Doncaster Rovers 0 Portsmouth 0: Jordan Cross' verdict - realism trumps hype as Danny Cowley's eyes tell him the truth of where his side's season stands
The margin was one poorly executed spot-kick from 12 yards.
One piece of conviction from Shaun Williams was all it would’ve taken to see Pompey clear of the League One pack after four games.
The early-season euphoria would have reached a crescendo, EFL eyes would have been on PO4 and we all would’ve been wondering maybe, just maybe?
That, of course, is the lot of a football fan. The dawning of a new season is a time for hope to spring eternal, and those shoots of optimism have been cultivated and nurtured by formative Blues promise.
Danny Cowley is not governed by the laws of the supporter, however.
Even for a man who naturally gravitates towards the football light instead of peering into the abyss, there is too much to ignore.
His is an assessment which has to be based on realism and objectivity over hooplah and hype. Facts, numbers and the truth of what the 42-year-old’s eyes tell him trump excitement, sensationalism and a myopic view of the state of play.
And the reality is Pompey are a nautical mile from being the finished third-tier article.
That was once again evident in a display which veered from offering the encouragement to enthuse, to presenting unequivocal evidence of the strides which need to be made.
Embryonic partnerships jarred at the Keepmoat Stadium, yet gave flashes of what could yet be. Legs tired amid the perceived weight of an early-season demands weighing heavily on Cowley’s squad, yet hard pre-season yards saw Pompey asking the questions as a high-tempo afternoon reached its conclusion.
So the perfect start was surrendered, against a foe who’d previously failed to deliver a point amid an opening ravaged by the debilitating impact of Covid-19 and self-isolation.
The reality, however, is this could easily have been an outcome reached in two of the three previous league outings which had yielded maximum returns.
Cowley’s job is to unpick performances from the results which can sometimes mask the truth of where things stand for a group of players.
‘I’ll be honest, we’re still a long way from where we want to be,’ was the no-nonsense assessment in his post-match debrief, before offering the technical insight to supporters we’re now becoming accustomed to.
The man from the London borough of Havering has rightly been lauded for capturing the essence of Pompey fans in his stewardship to date, but he’s not daft enough to fuel optimism when conveying the reality of where things stand is what’s required.
And so that was the tone struck at the end of a typically wet South Yorkshire summer’s afternoon which ebbed and flowed from Pompey’s grasp.
After gaining a promising foothold a refreshed Blues starting XI allowed Richie Wellens’ side to wrest control of the game, forcing the visitors to once more show the defensive mettle which has been the overriding signifier of their performances to date.
It was Sean Raggett who once more primarily came to the fore on that front, the man sometimes unfairly maligned in his Fratton career to date once more producing another colossal effort to join his outstanding early-season body of work.
It was the ghost of Pompey past which came close to breaking that resolve after 20 minutes as Ben Close, playing impressively in a 10 position few would associate him with, drifted into the box and provided the ammunition for Tommy Rowe to slam the ball home at the second attempt.
It was a finish deemed illegal by referee Carl Boyeson, who spotted the winger’s shove which shunted Clark Robertson off balance and eventually to the floor. Yet the Southsea lad and his team-mates thought the contact was slight enough to warrant feeling hard done by when reviewing the incident.
Close found another of the Blues’ premium performers in Gavin Bazunu too tough to conquer, as the Republic of Ireland international continued his excellent opening by winning their duel nine minutes before the break.
There was work to do for Cowley at the interval, however, which stretched to the head coach continuing to instruct Joe Morrell on the pitch right to the game recommencing after the break.
The move to hand the Welshman his full debut in place of Williams had failed to bring the control to the middle of the pitch it had intended, as the midfield battleground which has been Pompey’s stronghold to date was lost for the first time.
Ryan Tunnicliffe’s influence waned with distances too great between him and his new partner, allowing John Bostock to dominate as Close dropped in to join Manchester United loanee Ethan Galbraith centrally.
But Cowley’s second-half surgery did what was needed for Pompey to redress the balance, with Williams’ reassuring presence and Michael Jacobs’ prompting turning the tide back in their favour.
The boss’ half-time assertion to his players, their bench offered more answers than the home side’s proved well founded as Donny stalled.
It was the Blues' inability to make more of the most presentable moments of the afternoon, which ensured they made their way back down the M1 without greater reward, however.
Keeper Pontus Dahlberg stepped forward with two point-saving stops to deny Jacobs and John Marquis in three second-half minutes.
The consensus was the Swede shouldn’t have been given the opportunity to make the second of those parries, as Pompey’s chief goal-getter couldn’t find the gaps as he rose to head goalwards a few yards out.
As presentable as that opening may have been, worse was to follow as Gassan Ahadme crowned a promising second-half display with a lovely take on the chest - forcing Ro-Shaun Williams to take the Moroccan down in the box.
It was Pompey’s Williams who lacked the requisite attention to detail from 12 yards, though, with a soft effort easily kept out in the shadow of 1,292 travelling fans.
And so those fickle moments which had perhaps gone the way of Cowley’s side to date went against them.
With his men still not able to consistently piece together dominance of the ball with the technical details and complexities of their pressing game, the search for a more complete performance continues.
So for now Pompey get by on the more unheralded qualities, which make them just one of two EFL sides still to concede this term with Sheffield Wednesday.
But with more testing challenges on the horizon - starting with the trip to Wigan Athletic next weekend - the impact of relying on those stoic traits won’t last forever.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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