, yet Jackett’s men stepped up in the second half.

With Walkes magnificently marshalling dangerman Erhun Oztumer in a man-marking mission, the hosts barely threatened, with most of the action occurring at the other end.

Kal Naismith’s rasping right-foot shot was magnificently tipped around the post by the flying keeper in the 52nd minute, while he also managed to gather a looping Pitman header from Close’s cross.

On 77 minutes, Roberts pushed away Pitman’s free-kick as Pompey surged forward for the breakthrough.

Thankfully it finally arrived courtesy of Evans’ third goal of the campaign to leave the Fratton faithful nurturing ever-growing belief that the play-offs could be achieved.