Fleetwood 0 Portsmouth 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Gagging of Captain Pugwash demonstrates defensive might of flourishing Blues

Captain Pugwash was silenced, thankfully there was no nautical gloating on this occasion.

Sunday, 17th January 2021, 9:14 am
Craig MacGillivray and Jack Whatmough celebrate a Pompey win over Fleetwood - and fifth consecutive league clean sheet. Picture: Daniel Chesterton/phcimages.com

How that tiresomely chipper tune has haunted Pompey on all five previous Fleetwood visits, irritatingly trumpeted over the PA system to mark every home goal.

It has no real relevance to Fleetwood, of course, merely tenuously sharing sea connotations.

Nonetheless, Pompey have been force-fed the children’s TV theme a total of eight times during visits to the ever-chilly coastal Lancashire.

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Not on Saturday, however, as Kenny Jackett’s men inflicted the plundering – and registered a maiden Highbury Stadium clean sheet in the process.

In truth, for all the pressure applied by a side under caretaker boss Simon Wiles, the hosts barely suggested they were capable of unleashing Captain Pugwash’s hornpipe.

Granted, there was Craig MacGillivray’s excellent stop with his body after coming out to thwart the impressive Callum Camps’ charge on goal moments after the visitors had taken the lead.

Late on he produced another save when the Cod Army were fumbling for a late equaliser, although barely breaking into the opposition penalty area.

Pompey were condemned to spend the majority of the second half barricading the edge of their box, armed with the occasional counter attack to provide brief respite.

For all Fleetwood’s failure to find a way through – Jackett’s men ought to be applauded for magnificent defensive work, implemented throughout the team, culminating in a 1-0 victory.

Not that a shut-out is out of the ordinary, mind. Saturday represented a fifth successive League One clean sheet – totalling 476 minutes without being breached.

While Pompey’s boss is seeking another left-back edition, he is fully aware of the crucial presence of Lee Brown to a back four which indisputably represented his first-choice selection.

Supporters have at times clamoured for the inclusion of Rasmus Nicolaisen, Cam Pring and even Haji Mnoga during the season’s progression, yet those on duty at Fleetwood are well set for good reason.

Possessing the joint-best defensive record in League One – shipping 15 goals in 20 fixtures – it is underpinning what is now established as a realistic promotion push.

As for the other end of the pitch, only Charlton and Doncaster have netted more. Incidentally, Charlton have fulfilled two more matches than the Blues.

Saturday’s triumph wasn’t based upon Pompey’s attacking might, so prevalent since the October 4-2 romp at Burton. Rather their ability to strike early, then grinding out victory.

It’s a stubborn characteristic of Jackett’s Pompey, so instrumental during two previous play-off campaign qualifications.

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Yet this season we have barely seen such a trait, with the manager’s style of play having evolved and his system tweaked, creating a more enjoyable spectacle of football.

The Blues have been playing with a swagger and a smile, rather than strangling a match and crawling past the finishing post.

At Fleetwood it was a nod to the past, yet tremendously successful all the same, dispatching another promotion rival – and without conceding.

Of Pompey’s last five league games, they have defeated Peterborough, Ipswich, Hull and now the Cod Army, in addition to last month’s goalless Fratton Park draw against Saturday’s opposition.

Evidence, if required, that Jackett’s men are capable of not only competing with the best that League One has to offer, but also beating them.

Throw in victories at Sunderland and Lincoln earlier in the campaign and it is clear Pompey are well equipped for a top-two position. They now have 26 matches to close the deal.

At Fleetwood, Jackett’s troops were well below par, lacking the inspirational spark which has characterised their play for a number of months. Certainly they were unrecognisable from their bright Bristol City loss in the FA Cup.

Regardless, it was another important result and settled by a moment of quality from Ryan Williams.

This season the Australian is injury-free and flourishing in a new role within Jackett’s side which is bringing out the very best of his talents in a Pompey shirt.

Asked to play centrally around John Marquis, Williams’ immense work-rate, pace and skill levels have presented a different dimension to the Blues’ game.

It can often be tricky to distinguish his position between a number 10 and a second striker, undoubtedly on Saturday there were occasions he was alongside Marquis, seeking to latch onto a header or pressure the last man.

Nonetheless, no longer is he being instructed to serve as a second right-back, as observed at Blackpool and in last season’s FA Cup encounter with Arsenal.

Instead the Blues are employing his superb energy levels further up the pitch, while equipped with a licence to roam.

Sure enough, on 16 minutes against Fleetwood, Williams popped up on the right and delivered a magnificent cross towards the far post which was clinically headed home by Marquis.

Relief for the striker, ending a drought spanning 659 minutes and stretching back to Crewe on November 21.

Yet he owed so much to the quality of the delivery which will hopefully now kick-start his scoring presence in Pompey’s team and boost their promotion aspirations.

Few could begrudge Marquis his goal considering his outstanding team ethic and work-rate – which never waivers – and against the Cod Army he was challenged to chase his fair share of aimless balls forward.

With the hosts seizing control of possession in the second half, Pompey were asked to defend and hit on the break through their pace and energy.

Not quite the front-foot football we have witnessed in recent months, yet a case of needs must, particularly against a team as dangerous as Fleetwood, last season’s fellow play-off semi-finalists.

With many of their League One rivals also winning on Saturday, the Blues remain in third place, although have now cut the deficit behind second-placed Hull to a single point.

Incidentally, the Tigers are scheduled to visit Fratton Park next weekend, with a midweek clash with AFC Wimbledon first on the fixture list.

It was back in March 2014 when the Blues made their first visit to Fleetwood, resulting in a 3-1 defeat, with Jack Whatmough granted a central midfield role by Richie Barker.

Since that moment, Captain Pugwash has accompanied every encounter, irrespective of Pompey previously reaping seven points.

Until Saturday.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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