Portsmouth 0-0 Sunderland: Neil Allen’s verdict – Lights out for Kenny Jackett’s men in limp end to play-off bid
For approaching 57 years, those four linchpins had surveyed glorious Fratton Park history.
Underneath the floodlight pylons’ glare were Mike Trebilcock against Arsenal, AC Milan, Svetoslav Todorov against Burnley, Pedro Mendes, Cheltenham, Southend 1983, the 2005 Demolition Derby and Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.
In grand total, a haul of five promotion seasons and six relegation campaigns played out in the lofty presence of such iconic cornerstones.
Yet those floodlights, during their final act before summer removal, never witnessed a play-off victory.
Pompey last night had to beat Sunderland. Instead they meekly collected an insufficient goalless draw to prompt their elimination.
That’s now three play-off campaigns, containing three home fixtures, the Blues have never tasted a win.
Their latest exit cannot be blamed on Ian Ormondroyd, Jamille Matt, Ryan Allsop or the officiating. Pompey simply didn’t do enough to warrant progress.
Granted, Sunderland keeper Jon McLoughlin made a few fine saves. Yet the visitors were far too comfortable throughout, easily fending off the vast majority of Blues attacks.
Not even a barnstorming, frenetic finish to excite the Fratton faithful. Instead, a whimpering end to the encounter and the season.
With this Kenny Jackett side, heart can never be questioned. The effort was obvious, characteristically nobody was shirking or hiding, it’s not in their make up.
However, even with the returning Brett Pitman in position, there was an alarming absence of creativity and, ultimately, a lack of goalmouth opportunities to make a difference.
For a side handed home advantage in a second leg, Pompey never demonstrated the adventure required to claim victory.
In truth, many in the stands could see elimination long before the final whistle, not even six minutes of time added on could dredge up hope as they limped towards the end.
Sadly, the ugly aftermath will see Matt Clarke leave Fratton Park for a well-deserved personal promotion to the Championship or maybe beyond.
The play-off second leg represented a staggering 60th game this season for the classy central defender – a club record which eclipses Kit Symons’ haul of 59 in the 1991-92 campaign.
It also marked 91 consecutive league and play-off appearances since September 3, 2017 for Clarke – a run which will now end.
Similarly, Jamal Lowe’s future must also be thrown into doubt, despite a lacklustre end to the season.
The spark was once again absent following his introduction off the bench in the 52nd minute, despite his presence initially lifting the crowd.
There was simply no rallying this Blues side that was crying out for drive and inspiration.
Should the pair depart, Pompey can have no complaints.
The team frittered away promise of automatic promotion, then tumbled out of the play-offs having failed to score in two games.
They demonstrated guts, team spirit and desire every step of the way – yet still fell short.
A gruelling season consisting of a club-record 62 matches clearly took its toll on many, understandably so.
Nonetheless, the play-offs petered out in the same manner as their league push.
It is Sunderland who now head to Wembley for the League One play-off final.
And Pompey, weeks after having seen their top-two bid extinguished on home soil, are also out of the play-offs.
In fairness, Jackett’s team selection would have been well-received by the Fratton faithful with the return of fit-again Pitman and Lee Brown.
However, upon closer examination, the absence of Lowe represented a shock.
The winger dropped to the bench, along with the rather more understandable omissions of Ronan Curtis and Anton Walkes.
With Pompey’s top scorer among the substitutes, Gareth Evans moved across to the right to replace him in the attacking three.
Elsewhere, Brown came in at left-back for Walkes, with Viv Solomon-Otabor on the left flank instead of Curtis.
Finally, Pitman started in his favoured number 10 role behind lone striker Oli Hawkins.
They represented three changes to the team which lost 1-0 at the Stadium of Light on Saturday evening.
Brown (Achilles) and Pitman (hamstring) had returned to training 24 hours earlier, convincing Jackett of their availability against the Black Cats,
Meanwhile, the absence of Omar Bogle prompted a recall to the fold for James Vaughan.
The former Black Cats striker wasn’t included in the 18-man squad at the Stadium of Light, despite being fit.
When play got under way, Grant Leadbitter unleashed a right-foot shot from some long range after just two minutes, which Craig MacGillivray plucked out of the air.
Evans collected the game’s first booking on four minutes, punished for a high foot on Lee Cattermole, although the visiting players were appealing for stronger action.
He was joined in the book by Tom Naylor on 10 minutes, cautioned after aggressively throwing the ball at the back of Chris Maguire’s head having won a throw-in.
Then Maguire, who had been involved in several flashpoints, was himself booked following a foul on Nathan Thompson.
Pompey were offering early attacking encouragement and, on 30 minutes, excellent interplay between Ben Close and Pitman saw the latter dink in a cross from the right.
That was agonisingly out of reach of Hawkins at the far post and was retrieved by Solomon-Otabor, with an eventual shot by Evans deflected behind for a corner.
There was a scare for the Blues on 36 minutes when a ball over the top freed Maguire, who lofted it over the onrushing MacGillivray.
But Christian Burgess was there to mop up, diverting the ball out for a corner, with Maguire slipping.
There was a glorious moment to level on 40 minutes when Brown swung in a cross from the left and Hawkins cleverly headed it back across goal.
There was Evans with a close-range flying header, which was somehow stopped at point-blank distance by visiting keeper Jon McLaughlin.
From the resulting corner, delivered by Evans, Clarke’s far-post header was into the ground and bounced on to the top of the bar on its way out for a goal-kick.
That Evans header proved to be the closest Pompey came to netting during the opening 45 minutes as the sides headed into the interval goalless.
There were no substitutions at the interval, yet Lowe was introduced on 52 minutes for Solomon-Otabor.
It immediately lifted the Fratton faithful, and the winger took his place on the right, with Evans moving over to the left.
Instantly, Evans fed Brown and his cross from the left was met with a towering Hawkins far-post header which McLaughlin brilliantly tipped over.
Yet the match was drifting away from the Blues - and they were barely suggesting it could change.
The Blues’ second substitution arrived on 68 minutes, with Hawkins making way for Vaughan.
Moments later, Maguire was withdrawn for Lynden Gooch by the Black Cats.
Vaughan was swiftly into the thick of the action and, when Lowe’s cross was blocked, Pitman hooked a pass to the far post, which was met by the head of the substitute.
The ball crashed into the feet of Sunderland’s keeper, before bouncing clear, much to the visiting fans’ relief.
The Fratton faithful were encouraged, but they knew time was running out to find the goal to level the tie.
Despite Vaughan’s positive, strong-running impact, the hosts were not doing enough to eke out the crucial goal.
With the fourth official announcing six minutes added on, there remained hope, but Pompey again never hinted at using that time effectively.
Now they remain in League One, mostly likely without Clarke, potentially without Lowe. But still in League One.