Portsmouth 3 Fleetwood 3: Neil Allen's verdict - A mess entirely of their own doing, yet gutsy Blues' remarkable repair job spares Fratton Park humiliation

Amid ongoing deliberations over whether a Fleetwood point warrants hefty patting on the back, there’s an important statistic to consider.

Sunday, 27th February 2022, 9:00 am

The record books show that not since August 2015 have a Pompey side fought back from three goals down to claim a draw.

Indeed, it previously occurred in a 3-3 result with Morecambe at Fratton Park, when Jayden Stockley’s diving header memorably intervened at the death during the infancy of the Paul Cook era.

It would be more than six-and-a-half years later when such a feat would be repeated.

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For the undoubted flaws which underpinned a wretched first-half display branded as ‘soft’ by Danny Cowley, the subsequent successful fightback should not be tainted.

Trailing 3-0 by the 44th minute, the Blues demonstrated remarkable character and fighting spirit to claw their way back and take a share of the spoils against their relegation-threatened visitors.

Unquestionably, Cowley would have targeted victory over the Cod Army before kick-off, a side precariously positioned two places above the bottom four and without a win in six.

Considering the calibre of opposition and armed with home advantage, a point would have been unpalatable for any right-minded team chasing lengthening odds of reaching the play-offs.

Marcus Harness gets the final touch on Ronan Curtis' left-wing corner to net Pompey's second of their comeback in the 3-3 draw against Fleetwood. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

Nonetheless, the extenuating circumstances behind Saturday’s 3-3 outcome ensure it should be viewed as an accomplishment rather than failure.

Few could have foreseen the Blues battling back from their sizable deficit, with some of the Fratton faithful having walked out before half-time, such was their understandable disillusionment.

The fact that Cowley’s men were able to grapple an improbable draw deserves credit, with special praise reserved for man-of-the-match Ronan Curtis and substitute Aiden O’Brien.

Had George Hirst not wasted two glorious opportunities and an out-of-sorts Reeco Hackett not spurned another excellent chance, it would have been a comfortable victory for the hosts.

As it was, despite glaring first-half deficiences, debatable team selection and a questionable system switch, the players produced a level of comeback rarely seen in football, particularly for Pompey.

To think earlier in the season the Blues’ head coach was rightly questioning his side’s character in the midst of heavy October defeats to Rotherham and Ipswich which exposed a worryingly brittle nature.

Against Fleetwood, there was undeniable first-half evidence of a weak underbelly still existing, yet the eventual response to earn a 3-3 draw was pleasantly surprising, even if retaining a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Certainly the manner of performance during the opening 45 minutes should not be scrubbed from the record – and neither can it be excused scrutiny during what was still two points dropped.

Cowley had been expected to alter a winning side to accommodate Joe Morrell’s return from a three-match suspension, but few could have anticipated four changes, including Shrewsbury goalscorers Louis Thompson.

The absence of Thompson was driven through the necessity to avoid the midfielder potentially breaking down following four consecutive starts. Bearing in mind his medical history, it made good sense.

Also dropping to the bench were Mahlon Romeo, George Hirst and O’Brien, with Tyler Walker, Marcus Harness and Reeco Hackett joining Morrell in being handed recalls to the starting XI.

The selection of Walker, in particular, raised eyebrows considering the loanee’s ongoing lack of impact as he struggles to impress supporters. As the game unfolded, he did little to redress opinion.

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Meanwhile, Cowley surprisingly also opted to ditch his wing-back system for the first time since November 20.

Pompey had fielded a back three for 16 successive matches, before cast aside for Fleetwood’s visit in favour of a flat back four, featuring Sean Raggett and Clark Robertson as the centre-halves.

Denver Hume occupied the left-back slot, with the ever-impressive Hayden Carter moved to the right, where he proceeded to demonstrate his comfort on the ball down the flank and ability to cross accurately.

For the return of the 4-2-3-1 system, Curtis and Harness were positioned out wide, with Hackett operating more centrally and behind lone striker Walker.

Bold selection and brave tactics, yet – within 15 minutes of the match kicking off – the Blues found themselves two goals down.

Cowley afterwards described it as ‘small tactical tweaks’ and declined to find a link between a dreadful start to the game and a different formation, nonetheless this was no coincidence to many of those watching.

Despite beginning strongly, all three goals arrived in rare Fleetwood foray forwards, with poor defending as a team behind each and every one of those efforts which left Fratton Park shell-shocked,

The first arrived on seven minutes when former Pompey striker Ellis Harrison burst down the right flank, leaving a tumbling Curtis in his slipstream.

Upon reaching the byline, he produced a cross which was met first time by Anthony Pilkington who, from a near-post run, poked it left footed into the net.

Matters worsened eight minutes later when Carl Johnston, again from the visitors’ right, squared a pass in the path of Harrison Biggins, who finished with a first-time shot past Gavin Bazunu.

It was too easy, too comfortable for both goalscorers to net from inside the Blues’ penalty area, with their runs into the box unchecked.

Then, on 41 minutes, Paddy Lane cut in from the right, skipped past Hackett and crashed a 22-yard left-footed shot which beat Bazunu at his near post, the keeper attempting to use both hands to keep it out.

It was 3-0 – and Cowley’s men were desperate for immediate inspiration.

That was provided by Morrell on the stroke of half-time, with his cross striking the arm of Callum Camps and Curtis putting the resulting penalty high down the middle of the goal to start the fightback.

There were no substitutions at the break, although it was a very different Pompey display during the second half, aided by Fleetwood being content to defend deep and focusing on time-wasting antics.

On 80 minutes it was 2-1, when Curtis’ corner from the left took a slight touch off Marcus Harness as it found its way past keeper Alex Cairns.

Curtis, the outstanding performer during a second half the Blues dominated, instantly turned to the South Stand, arms pumping and roaring to the crowd to up their noise for the finale.

Sure enough, five minutes into time added on, the Irishman’s first-time ball down the middle was helped on by Walker and then Hirst pushed it across to substitute O’Brien.

The deadline-day signing calmly slotted it right-footed past the advancing Cairns from just inside the box before celebrating the leveller with a jubilant Fratton End.

It was a remarkable comeback from the Blues and their manager. They had trailed by their own hand, of course, but repaired the damage in the most exhilarating of circumstances.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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