AFC Wimbledon 5 Portsmouth 3 : Neil Allen's verdict - Ellis Harrison deserves better as potentially Blues career-defining hat-trick is for nothing
Ellis Harrison deserved so much more, particularly following a horrendous 2021 to draw sympathy from the stoniest of hearts.
There was a long-term knee injury, coronavirus, and then Pompey’s eagerness to offload him on transfer deadline day.
Yet the striker remained – and tonight registered a potentially Pompey career-defining moment at Plough Lane.
Sadly, his hat-trick failed to inspire a Papa John’s Trophy victory. Harrison’s treble arrived in a 5-3 defeat.
He should have been the match winner, with the Blues leading 3-2 after 80 minutes.
Yet a defence which appeared brittle all night as Danny Cowley implemented 11 changes, soon crumbled once more.
It was Harrison who had led the fightback too.
The Blues limped toward half-time at Plough Lane, trailing 2-0 and apparently done and dusted following a lacklustre and distinctly rusty opening 45 minutes.
Then Harrison provided a surprise lifeline with his first goal from open play in almost eight months.
The second was a header on 52 minutes and then he completed his hat-trick through a close-range finish after the Wimbledon keeper had saved.
There was no celebration for any of his treble, as if finishing was a mere formality, or perhaps purely a consolation in an emphatic defeat.
Nonetheless, Harrison deserved the match ball from the Papa John’s Trophy encounter following a tough period in his football career.
As it was, it was Wimbledon who took home the victory in a pulsating match.
Pompey’s preparations were disrupted after Alex Bass was diagnosed with coronavirus, ruling him out of the Plough Lane clash.
With Gavin Bazunu on international duty through the Republic of Ireland, Bass was meant to start, before the pandemic intervened.
With no third keeper, Cowley moved to recruit Jake Eastwood from Sheffield United on an emergency seven-day loan.
The substitute goalkeeper was 16-year-old Toby Steward, a highly-regarded first-year scholar hailing from Whiteley.
Eastwood was among three debutants, joining Louis Thompson and Mahlon Romeo, while George Hirst was handed his full Pompey bow.
Cowley had opted for 11 changes to the side which suffered a first league defeat of the season at Wigan.
Skipper for the evening Paul Downing was presented with his first appearance this season, while Ellis Harrison was granted his first start of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Cowley’s bench featured seven Academy players – Steward, Izzy Kaba, Adam Payce, Alfie Bridgman, Dan Gifford, Harry Jewitt-White and Elliott Simpson.
The Blues got off to the worst possible start by conceding after just 61 seconds.
A corner from the left found its way to Paul Kalambayi at the far post and he was allowed to take a touch before sweeping a shot into the net unchallenged.
It was appalling defending from the Blues, with the Wimbledon man barely six-yards out when granted plenty of time to apply the finish.
Haji Mnoga collected the game’s first booking on two minutes after bringing down Adedapo Mebude - and the defender could have no complaints.
On five minutes, Gassan Ahadme cut in from the left and drove in a low right-footed shot which keeper Zaki Oualah gathered with ease at his near post.
Romeo combined well with Reeco Hackett-Fairchild down the right to win a corner, but Hackett-Fairchild’s delivery didn’t amount to much and it was cleared.
Then a counter attack initiated by Mebude saw the Wimbledon man tumble under Thompson’s challenge yet, much to the dismay of the home support, no foul was given.
On 15 minutes, a wonderful ball from Thompson picked out Romeo’s run down the right, but the full-back’s cross was pushed out by Oualah at his near post for a corner.
Harrison had a wonderful chance to level on 26 minutes when he collected Hirst’s flick on and cut across the box.
The striker was lining up a shot on the exposed keeper, only for Kalambayi to put in an excellent diving block to thwart him.
Eastwood had to come to Pompey’s rescue on 33 minutes when Thompson’s attempted pass was charged down, ricocheting kindly into the path of Ethan Chislett.
However, faced with just the debutant to beat, the keeper saved with his legs and the ball flew out for a corner.
Wimbledon made it 2-0 on 43 minutes with embarrassing ease.
The ball was squared from the right by Ayoub Assal and Pressley was there to slot the ball home without too much trouble.
In first-half stoppage time, Harrison laid the ball to his left for Hackett-Fairchild to strike a powerful left-footed effort against the bar.
Hirst followed up with a header, which the keeper fingertipped away, before claiming the loose ball.
Then, four minutes into first-half stoppage time, Thompson won the ball to launch an attack which culminated with Harrison rifling in a right-footed shot from outside the box which the keeper couldn’t prevent entering the net.
It was a surprise lifeline for Cowley’s men as they entered the break 2-1 down.
Sure enough, on 52 minutes, it was all-square - through that man Harrison.
The striker bravely challenged at the far post to force home a header in front of the travelling support, although chose not to celebrate.
At the other end, Assal had a free header on 64 minutes which lacked any power and was comfortably taken by Eastwood.
Thompson, who took a knock moments earlier, came off after 71 minutes for Jewitt-White.
Then, on 78 minutes, Oualah pushed out a Pompey attempt on goal and there was Harrison to pounce and emphatically register a hat-trick.
But it wasn’t over - and the Dons went straight up the other end to earn a penalty following a foul by Mnoga.
Presley stepped up to make it 3-3 after 80 minutes.
There was still time for the hosts to snatch a winner of 87 minutes, when a free-kick from the right was headed home at the far post by Nightingale.
Then, with the Blues pushing forward for the equaliser, Pressley led a counter, and, when his shot was saved, substitute Luke McCormick made it 5-3.
It sealed a thrilling match in which both defences appeared suspect – Harrison and Pressley enjoyed themselves.
Certainly Harrison didn’t deserve to finish on the losing side.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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