Portsmouth 4 Accrington 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Something is stirring at Fratton Park. Stanley signalled the death of one Blues side - now it's the rebirth of another

Accrington’s inquest spanned more than an hour, the dressing room locked down while under toxic attack.

Sunday, 6th March 2022, 9:00 am

John Coleman’s side had endured Fratton Park humiliation, a crushing 4-0 defeat at the hands of a side forced to fulfil the game’s final 69 minutes equipped with 10 men.

Stanley’s previous visit almost 10 months earlier had destroyed Danny Cowley’s play-off aspirations and set in motion unfortunate events culminating with Pompey being banned from the Astoria nightclub.

It would also spark the ruthless dismantling of Kenny Jackett's failing squad, with just two survivors present for Saturday’s return to the south coast.

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Yet while May 2021 marked the death of one Blues side, Saturday’s Accrington encounter tantalisingly suggested we are currently witnessing its glorious rebirth.

Granted, the Blues are presently positioned 10th in League One, far from automatic promotion candidates, while still a long shot to trouble the play-off spots despite encouraging return to form.

However, something is stirring.

Aiden O’Brien has been a deadline-day revelation, an injury-free Louis Thompson is flourishing, and George Hirst, once an object of Pompey ridicule, is rapidly developing into a striker of goal-scoring pedigree.

George Hirst celebrates his second goal of the game against Accrington. Picture: Nigel Keene/ProSportsImages

None are presently contracted to Pompey beyond this season, perhaps a concern to pour over on another occasion, yet are central to Blues hopes of a bright future.

Suddenly, a team chronically short of firepower and lambasted for minimal entertainment value have rattled in 16 goals during their last five Fratton Park fixtures.

Most pivotal of all, this group of players are demonstrating immense heart and character, essential make up abjectly lacking at times this campaign, particularly around October.

The previous weekend they fought back from 3-0 down after 41 minutes to claim a last-gasp point against Fleetwood, even if the improbable challenge was entirely of their own creation.

Now Cowley’s troops have shrugged off being reduced to 10 men to subsequently net three times and claim a remarkable 4-0 triumph over Accrington.

Some may choose not to recognise such heartening signs, preferring to be permanently blinded by negativity, yet there has been a marked change of direction for the Blues since last month’s controversial loss at Oxford United.

In the aftermath of that heartbreaking finale, having once again been condemned to 10 men, Pompey have taken 16 points from a possible 18 and are undefeated in six matches.

It may have had little impact upon their League One placing, such had been the gulf between the sides positioned above them in the table, however Cowley’s men are no longer zombie walking towards the summer.

This dead season has suddenly developed a pulse, much to our collective surprise admittedly.

The head coach, of course, deserves immense credit for overseeing such a striking change of fortunes over the last four weeks.

While Pompey’s transfer window was largely derided, the recruitment of free agent O’Brien and loanee Hayden Carter have proven to be masterstrokes, with both swiftly settling into Fratton Park life.

O’Brien, especially, had been pre-judged, sentenced to failure by those basing his ability on Wikipedia and Soccerbase entries rather than having the conviction to assess his talents with their own eyes.

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On Saturday, the chant ‘Sign him up’ emerged on several occasions, referencing the short-term deal the ex-Sunderland man signed, and scheduled to expire this summer.

Not only has O’Brien netted three times in six outings, his energy, work-rate and infectious desire have proven an excellent fit with Pompey, epitomised by his excellent role in the fourth goal.

On 69 minutes, he picked up the ball just outside his own penalty area and surged down the left flank, seemingly homing in on the corner flag in an attempt to waste time.

Yet there was a twist, with the former Millwall man instead cutting across into the box, cleverly nudging the ball between two chasing defenders before retrieving it and then squaring for man of the match Ryan Tunnicliffe to make it 4-0.

As the goalscorer and his team-mates celebrated in the corner of the Fratton End and South Stand, O’Brien quietly collapsed to the turf in the knowledge of a job superbly done.

Certainly a moment for Tunnicliffe to cherish in only his third start since October, lengthy time on the sidelines influenced by a long-term hamstring injury and then requirement to bring himself back up to match speed.

The Manchester United graduate launched his Blues career in blistering fashion, with a goal and four assists from his opening four matches before an injury-enforced dip.

Nonetheless, he was back to the irresistible form of six months ago having been surprisingly paired with Thompson rather than Joe Morrell.

Indeed, Tunnicliffe’s recall was one of two changes to the side which beat promotion-hunting Oxford United on Tuesday night, the other being Clark Robertson in for Denver Hume.

That allowed Connor Ogilvie to operate at left wing-back, yet, upon Marcus Harness’ red card, then provided the bonus of Pompey already equipped with four central-halves to deal with fresh emphasis on defending.

The Blues were leading through Hirst’s first-time finish from Mahlon Romeo’s right-wing cross when Harness was rightly dismissed on 21 minutes following an ugly and late challenge from behind on Ross Sykes.

Faced with 69 minutes to preserve their slender advantage with 10 men, incredibly the hosts would actually extend their lead over Accrington three times.

On 28 minutes, Sean Raggett headed home Tunnicliffe’s right-wing corner for his fourth goal in six matches during a campaign in which he is emerging as the Blues’ player of the season.

In the 56th minute, his flag kick from the left was headed home by Hirst for a second of the match and eighth in his last 20 appearances as the Leicester man continues to blossom.

If the scoreline was improbable at 3-0, there was more to come, namely the O’Brien-inspired fourth, fittingly finished off by Tunnicliffe.

A first goal since August for the midfielder, who provided another reason to be cheerful among a raft of strong performances which lit up the Fratton Park clash.

The transformation may have arrived a little too late to claim a play-off position, yet it does stoke up hope that next season could prove fascinating.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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