AFC Wimbledon 1 Portsmouth 3: Neil Allen's verdict - Blues' zombie season handed thrilling late lease of life by pivotal victory
This zombified season has finally shown signs of life.
Rather late, admittedly, nonetheless the campaign’s dying breath has bequeathed a flurry of excitement to stoke up those once fading promotion aspirations.
For the majority of this entirely forgettable term, we have been condemned to deadneck football served up amid moribund atmospheres starved of human contact.
Pompey’s players were proclaimed as automatic promotion contenders, wildly defective judgement which ultimately cost Kenny Jackett his job with the side flailing in 10th position and threatening to sink further.
Yet heading towards the final fixture the pulse is beginning to quicken and the brusque cold shoulder starting to thaw.
Those who wrote off the season with exasperation and swore iFollow would no longer receive custom, will unquestionably now tune in on Sunday, May 9.
The equation is simple. Victory over Accrington will secure a League One play-off semi-final spot for a third straight season.
After 45 matches, everything is piled onto one final spin of the roulette wheel. Win or bust, place your bets.
Perhaps, just perhaps, something good can emerge from one of Pompey’s most infuriating campaigns of recent times, a year brimming with strut and swagger but very little substance.
Incidentally, Northampton were relegated on Saturday following a season back at this level. May we never forget.
Still, immense credit must go to Danny Cowley who surely now warrants the job on a long-term basis following an audition piece which has so far reached 11 matches.
He was challenged with resuscitating the Blues without a transfer window and possessing one fit striker, who even then missed three matches through injury.
And, let’s face it, for all his 18 goals, John Marquis’ displays have, overall, been deeply unimpressive, while against AFC Wimbledon he could have had a hat-trick – but left Plough Lane empty handed.
Throw in being largely deprived of the influential Michael Jacobs, one of his best players in Jack Whatmough missing for four matches, and without a single senior attacking player available on the bench, empathy is required.
Inevitably there will be those who gripe that Cowley has failed to significantly transform Pompey utilising a considerably weaker squad available to him than Jackett.
Perhaps it’s best they explain what is expected to be accomplished given such devastating selection circumstances – coupled with the fact this is clearly not a top-two group of players.
Regardless, Cowley has performed sufficiently well enough to win six of his 11 matches to this point, while reigniting the form of Ronan Curtis.
Critically, the Blues triumphed in their must-win trip to AFC Wimbledon on Saturday, with the Irishman among the thick of the action during his strong personal finish to the season.
Curtis netted his third goal in four games, along with claiming two assists for the returning Lee Brown, as the visitors rose to the task admirably, particularly having conceded first.
With Charlton’s 1-1 draw at Accrington on Saturday, the pendulum has swung back in Pompey’s favour. They are now in control of their own destiny, despite Charlton’s once-feared game in hand.
Effectively, it’s Pompey, Charlton and Oxford United competing for the final play-off spot on the last day of the League One season. An exciting finale awaits.
Certainly Cowley’s men enter the scenario in greater spirits than they left the Crown Ground on Tuesday night following that heart-wrenching outcome.
The head coach was furious over his side’s defending, albeit rightly attributing no blame to the unfortunate Marquis who supplied that own goal five minutes into time added on.
During the aftershock, several times Cowley labelled the performance as ‘car crash’ and it was no surprise to see him restore fit-again Brown to the starting XI and revert to a back four for their Plough Lane visit.
Brown’s availability had been the subject of smoke and mirrors ahead of Accrington, diversionary tactics to fool his opponents on team selection.
In reality, Wimbledon was the more realistic return date from the left-back’s latest bout of hamstring trouble – and it would prove to be a pivotal decision.
The former Bristol Rovers man had netted once in his previous 105 appearances for the Blues. Then, on Saturday, he scored twice in four minutes on the stroke of half time.
Brown was one of three changes, with Paul Downing handed his first league start in 19-and-a-half months and Ryan Williams restored to the side following his goal-scoring half-time entrance at Accrington.
With Whatmough serving the final game of his four-match ban, Downing was surprisingly given the chance at the centre of defence. The 29-year-old did not betray his manager’s faith, with an assured showing.
The goal which Pompey did concede was the subject of controversy, with Joe Pigott finishing from an off-side position on 23 minutes after Ben Heneghan’s clearing header from Wimbledon’s half had struck Ben Close on his way through.
Despite the linesman’s flag being raised, Close’s touch was adjudged to have rendered Pigott onside – yet within a minute the Blues had levelled.
Marcus Harness, enjoying a fine game on the right, cut in across the byline and drilled in a low cross which Marquis missed, yet Curtis followed up at the far post with a first-time left-footed finish.
Wimbledon would perhaps have been disappointed to go into the break level, such was the quality of their threatening moments, particularly in the opening 20 minutes.
However, they actually found themselves 3-1 down, with Brown striking twice before the interval to put the game beyond the hosts’ reach.
For the first, Williams’ surge up the pitch resulted in him laying the ball off to Curtis, who in turn fed the overlapping Brown on the left.
The left-back then struck a first-time angled finish which flashed into the far corner of the net to hand the Blues a timely lead.
Yet he wasn’t finished in the first half and, in four minutes of time added on, made it 3-1.
Brown retrieved the ball on the left of the penalty area, combined with Curtis, before shooting with the outside of his left foot into the roof of the net.
His celebrations entailed shadow boxing in the right-hand corner of the pitch – and certainly that impressive contribution floored Wimbledon.
Not that the Wombles could be too demoralised, with results elsewhere declaring their League One safety having fought relegation over the season’s duration.
As for Pompey, there’s one match left of their personal journey. The season has finally come alive.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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