Portsmouth light touchpaper to their new campaign with win against Birmingham - Jordan Cross' big-match verdict
Pompey lit the touchpaper to their new campaign with a Carabao Cup demolition job on Championship Birmingham.
The Blues emphatically buried the notion of a play-off hangover spilling over into the new campaign with a 3-0 romp over the outplayed youngsters from the midlands.
It proved an evening brimming with positives in front of the Sky cameras.
And after the manner in which the impetus had drained from Pompey’s 2018-19 season and was followed by the curtain-raising disappointment at Shrewsbury, it was needed.
The gap spanned 106 days since the last competitive victory over Coventry on Easter Monday, and, although it’s a stat skewed by the summer break, it’s one which didn’t need extending.
More importantly, though, the royal blue contingent of the 9,913 crowd and those sat in front of their TVs at home can today reflect on a performance which offered so much to enthuse about.
Leading the way was Ellis Harrison with a two-goal salvo on his home bow and an all-round display which stirred more echoes of Benjani in his Pompey pomp.
His finishes were deliciously punctuated by Ben Close’s sumptuous 20-yard volley which was the icing on a virtuoso performance from the Southsea man.
Elsewhere, Marcus Harness offered a first Fratton chapter to suggest the post-Jamal Lowe days may not mean a loss in attacking verve to his new side’s work on the front foot. And then there was Ronan Curtis catching the eye of watching Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy.
And that’s not to forget the maiden clean sheet of the 2019-20 season as Pompey unequivocally found the rhythm manager Kenny Jackett was looking for as he sent a strong side into the competition.
After the rigours of a 62-game season eventually caught up with them last time around, there was a school of thought an honourable defeat to opposition from a higher level wasn’t the least appealing ahead of the game.
But nor was the prospect of a flat display in front of the live cameras, seeing negative vibes begin to germinate after the defeat at New Meadow.
Summer signing John Marquis’ impressive pre-match record of being available for games was halted by a rare absence from selection after his fiancee went into labour.
He was one of three changes as the suspended Ross McCrorie and Gareth Evans made way for Andy Cannon, Close and Harrison, who was given his full debut.
And there was also a spot on the bench for young striker Leon Maloney, as reward for his recent academy development.
Birmingham’s attitude to the competition was summed up by nine changes from their weekend win at Brentford – fielding six academy players, with seven on the bench.
There was a pre-season feel to the occasion, with Fratton Park sparsely populated and bathed in sunlight on a warm summer evening.
But there was nothing wrong with the tempo set by both sides from the outset.
A busy opening was personified in Harness’ fourth-minute charge down the right which resulted in the kind of delivery woefully absent at the weekend.
Harrison was set to apply the finishing touch until Geraldo Bajrami produced an important saving header to deny a certain goal.
The vibrancy of youth was certainly apparent in the visitors’ early work, as they looked hungry to take their chance to shine.
Jude Bellingham’s powerful 15th-minute shot required a deflection to steer it away from goal.
And the resulting corner from Agustin Medina caused concern as it looped towards goal and required a half-clearance from MacGillivray before Harrison did the rest.
With Marquis absent, the striker needed to make the most of his chance after his summer arrival from Ipswich.
Curtis’ 21st-minute free-kick into the Birmingham box was dangerous but asked too much of the front man as he couldn’t divert his chance goalwards. More was to follow, however.
His charge down the left two minutes later then resulted in a centre ball which went unmet, as the openings continued to appear.
Harness’ bright home debut continued as his 20-yarder arrowed not too far wide as his side upped the ascendancy.
The concern was it was turning into an attacking Groundhog Day for Pompey fans as their side failed to make the most of territory.
Those fears were eased, however, thanks to Harrison.
The Welshman’s predatory instincts came to the fore as he applied the finishing touch from a corner, after Tom Naylor’s initial effort had rebounded into his path.
The debate was whether the 25-year-old’s header had crossed the line, but between ref Neil Hair and his assistant Bhupinder Gill, they came to a decision to delight the home crowd.
That lit the touchpaper for a frenetic period, with a flashpoint quickly following between Harrison and Bajrami which resulted in a booking for both.
If that warmed proceedings, it was a locally-sourced right foot which scorched the evening’s events six minutes before the break.
Southsea lad Close had joked with the local press about a ‘prolific’ goalscorer’s tag in the build-up to the game, after his eight goals over the last few months of last season.
It’s becoming entirely justified as he carves out a niche for thumps of real quality from in and around the box.
His latest addition, however, arguably topped the lot as he let rip with a 20-yarder which was never in doubt the second it left his boot from Curtis’ deflected cross.
MacGillivay ensured the feel-good factor which had grown through the first 45 minutes wasn’t punctured after the restart, with an alert save to smother the ball and deny Charlie Lakin’s run.
And then it was down to that man Harrison to do the rest.
The angle appeared acute as Curtis pitched up a 54th-minute cross moments after ghosting a header wide.
But the header was assured as he steered a perfect finish back across keeper David Stockdale and inside his far post.
The moment arrived to seal his hat-trick 24 minutes from time but the striker found Stockdale equal to his 12-yard finish, before Lee Brown somehow passed up the opportunity to open his goal account from the rebound.
Harrison had departed the field by the time Fratton saluted his display with man-of-the-match plaudits.
But he was soon back to take the acclaim of fans and a TV gong on the kind of feel-good night to accelerate Pompey’s formative season perfectly.