Mixed Portsmouth emotions after selection shock nearly pays off at Fortress Priestfield - Jordan Cross' Blues verdict after Gillingham draw
Kenny Jackett’s selection gamble came within 10 minutes of firing Pompey into the play-off places before being punished again for his side’s inability to see through a rearguard action.
The Blues boss’ shock decision to drop Craig MacGillivray for Alex Bass and bring in Gareth Evans for his first league start in two months looked set to be rewarded with an eye-catching scalp against a Gillingham side who’ve made Priestfield an impenetrable fortress.
Evans first-half strike was a worthy return for a display of attacking menace from the Blues in the first 45 minutes, against foes who’d not only won the previous seven on their Medway turf but conceded just a single goal in doing so.
At a ground where Jackett’s men had surrendered their unbeaten away record 12 months ago, it looked set to be a happy return for the 1,180 travelling Pompey fans - one which would’ve injected impetus and confidence into the campaign after the MK Dons disappointment.
But then came sub Alex Jakubiak’s late intervention as the visitors’ first-half verve retreated into an ultimately fruitless bid to drop deep and hold on to a cherished three points through defending in numbers.
Bass could reflect happily on his manager’s surprise decision to show faith in the 21-year-old at the expense of Pompey’s established No1. The Academy product’s interventions were important and assured when called upon with the decision to give him the shirt justified.
Still, a lead surrendered late was a disappointment - if the returning one point would’ve been gratefully accepted at the start of play.
Jackett admitted as much afterwards and the knowledge a maximum would’ve fired Pompey into the top six made it feel an opportunity missed.
The first team-sheet of the new decade was enough to send the blue-tinted social media into meltdown, as the surprise news of MacGillivray’s starting absence was digested.
That was one of two changes from the side who slipped up at MK Dons last time out, with Evans coming in for Andy Cannon as the Blues stalwart made his first league start in two months.
Former loanee Stuart O’Keefe started for Steve Evans’ side. The midfielder, of course, made 25 appearances in a season-long stay at Fratton Park in Jackett’s first season in charge.
He was part of a Gills side which was unchanged for the fifth game in a row as they looked to continue their powerful home form.
The game being billed as ‘El Clasico Dockyard’ was enough to draw wry smiles as the players took to the pitch, but the manner in which Evans’ side came out of the blocks was reminiscent of the tempo a derby is usually played at.
There was nothing particularly pleasing on the eye about their play. Just a high tempo, physicality and directness that was enough to put Pompey under the cosh.
Their approach and Connor Ogilvie’s long throws were reminiscent of some of the successful Gillingham sides of yesteryear. And it worked in unsettling a back four with an inexperienced keeper behind them, as Max Ehmer’s early overhead kick was blocked by Tom Naylor in the second minute.
Within seconds, the Gills should have been in front. Again Ogilvie launched it from a throw and again the Pompey defence was at sixes and sevens, as Olly Lee was afforded an inordinate amount of time and space 12 yards out.The attacking midfielder’s drive was true but so was Bass’ frame as he flung himself to his left to make the kind of stop to put paid to any early jitters.
That save settled Pompey and allowed Jackett’s men to grow into the game, producing a spell of pressure and chances which should’ve produced a tangible reward.
First came Evans’ ninth-minute free-kick and an unconvincing punch from keeper Jack Bonham which created panic and led to the recalled midfielder driving a shot from the edge of the box, which the keeper did well to keep out.
Evans’ defensive strengths were, no doubt, a factor in his recall, but it was his work and particularly energy which was prominent - a feature underlined as he burst into the box and saw his finish parried by Ehmer and Barry Fuller clear before Ellis Harrison could tap the ball home.
The 31-year-old wasn’t to be denied, however, as Pompey’s concerted attacking promise eventually paid off nine minutes before the break.
It was all about Evans’ willingness to make driving runs forward, as he burst into the box with purpose and hunger which was rewarded as he ruthlessly roofed Marcus Harness’ cross high into the net.
It was a just reward for Pompey’s attacking enterprise, but the response from the home side wasn’t one which suggested conceding just their second goal in seven Priestfield fixtures had rocked them.
Appeals for a penalty for handball by Harness whose arm was raised beyond what the game’s lawmakers would deem a ‘natural’ position preceded O’Keefe's angled drive just before the break, which thumped off Bass’ bar and away to safety.
But it was Jackett’s side who were claiming a second in first-half stoppage time as Naylor’s up and under was forced in by Ronan Curtis, but referee Alan Young protected keeper Bonham, as he deemed the Republic of Ireland man’s challenge illegal.
The feeling was a team playing so well on their patch were unlikely to stay dominated as Gillingham had been for much of the first half. And so it proved as Evans’ side started the second half as they did the first.
Pompey’s stoic defending was enough to restrict the home side to sighters of goal rather than chances of the gilt-edged variety, however, although the grey away shirts were dropping noticeably deeper as the half progressed.
Evans sent on Mark Marshall and Alex Jakubiak with 20 minutes left as he went in search of a repeat of their game-changing impact which saw Gillingham get a home maximum last time out against Rochdale.
And 10 minutes later that was exactly what happened as the Blues second-half rearguard action was finally breached.
A high ball was finally not dealt with decisively as Jakubiak was the beneficiary of a ricochet off Harrison and the substitute’s finish was unerring past the exposed Bass.
It was a deflating moment but one which felt like it had been coming to the fans sat in the uncovered end behind Bass’ goal.
And it made for juxtaposing emotions, as an outcome which looked satisfying on paper vied with the reality a willingness to defend further up the pitch could well have reaped a decade-opening return to really savour.