MK Dons 1 Portsmouth 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Familiar faces, familiar problem, Blues' eternal striking problems continue to haunt
The cavernous Stadium MK remains haunted by ghosts of Pompey strikers past. Oh how we yearn to glimpse their like once more.
Forget unveiling a blue plaque, nonetheless the home of MK Dons notably staged the passing of Brett Pitman’s Blues career. Not that those present realised at the time.
An 18-minute cameo from the bench on that December 2019 occasion would signal the end of a glorious Fratton Park career for the ex-Bournemouth man, his fragile relationship with Kenny Jackett fracturing beyond repair.
It was a slow, lingering Pompey death for Pitman, dragged out over a further six months and condemned to never add to his 99 games and 42 goals.
Certainly there was a rather more upbeat atmosphere in February 2018, with 6,257 Blues followers witnessing Conor Chaplin’s dramatic winner four minutes into time added on.
The home-spun talent popped up to clinically apply the finishing touch for a 2-1 triumph, before sprinting the length of the pitch to celebrate with the travelling hordes.
Saturday marked Pompey’s latest trip to the 14-year-old ground – a visit which stretched this season’s goalless league run to 357 minutes.
Whereas once there were the gloriously talented Pitman and Chaplin in their League One make up, now exists a Blues centre-forward pool with one goal between them after six fixtures.
The biggest talking point in the 1-0 loss centred on why John Marquis started ahead of Ellis Harrison. We’ve been here before, of course, the tired debate now entering its third season, with no resolution within sight.
After 104 matches, will a Pompey manager ever get the best out of Marquis? And will Harrison finally fulfil the potential which once earned him a move to then-Championship Ipswich?
We wait and wait and wait and wait. Maybe tomorrow. We’ll see.
Bicker all you like, demand two up front, blame Jackett for ‘ruining’ Marquis, lambast Harrison’s injury record. Round and round we go, it’s all so frustratingly familiar.
In the meantime, only Shrewsbury, Crewe and Doncaster – three of the bottom four – possess a worst goal return than Pompey’s four from six League One encounters.
There’s no sign of the cavalry arriving either, with loanee strikers George Hirst and Gassan Ahadme not even included in the 18-man squad at MK Dons having failed to find the net so far this term.
So it's back to square one – Marquis and Harrison.
In fairness, Harrison can feel somewhat aggrieved not to have been handed a starting spot on Saturday considering his midweek heroics.
On his first start since March, he plundered an impressive hat-trick at AFC Wimbledon in the Papa John’s Trophy, although curiously not celebrating any of his goals.
Still, there was a strong case for him to retain his place for the following match at the Stadium MK, particularly as the side in league format has been firing blanks.
As it was, Cowley stuck by League One ever-present Marquis, citing concerns over Harrison’s lack of match minutes from an admittedly long lay-off after knee surgery and then Covid.
There was logic in the head coach’s reasoning, even if he did roll out the opposite line to local media in the build up, presumably to throw Saturday’s opposition off the scent.
Regardless, these are the strikers at his disposal, having been unable to generate enough money within his budget to recruit the replacement he publicly acknowledged was a necessity.
Cowley does not need lecturing on how the Blues require a new centre-forward – late in the window he made it his overwhelming priority.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s loss, he declared his side had created enough chances to have won the match, only to have spurned each and every golden opportunity.
Not so much glancing accusingly at those attacking players which featured, more a cold stare fixed in their direction.
There was Reeco Hackett-Fairchild’s far-post header from Kieron Freeman’s first-half cross which was mis-directed into the ground and bounced over the bar.
After the break, Marcus Harness fed Marquis down the right-hand channel of the penalty area and the striker’s angled right-footed shot was saved by keeper Andrew Fisher.
Then there was substitute Ronan Curtis, who burst down the left and elected to try to beat the keeper rather than square to the lurking Marquis.
Certainly they represented three of the most clear-cut opportunities for the visitors, coupled with several half-chances which were similarly spurned.
Not that MK Dons didn’t deserve their triumph, far from it.
They may have scored on the counter-attack against the run of play during the visitors’ most prolonged spell of pressure, yet had it not been for Gavin Bazunu, the match would have been settled by half-time.
The Republic of Ireland international was particularly in stunning form during the first half, the highlight of which was an acrobatic stop to thwart Scott Twine’s shot from outside the box.
He provided the platform for his team-mates to produce a much-improved display after the Blues scrambled to half-time with the scoreline goalless and thanking their lucky stars.
Following the interval, Curtis came on to replace the ineffective Hackett-Fairchild, who had surprisingly been given the nod to start ahead of the Republic of Ireland winger.
Then Mahlon Romeo was challenged to give more attacking thrust from right-back, a decision which had Kieron Freeman visibly fuming at being the player to make way.
The substitutions worked, the Blues were in the ascendancy, the Dons were not the team which dictated so impressively in the opening 45 minutes.
Then, on 71 minutes, Shaun Williams’ corner from the right was cleared and Troy Parrott launched a counter attack.
A wonderful angled pass found Twine racing down on the left and he surged into the box before calmly squaring a pass for Robson to slot home right-footed first time.
It had taken 16 seconds to turn a defensive situation into a match-winning outcome – and a floored Pompey were subsequently unable to respond.
Cowley’s rebuild was never a one-window job, contracts and wage levels preventing him from completing the overhaul so glaringly necessary.
Meanwhile, talented pair Curtis and Marcus Harness’ development has worryingly seized up during the last year. Others must also accept responsibility.
Still, Pompey host Cambridge United on Saturday and Cowley has centre-forward issues to resolve – Marquis, Harrison, both or neither?
It’s a question which has dominated supporter talk since the summer of 2019. Perhaps tomorrow the outcome will be different. We wait.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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