Portsmouth 5 Bradford 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Bradford’s post-match inquest centred on Anthony O’Connor’s careless handling of the captain’s armband.

Sunday, 3rd March 2019, 8:41 am
Updated Sunday, 3rd March 2019, 9:45 am
Ben Close (grounded) is mobbed by Pompey's players after netting his first against Bradford. Picture: Joe Pepler

Incriminated by video footage, the defender was accused of tossing away the garment in disrespectful manner during Saturday’s Fratton Park humbling.

Not so, came the player’s cries of protest through a statement. Rather the armband had actually become unstitched, so instead was thoughtfully relocated in the goal.

A story as unconvincing as a Bantams’ back line not so much picked with needle-nimble precision by Pompey, but bludgeoned open with frenzied frequency.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

How that armband could serve as a metaphor for the Blues’ season – unravelling, falling apart and cast aside by some no longer convinced of its worthiness.

Yet proceedings can change. In this instance, a mere eight days have transformed perception.

A return of four points along with the entering of a Wembley date into the diary have revitalised players and supporters during a potentially pivotal three-game period.

Suddenly Pompey’s fraying campaign has been sewn back together with admirable craftsmanship and – especially on Saturday – touches of class.

The 5-1 obliteration of Bradford was not as emphatic as the scoreline suggests – it could have been considerably more.

The swagger was evident as man-of-the-match Ben Close (two), Gareth Evans, Tom Naylor and Jamal Lowe struck, while a jubilant Fratton end sang of Wembley.

To put it into context, the last time five or more goals were scored by the hosts at Fratton Park was in May 2017, when Cheltenham were overcome 6-1 in the League Two title-winning match.

Bradford, left managerless since David Hopkin’s resignation at the start of the week, were brutally exposed as the flimsiest defensive unit witnessed against the Blues this term.

And how Kenny Jackett’s men exploited such alarming ineptitude to roar back to welcome form and reinvigorate promotion ambition flagging before Barnsley’s visit the previous weekend.

Bantams centre-half O’Connor apologised for his treatment of a captain’s armband – perhaps he and hapless sidekick Nat Knight-Percival should have pleaded forgiveness for their offensive footballing displays.

Even when nemesis Oli Hawkins departed with a cut foot after Lowe had established a 3-1 lead on 67 minutes, the relentless Blues registered twice further.

Hawkins, incidentally, was magnificent against the defensive pair, brushing himself off after an uncertain opening few minutes to dominate them with embarrassing ease, both aerially and on the floor.

He was simply unplayable, particularly against the marginally-more woeful Knight-Percival, who found himself bullied by a striker revelling in the injury-absence of Omar Bogle.

Forget armbands, the Bantams also require floats and life jackets to keep their heads above water as the current drags them down further towards League Two.

Yet the visitors’ obvious inadequacy should not detract from one of Pompey’s finest displays of the season – at a time when they had been scrambling for positive form.

Saturday was reminiscent of the team which topped League One for three-and-a-half months, not the charlatans posing as them since New Year’s Day.

What’s more, it was a convincing display which lasted the duration of the match, along with 10 minutes of time added on introduced to cater for four injuries to the home side.

Barely have Jackett’s men mustered up a satisfactory showing beyond a single half for much of the campaign. Against Bradford they maintained excellence, their dominance unaffected by the interval.

It was a fluent, unrelenting performance, despite hampered by a procession of injuries during the second half, ensuring they finished their mauling with 10 men, and Tom Naylor at centre-half.

Firstly Hawkins was forced off, followed by a clash of heads between Nathan Thompson and Matt Clarke which condemned them to the sidelines, while Ronan Curtis damaged an ankle in time added on.

It merely enabled the likes of Dion Donohue to step off the bench and conjure up a classy cameo amid the ‘Ole’s’ emanating from the Fratton faithful as the screw continued to be turned.

Not even the curious presence of a drone hovering overhead could disrupt their flow, referee Oliver Langford stopping the game for several minutes, to the bewilderment of all present, before it headed for the B&Q car park.

Victory over Bradford was a necessity for Jackett’s men following eight barren League One fixtures without a win – and that is exactly what they provided.

The stylish manner it arrived in will have also bolstered supporter belief following sluggish post-Christmas displays, a demoralising period irrespective of the recent five-successive league draws.

Pompey’s boss had made one change to the side which qualified for the Checkatrade Trophy final with a 3-0 triumph at Bury in the week.

Lowe was recalled in place of Viv Solomon-Otabor as Jackett operated with a 4-1-4-1 system, utilising Naylor sat in front of the back four.

There was also the surprise inclusion of Christian Burgess, written off as sidelined by an ankle injury during the build up, only to declare himself available 24 hours before the encounter.

When the match got underway, it took just six minutes for the hosts to make their intent know, Hawkins heading Evans’ left-wing delivery against the far post.

Yet the deadlock was broken on 22 minutes when Hawkins was forced to the ground by Knight-Percival during penalty-area jostling to meet Evans’ right-wing corner.

Bogle had spurned a spot kick in front of the Fratton end in the previous home match, but skipper Evans made no mistake, lashing the ball high into the top corner.

It was 2-0 barely four minutes before half time, Richard O’Donnell missing Evans’ corner from the left, allowing Curtis to instinctively rifle a first-time shot.

That deflected onto the bar, but Naylor followed up from close range to register his maiden Blues goal on home turf.

Then arrived a flurry of three goals in five minutes, started by Hope Akpan pulling one back for the visitors.

Lewis O’Brien’s 65th-minute cross from the left was headed back by Kelvin Mellor and, when Craig MacGillivray couldn’t claim, Akpan finished from close range.

Within two minutes, Curtis fed Lee Brown down the left and his cross was chested home by Lowe at the far post from three-yards out.

Next, on 70 minutes, Curtis crossed from the byline and Evans’ shot was steered home by the predatory Close.

Finally, three minutes from time, Curtis’ delivery from the left was headed out by O’Connor as far as Close, who strode in to place a first-time left-footed finish into the net’s far corner.

A thumping triumph – and Pompey suggest they are back.