Cheltenham 1 Portsmouth 0: Neil Allen's verdict - No share of Happiness as angry travelling faithful deliver powerful message after Whaddon Road debacle

There was nothing malicious about Cheltenham’s cheerful choice of post-match victory tune, you understand.

Sunday, 10th April 2022, 9:00 am

Indeed, Ken Dodd’s infectiously uplifting rendition of ‘Happiness' is rolled out upon every Whaddon Road home triumph, irrespective of opponent or size of the accomplishment.

Not that the Blues had been privy to such a tradition during four previous visits, having departed unscathed on each occasion, totalling one away victory and three draws.

Yet Saturday’s 1-0 defeat signalled the unexpected entrance of Knotty Ash’s finest.

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With lyrics poignantly including ‘I've got no silver and I've got no gold’ and ‘Don't count my money, count my happiness’, there was a certain irony for those of Pompey persuasion.

Not that those 1,425 which occupied the visiting section were in any mood to dissect Dodd’s words, instead many were venting their anger on players, management and owners following an abject performance.

The disillusionment over Tornante’s transfer policy and desire for self-sufficiency has escalated considerably of late, with a morale-sapping sixth successive League One campaign on the horizon.

The truth is, Danny Cowley is presently operating with Pompey’s highest playing budget since they last occupied the Championship a decade ago.

Pompey's players are stunned after Liam Sercombe netted the 76th-minute match winner in Saturday's dismal 1-0 defeat at Cheltenham. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

Nonetheless, their owners’ ongoing financial prudence and now designation of funds towards finally bolstering the club’s infrastucture, in particular Fratton Park, has failed to rally on-pitch results.

Pompey are being left behind, with this likely to be their lowest finish since returning to League One.

Ironically, their final League Two fixture was against Cheltenham when, in May 2017, a 6-1 Fratton Park success secured the title amid emotional scenes, while also marked the end of fan ownership in favour of the impending Tornante takeover.

Almost five years later and, for the first time in Football League history, spanning eight previous encounters, the Robins emerged victorious, much to the visitors’ embarrassment.

You could forgive the scenes at the final whistle focused on those players whose lacklustre display had yielded a 1-0 loss, with Tyler Walker parading the largest target on his back.

For the brilliance of Gavin Bazunu and indisputable qualities of the flourishing Hayden Carter, at the opposite end of the loan spectrum has been the hapless Coventry man who has played himself out of a potential permanent switch.

Walker was handed his 15th Pompey outing on Saturday, yet remains on one goal, as his limp spell continues to infuriate and agonise, with Whaddon Road a particular low during his underwhelming presence.

At one point shortly before the hour mark, the ex-Nottingham Forest striker sauntered towards a loose ball outside the opposition box with such alarming apathy that a Cheltenham body swooped from nowhere to snatch it from him.

That subsequently launched a home attack which ended with Ryan Tunnicliffe blocking Matty Blair’s right-footed shot with his back, while positioned inside Pompey’s penalty area.

Admittedly, a guilt-ridden Walker had initially given chase after recognising his error, while the visitors’ goal remained unbreached. Nonetheless, the damage had been done, particularly to his plummeting reputation.

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Regardless, the 25-year-old remained on pitch for the game's duration, yet Cowley’s perseverance and patience must surely have run dry.

This was a January transfer gamble which effectively saw two playing wages allocated towards his arrival from the Championship, following the mantra of quality over quantity. It clearly hasn’t come off.

Let’s not make Walker the scapegoat, however, for rarely has he been presented with the goal-scoring opportunities to demonstrate a finishing prowess which has shone at other clubs.

There have been no bewildering misses which accompanied John Marquis’ game, as witnessed against Plymouth and at Charlton this season.

Pompey’s issues in the final third have been obvious all season, a glaring deficiency influenced by Marcus Harness’ erratic and inconsistent nature and Ronan Curtis' remarkable demise.

Harness remains the Blues’ top scorer yet, tellingly, should not expect a single raised hand in any Player of the Season vote. Considering his natural talent and brilliance in the first half of the campaign, it’s a sad – but deserved – indictment.

As for Curtis, following his breakneck entry into the first-team in 2018 and opening two flourishing seasons, worryingly he has now failed to develop over the last two campaigns.

Sadly his game more than most among his team-mates has been impacted by the introduction of the wing-back system by Cowley – and it is now a painful watch.

At Cheltenham, the Irishman had been recalled in place of Michael Jacobs as one of five changes, perhaps understandable considering Cowley’s concerns over his talisman playing twice in four days after a recent return from injury.

Still, it was another poor display from Curtis who, along with Harness, couldn’t create the attacking spark the Blues so desperately needed against a Robins side featuring Cowley-target Will Boyle in defence.

And in Walker, there’s a player who requires ammunition and a gun placed in his hand, rather than embracing the challenge of foraging for himself.

Pompey plundered 24 goals in nine matches during a productive period from the end of January, yet since have mustered one in five games. Sean Raggett’s post-match assertion that this has been a ‘streaky season’ is well-placed.

Cowley’s men boast the third-best defensive record in League One – and are the lowest scorers in the top 12.

Indeed, Bazunu was their star turn at Whaddon Road, with some fine saves, keeping down a scoreline which could have been even greater. No mistake, this was no undeserved defeat.

Admittedly, there was the controversial first-half moment when Boyle’s challenge from behind on Aiden O’Brien prevented him scoring into an empty net and prompted penalty appeals, with a corner instead awarded.

Otherwise keeper Owen Evans was tested very little, with the visitors yet again failing to capitalise on some decent positions in the final third, through either a pass or shot.

In the end, Cheltenham grabbed a 76th-minute winner following a sustained period of pressure, with that man Liam Sercombe the inevitable scorer.

Having previously netted against Pompey for Bristol Rovers, Exeter and Cheltenham, he did it again, finishing the excellent Callum Wright’s pass as Bazunu was finally beaten.

The travelling support, which had earlier booed the decision to substitute O’Brien, unusually turned on their team at the end of the game, thereby highlighting the strength of feeling at present.

Among their chants was one declaring Pompey would be in League One forever. No matter Ken Dodd’s insistence, there is no happiness to be gleaned from that.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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