Portsmouth 1 Doncaster 1 – Neil Allen’s match report
Abdul, the infectiously-cheerful steward, offered sunshine-tipped reassurance.
Stationed beside the corner gate fastening the South stand with the Fratton end, the ceaselessly-chipper figure was characteristically perky.
‘Don’t forget,’ he beamed, towards thunderous passing faces. ‘We’re still undefeated in February’.
Consequently, occasional smiles burst through the stormy visages, briefly lifted by the ever-popular Abdul’s natural effervescence.
It was following the infamous home defeat to Crewe in March 2017 under Paul Cook when one social-media poll declared him Pompey’s man of the match.
Approaching two years later, he was striving to provide another inspirational display to light up a bleak Fratton Park.
A tough ask, admittedly. The glass is unmistakably half-empty at present.
On Saturday against Doncaster, Kenny Jackett’s men thankfully halted a startling run of three-successive League One defeats.
Yet the 1-1 draw could not prevent sliding into third place, now seven points adrift of leaders Luton, albeit with a game in hand.
In league position terms, Pompey occupy their lowest placing since August 25 – coincidentally also following a Doncaster encounter.
Granted, they remain unbreached during February, as Abdul correctly proclaimed, yet the solitary league win garnered in January initiated the tumble, sweeping the Blues off their lofty platform.
Worrying, the current continues to drag them downstream, while Luton and Barnsley, in particular, have paddled on merrily by.
Since conquering Southend 2-0 at Fratton Park on December 8, Jackett’s troops have collected a mere 11 points from a possible 30 – and registered no clean sheets.
Of the three league victories claimed during that period, two arrived against 10-men. The other was obtained against a bottom-of-the-league AFC Wimbledon.
Suddenly, a play-off fate is drawing uncomfortably close.
Gloomy thoughts during a darkening season – and not even a flurry of transfer-window recruits could apply the winning lift so desperately desired against Doncaster.
That’s not to discount the emergence of optimism, Omar Bogle and James Vaughan certainly providing heartening performances in Saturday’s draw, suggesting there is plenty more to come.
For Bogle, handed a full debut in place of Brett Pitman, it was a second-successive goal since arriving on loan from Cardiff earlier in the week.
With a last 90 minute-outing happening five-and-a-half months ago, Jackett reluctantly had to initiate a substitution on 77 minutes, the tiring striker troubled by cramp in both legs.
As for Vaughan, he was involved in Bogle’s 54th-minute leveller following a half-time introduction for the injured Dion Donohue.
His endeavour, energy and physicality at one stage prompted a face off with Rovers’ Tom Anderson during a height mismatch, nonetheless demonstrated spirit.
Of the other recent new arrivals, Lloyd Isgrove was an unused substitute, while Viv Solomon-Otabor not included having yet to train with his team-mates following a loan switch from Birmingham.
Despite the encouraging impacts of Bogle and Vaughan, matched-up during a much-improved second half, Pompey still didn’t possess enough to eke out only a second league win of 2019.
In fact, they had been trailing since the half-hour mark, an awful defensive mistake gifting the pacy Mallik Wilks an opener.
Centre-half Anderson pumped a left-footed clearance upfield, with substitute Christian Burgess misjudging the ball’s progress, allowing it to bounce past.
Wilks did the rest, taking charge to drive through on goal and, helped by Craig MacGillivray’s reticence to come off his line, calmly finished.
Burgess had been on the pitch for a minute, having replaced the injured Jack Whatmough in the heart of the Blues defence – another development to concern.
Worryingly, it appears the 22-year-old has issues with the same knee which twice sidelined him for long periods during his first-team career.
The extent of that problem is expected to be clarified soon, yet sadly there was little optimism emerging from the club in the immediate aftermath.
In fairness, Burgess bounced back from his slip to put in a solid display, while MacGillivray produced two stunning saves late on, yet the damage to potential chances of victory had already occurred.
Still, Burgess is now set to be handed the opportunity of an extended run in the side, the loss of Whatmough coinciding with the welcome return of Nathan Thompson.
The right-back was one of four changes to the team which lost 3-2 to Luton in the week, with Anton Walkes, Gareth Evans, Pitman and the injured Bryn Morris also making way.
In their places were fit-again Thompson, Ben Close, Donohue and, of course, Bogle.
Intriguingly, Pitman was axed from the 18-man squad, and also conspicuous by his absence at Fratton Park, with Jackett afterwards confirming the striker’s non-attendance.
Walkes and Brandon Haunstrup, who similarly were omitted from the group which travelled to Luton, were present, however, alongside other non-playing colleagues.
The unselected pair also attended the annual London Supporters’ Club meal held in the Victory Lounge that evening, demonstrating willing and good humour with those fans gathered.
Club captain Pitman had not been scheduled to appear at that event, nonetheless, earlier in the day failed to join those team-mates watching the Blues’ progress from the South stand.
Despite an outstanding return of 32 goals in 69 games since his July 2017 arrival from Ipswich, the 31-year-old has slipped to fourth-choice in the striking pecking order.
Although Pitman could well feature in the FA Cup replay at QPR on Tuesday night, with Bogle and Vaughan unavailable having been signed after the original fixture.
In his absence, the Blues looked elsewhere for goal-scoring inspiration – and it was unearthed on 54 minutes through their loanee from Cardiff.
Ronan Curtis’ cross from the left saw keeper Marko Marosi collide with a defender while attempting to deal with the danger, allowing the alert Vaughan to pounce.
His left-foot shot ricocheted helpfully into the path of Bogle, who finished high into the roof of the net from four-yards out.
During that second period, Pompey pushed for the winner, although, despite offering considerable more threat following the interval, couldn’t claim a triumph.
The Blues are entrenched in a malaise, the League One blip now expanded into a third month, with Jackett scrambling for the solution. It continues to elude.
Another four league matches remain in February – and if Abdul speaks of unbeaten records at the end of it, then perhaps there really will be reasons to be cheerful.