Fleetwood 1 Portsmouth 2: Neil Allen's verdict - Blues conquer the unconquerable to suggest end of away-day malaise

On an occasion of such irrelevance, a pertinent point did emerge.

Sunday, 5th January 2020, 9:00 am
Updated Sunday, 5th January 2020, 6:26 pm

This Pompey side are indeed equipped to secure an away victory upon testing League One territory.

Fleetwood, a team nursing just one home loss all season, incurred the unthinkable during Saturday’s FA Cup third-round encounter – defeat number two.

It mattered not that this was a cup competition impeding on a campaign in which both sides command ambition of promotion to the Championship.

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John Marquis bundles home Pompey's second goal in Saturday's 2-1 FA Cup at Fleetwood. Picture: Paul Thompson/ProSportsImages

Joey Barton’s side headed into the contest unchanged, keeping faith with those which drew 1-1 with Sunderland on New Year’s Day in a league outing.

No squad rotation, no fresh legs, no opportunity for the odd fringe player to shine, the line-up was as strong as Fleetwood could possibly assemble for Pompey’s evening visit.

And they tumbled to a 2-1 reverse, once again thwarted from reaching the fourth round of the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s history.

The away form of Kenny Jackett’s side is throttling encouraging progress driven by Fratton Park results, recently one point from a possible six latest evidence of their weakness.

In isolation, a New Year’s Day point at Gillingham was excellent, opposition which had previously won seven-straight home matches, conceding just the once.

The bigger picture, however, depicts nine points and two wins from the Blues’ 11 League One travels this season – a mere three more points than relegation certainties Southend.

On Saturday, though, Jackett’s troops surprised us, demonstrating the stomach for conquering a foe on the road.

The FA Cup may represent a pointless exercise in a campaign prioritised in securing a Championship return, albeit the fresh injection of £185,000 in prize money and broadcasting receipts gratefully received.

Nonetheless, it provided a tantalising glimpse that maybe, just maybe, there exists the potential to end this stuttering away form.

Certainly the Blues can forget about automatic promotion if they fail to escalate their points return on travels during the second half of the season. It could even cost them the play-offs.

Still, a side reflecting three changes, none enforced, ventured to Highbury Stadium on Saturday and inflicted a second home defeat in 15 matches in all competitions.

That in itself was admirable, yet the manner in which it was accomplished was unmistakably heartening.

This was no ill-deserved scalp or outrageous injustice on the scale witnessed at Doncaster in October – Pompey fully warranted their fifth away win of the campaign.

Granted, Barton may dredge up his pre-match ready-make excuse about the Blues possessing a higher budget, a distraction which, incidentally, was again rolled out after the final whistle.

But his side were found to be lacking when going toe-to-toe on the field, with a stoppage-time consolation goal supplying a considerably healthier sheen to the scoreline.

In truth, Alex Bass was rarely challenged, with Christian Burgess faultless in front and Paddy Madden helpfully supplying two awful second-half misses in identical circumstances.

Upon the Fleetwood striker’s substitution on 81 minutes, there was even appreciative applause from the travelling faithful, along with a chant of ‘Sign him up’, such was their admiration for his contribution.

Regardless, there could be no disagreeing that Pompey deserved their victory on the balance of play and, in Marcus Harness, possessed the game’s outstanding performer.

The Burton recruit has largely struggled to recapture that scintillating early-season form so abruptly ended by injury at Blackpool.

It has taken Ryan Williams’ groin injury to finally allow an unimpeded first-team presence – and on Saturday he was at his impish best on the right flank.

Although not directly involved in either goals, he tormented the Cod Army with pace, trickery and directness during a consistent 90 minutes in which he refused to flag.

The team last season counter-attacked with such ferocity that it generated the best away results in club history. With an on-song Harness in place, he can unquestionably provide the drive to resurrect that successful approach.

Still, Fleetwood’s demise centred on two goals in six minutes – both arriving from Pompey corners.

The Blues’ inability to threaten from flag kicks has been infuriating to witness this term, a frustration mirrored by a centre-half without a goal since April.

Irrespective of the deliverer, the likes of Burgess and Sean Raggett have persistently failed to win the first header when attacking the opposition penalty area.

Certainly they are not alone among the Pompey squad, while the quality of corner delivery, particularly in any absence of Gareth Evans, can also be criticised.

On Saturday, however, those set-piece situations provided the key to unlocking Fleetwood and securing progress into the fourth round.

With 66 minutes on the clock, Ronan Curtis took a corner down the left, flighting in a right-footed cross which was turned home at the far post by James Bolton for his maiden Pompey goal.

Then, six minutes later, it was debutant Steve Seddon who was chief supplier.

This time it was a left-footed delivery from a right-sided corner and, when Burgess powerfully headed the ball back across goal, the recalled John Marquis was there to turn it in almost on the line.

Burgess’ attempt may have already been heading into the net, nonetheless Marquis made sure, establishing an unassailable 2-0 advantage.

Marquis was back in the side along with Andy Cannon, while left-back Seddon was handed his debut following a loan arrival from Birmingham and without a full training session under his belt.

Out went Evans, Ben Close and Ellis Harrison from the team which drew 1-1 at Gillingham, both dropped to the bench as Jackett freshened up his side during this busy run of fixtures.

As ever with Pompey, there was late drama, needless too as Fleetwood substitute Conor McAleny pulled one back with a shot from outside the box during three minutes of time added on.

Until that point, Barton’s men never suggested they could mount a fightback to re-enter the match, yet inevitably the lifeline sparked a nervy finish.

Still, Jackett’s men held on to secure victory in the tough Lancashire surrounds of the Cod Army.

Last season they won 20 matches on the road in all competitions. With five now at the halfway point, they require a considerable increase to cement promotion aspirations.

Yet Saturday demonstrated they genuinely possess such attributes away from their Fratton Park fortress.