Portsmouth 0 Salford 0 (2-4 on penalties): Neil Allen's verdict - Fans have no anger left, just apathy, as zombified Blues plod on towards summer
At first there was anger, then frustration and now, most heartbreaking of all, there is apathy.
Over the duration of a week, the supporter base whose indomitable spirit saved their club and whose unconquerable optimism carved its future, have been clubbed into submission.
Abject displays and unpalatable defeats to Northampton, Sunderland and now League Two Salford inside eight days have finally broken the Fratton faithful.
They are reduced to shrugging their shoulders, gazing longingly towards the summer months, and accepting Pompey’s excruciating fate in the meantime.
A stalemate exists. Unless Kenny Jackett stumbles across a winning formula, unless these faltering players dredge up form and fight, unless the owners intervene – the Blues will remain condemned to a zombified existence.
The brutal truth is, the fans have no faith in any of them rising to this season-defining challenge.
The League One table depicts Pompey in seventh place, two points short of the play-offs with 13 fixtures remaining. Evidently, there is hope.
However, our eyes tell us entirely contrasting views. The supporters are not blind to the glaring faults in this ongoing malaise. This is developing into the worst-performing season since 2014-15.
On Saturday, this group of players were unable to raise themselves for a Wembley final. How they are going to resuscitate a flatlining play-off bid is unfathomable.
Inevitably, accusations of not playing for the manager and the dressing room having been lost are tossed around as convenient explanations to justify the continuing debacle.
Quite why players would willingly down tools to avoid winning at Wembley or prevent themselves reaching the Championship, thereby relinquishing bonuses and bumper new contracts, defies rationality.
Let’s not invent circumstances to handily excuse a Pompey squad proving woefully inadequate at sustaining a promotion push.
The motivation is there, presumably the willing also, certainly the financial reward is. Sadly, the outcome screams simply not good enough.
Saturday was a case in point. An abysmal opening 45 minutes was prevented from turning into a rout by the brilliant Craig MacGillivray.
It was a breathtaking display of goalkeeping throughout from the Scot, who was Pompey’s hero on their previous Wembley visit two years ago and similarly revelled on the big occasion once more.
At one point, during a drinks break in the 82nd minute, Sky’s coverage rolled out a montage of MacGillivray’s excellent stops against Stevenage.
Soberingly, there wasn’t enough time to replay them all before action resumed, such was their extensive number.
This was a Salford side which started the day ninth in League Two and deprived of their cup-tied loanees for the Papa John’s Trophy final.
However, they thoroughly deserved their triumph, albeit courtesy of a 4-2 penalty shoot-out success. Had it not been for MacGillivray, they would have been celebrating earlier in the afternoon.
Unquestionably, Jackett would have wanted a response from his side following recent defeats. Instead, successive first halves against Doncaster, Northampton, Sunderland and now Salford have been woeful.
It hardly suggests the requisite character within a playing squad he has overseen for four years, recruiting all but home-grown pair Jack Whatmough and Ben Close.
Granted, confidence is rock bottom and understandably so following what is now six defeats in eight games – yet this is supposedly a promotion-winning group of players.
When the big games arrived in the not too distant past, the likes of Gareth Evans, Michael Doyle, Matt Clarke, Jamal Lowe and Gary Roberts strode forward to inspire, with Kal Naismith to a lesser extent.
On Saturday, MacGillivray declared his presence, Jack Whatmough was as accomplished as ever, substitutes Lee Brown and Close made telling impacts from the bench, while Ryan Williams put everything into it.
Of the rest, Ronan Curtis’ breakneck development has halted alarmingly, John Marquis’ form is wretched and his £1m price tag looking dreadful business, and Charlie Daniels’ Premier League credentials require checking.
No doubt many will blame the manager for failing to employ them more effectively, yet there comes a point when the struggling player himself requires critical scrutiny.
Marquis and Curtis missed several excellent chances each, while Daniels has been massively disappointing considering his excellent pedigree.
Certainly few in that squad can currently complain about lack of first-team opportunities and being overlooked by the manager for his favourites. Enough have been rotated in desperation to reverse plummeting fortunes.
Jordy Hiwula started at Wembley in place of knee-injury victim Ellis Harrison, while George Byers was restored to midfield after walking out of Fratton Park ahead of the Sunderland game when he discovered he wasn’t in the squad.
Frankly, both failed their audition pieces and can now expect to be jettisoned once more for Peterborough, which also says plenty about the erratic selection policy at present.
That’s a shame for Byers, who looks like he has something, but his rare starts have coincided with some abysmal defeats, among them Bristol Rovers and Northampton.
As for Hiwula, his regard among supporters has escalated purely by not being seen in action. Remember Louis Dennis? Incidentally, he has featured for 36 minutes at Leyton Orient since the beginning of December – with six League Two starts this season.
Hiwula was replaced at half-time by Marcus Harness, while Byers came off after 73 minutes for Close, who used the Wembley occasion to announce his return from exile with an encouraging display.
Along with Brown, introduced at half-time for the woeful Daniels, Close reinvigorated the Blues and raised questions over why he had been sent to the back of the queue. Perhaps it is now his turn.
Still, the outcome of the match suspended for a season through coronavirus hinged on a penalty shoot-out following a goalless draw.
Pompey, of course, triumphed in such circumstances against Sunderland in March 2019 to claim the EFL Trophy for the first time in their history.
On this occasion, Williams and Curtis missed with that opening two spot-kicks, yet Salford were not so profligate.
When Jason Lowe converted their fourth penalty, that was enough to bring a halt to the process, securing an unassailable 4-2 win – and Salford were trophy holders.
Incidentally, on the same day as the Blues’ latest humbling, one former player claimed the Belgian First Division B with Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.
Had the EFL Trophy final taken place last year as scheduled, he would have started.
Instead, Jackett was scratching around for alternative big-game players at Wembley – but sadly few Christian Burgess’ exist at Pompey these days.