Portsmouth 2 Altrincham 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Stolen at the death as true winners suffer heart-aching FA Cup defeat
After ransacking Altrincham’s cherished accomplishment, Brett Pitman returned with a message of apology.
Perhaps the gesture was driven by guilt, maybe simply the upshot of excellent sportsmanship, nonetheless the cold-eyed executioner held out his hand in touching atonement.
Firstly, the choked Shaun Densmore received a visit, the right-back stirred from comatose state having crumpled to Fratton Park’s turf upon the final whistle.
Pitman intruded upon the moment of sorrowful reflection with generous words intended to gently console rather than gloat.
Next he strode towards Tony Thompson, an isolated figure rooted inside his penalty area, with fellow distraught team-mates scattered across the pitch.
The goalkeeper had been beaten in the fourth minute of time added on – and the culprit was offering his sympathy.
National League North side Altrincham had provided admirable opponents, their fearless approach to the FA Cup occasion earning admiration from Pompey players and supporters alike.
The outcome at the death was harsh, downright brutal, how they warranted the prized opportunity to host Kenny Jackett’s side at their Moss Lane home.
Instead Pitman intervened – and then offered his respect.
‘They didn’t deserve that,’ he said afterwards.
‘Look, I’ve been on the other end of results when you are close, in their case you think you’ve got a great draw to earn a replay and then concede late on. It’s not a nice feeling,
‘This was a massive occasion for them and I feel sorry for them, it’s not nice to see that, whoever it is.
‘I said to their players “Keep your head up, you didn’t deserve it”. That’s all I can say. At that point you don’t really want to hear anything, but they can be proud of themselves when they look back on this game.’
Pompey’s late winner could not mask a lacklustre and pedestrian display. They were sloppy, they were careless, they were ill-deserved victors.
The error-strewn fare was unrecognisable from the outstanding mid-week triumph over Rotherham – the first against top-six opposition for 11 months.
In Altrincham they faced opposition in superb form, yet still 15th in a league the equivalent to the level inhabited by the Hawks.
The record books will depict a 2-1 triumph for the League One hosts, yet those present will testify the scoreline is outrageously misleading.
Perhaps Pompey were due such fine fortune, having recently been deprived of thoroughly-deserved wins over Bristol Rovers and Oxford United in stoppage time.
Regardless, Altrincham and their noisy band of 622 followers can feel aggrieved at the manner of the result which ensured the Blues’ progress into the FA Cup’s third round.
This is an honest group of Pompey players. Led by their manager and backed up by Pitman and Marcus Harness on post-match media duties, there was widespread acknowledgement the non-leaguers were hard done-by – and rightly so.
Jackett had hauled off John Marquis and Ronan Curtis at the break, a decision few could possibly have disagreed with, not that it made too much difference to the pattern of play.
Although, crucially, one of the substitutes, Pitman, would have the final say in such dramatic circumstances as Pompey made it five-successive wins and unbeaten in eight.
Still, when a heartbroken Altrincham trudged towards the dressing room following FA Cup elimination, there was the touching sight of the South Stand rising to applaud the gutsy visiting players.
A Fratton Park rarity in itself, yet the south-coast faithful are not jaundiced enough to refuse to recognise excellence in others, no matter if they represent rivals.
Phil Parkinson’s men challenged on the front foot throughout, a refreshingly positive attacking attitude not often witnessed from visiting sides usually focused on safety first.
The anticipated walkover failed to emerge, while it took until the 56th minute before Ben Close’s sublime volley handed the Blues the lead.
Once that breakthrough arrived, had they not been so wasteful, the game could have been out of reach long before the final whistle, not requiring Pitman’s contribution.
The first half saw Ellis Harrison strike the post and draw an excellent save from Thompson, while the mightily impressive Jordan Hulme hit the woodwork for the visitors.
It meant affairs were goalless at the break, prompting the introduction of Pitman and Ryan Williams in an attempt to pep up the spluttering Blues.
Indeed, those removed consisted of Marquis, whose passing radar was wildly out-of-sync, while the rejuvenated Curtis failed to click, even twice gifting Altrincham possession in the build-up to them hitting the post.
Then, on 56 minutes, Pompey had their breakthrough through Close, albeit against the run of play.
Harness, recalled to the team for his first start in seven matches, delivered a deep delivery from the right which was diverted back across his own area by the head of Densmore.
It fell invitingly to Close who, from 16 yards out, released a stunning right-footed volley which gave the keeper no chance.
Close then saw another shot saved, Harness’ heavy touch deprived him of a one-v-one, while Brandon Haunstrup’s angled drive took a nick to narrowly miss the far post, the chances to extend came and went.
Then, on 83 minutes, the scoreline was level following more good work by the lively Hulme.
He cut across Pompey’s penalty area seeking to manoeuvre himself into a goal-scoring opportunity, only to be felled Burgess’ rash sliding challenge.
It was a cast-iron spot-kick and Josh Hancock put the ball under Craig MacGillivray to make it 1-1.
A replay beckoned and the initial three minutes of time added on had expired when Pompey earned a corner down the right, to be taken by Harness.
That delivery was flicked on by Harrison and Pitman headed home at the far post despite the keeper’s best intentions.
During his celebrations, the substitute pointedly put his finger to his lips while looking directly at a specific place in the South Stand.
Whether or not Curtis’ mum, Marie, with her Twitter comments about the 31-year-old’s weight a week earlier, prompted such actions remains to be seen.
Still, the former Bournemouth man had his 42nd goal in 96 appearances for the club and, more importantly, it secured FA Cup progress.
Come the final whistle, Pitman proved gracious in victory – for the true winners of Saturday were Altrincham.