Portsmouth 1 Accrington 1: Neil Allen’s verdict – An overachieving play-off team, now Blues must succeed in realistic destiny
The sombre procession trudged around Fratton Park’s pitch seeking connection with a diminishing audience.
A lap of appreciation as flat and uninspiring as the 90 minutes of football earlier dredged up against Accrington, yet represented a telling sight.
A mere five days earlier, Pompey nurtured giddy, yet realistic, ambition of grasping automatic promotion amid a rousing finale to the League One campaign.
The subsequent haul of one point from two home fixtures, culminating with Charlton pipping Kenny Jackett’s side to third place, was distinctly sobering.
Underwhelmingly, Sunderland now await as semi-final opposition, coupled with a tiresome trek to the north-east a fortnight after the most recent visit.
Still, the play-offs it is.
Nonetheless, on Saturday there was no glorious fanfare heralding the charge, reflected by that mournful post-match cortege and thinning terrace presence.
There has long been time to adjust to this disappointing destiny. Positive public proclamations may have stated otherwise yet, deep, deep down, most anticipated such a fate.
Following a 2-0 home success over Southend in early December, the Blues basked in a six-point advantage over Luton with a game in hand at League One’s summit.
Within seven weeks, the Hatters had sent Jackett’s men spinning down the table after clambering to the top.
Pompey never recovered, barely clawing back sufficient ground on a side which even overcame the hammer blow of losing manager Nathan Jones and assistant Paul Hart to Stoke in January.
When a late 3-2 Kenilworth Road defeat was inflicted on January 29, it was the last time the Blues occupied a top-two position for the remainder of the campaign.
There are those inhabiting the Fratton Park corridors convinced the team overachieved during the first half of a campaign which saw three-and-a-half month residency as leaders.
It’s hard not to disagree. Essentially, Jackett’s troops were a play-off team hauling themselves beyond their natural environment through an admirable combination of spirit and heart.
Grinding out results, digging deep for victory, scrapping back from perilous positions – a gutsy second-half team blessed with resilience and street-wise strength.
Certainly never the customary swagger associated with successful sides. How we patiently waited for the trouncing of an opponent, a breakthrough performance to announce Pompey’s destructive might.
Aside from rock-bottom Bradford and relegation-threatened Rochdale, both at Fratton Park, it largely never emerged.
Few of the Fratton faithful will dispute Luton have been a superior side over the campaign’s duration and worthy title winners. Their opening 45 minutes at Kenilworth Road was magnificent.
Similarly, runners-up Barnsley have shared two draws with Pompey this season, although were spared defeat through Omar Bogle’s spurned penalty in February.
Regardless, they were impressive on both occasions, while third-placed Charlton have twice conquered the Blues and represented the tie keen to avoid among those involved in the play-offs.
As Paul Cook would often preach, the league table at the season’s end doesn’t lie. Pompey are fourth and in the play-offs – entirely warranted.
In fairness, perhaps the noticeably low-key lap of appreciation was understandable considering the past week and lack of announcements to supporters that players would be conducting such a walk.
It must also be remembered that Pompey head to Sunderland next Saturday evening having lost twice in 18 games, one of which arrived at the aforementioned Charlton.
They also venture to the Stadium of Light clutching the finest away record in the club’s 98-year Football League existence.
Incidentally, the Black Cats have taken one win from seven, including three defeats. Certainly not the fearsome force it is often suggested.
Still, for Pompey, it was an unnecessarily subdued end to a campaign which promised so much and culminated in a 1-1 draw with Accrington.
Victory and the Blues would have clinched the third spot in their possession heading into the final round of League One fixtures, coupled with a play-off semi-final date with Doncaster.
Instead Jackett’s much-changed side were held to a point in a performance which frustratingly lacked intensity and barely threatened to yield that win so required.
Pompey’s boss felt his side were short of energy in recent fixtures, prompting a freshening up, with five alterations to the team which lost to Peterborough in the week.
The notable omission was Jamal Lowe, left out of the 18-squad completely, with the manager concerned at the winger’s ‘very fatigued’ Posh display amid the consequences of welcoming a new-born baby into his house.
The 17-goal leading scorer, an ever-present in the league since August 2017, will be back for the play-offs, hopefully refreshed an reinvigorated.
Others to make way, dropping to the bench, were Brett Pitman, Nathan Thompson, Ronan Curtis and James Vaughan.
That prompted recalls for Gareth Evans, also in the capacity as captain, Viv Solomon-Otabor, Anton Walkes, Oli Hawkins and Bryn Morris.
Subsequently, Solomon-Otabor, Hawkins and Morris were particularly disappointing upon their return to the starting line-up, potentially answering a few Jackett questions.
At least Hawkins’ final act before replaced by Bogle on the hour mark was to assist in Ben Close’s equaliser.
Morris, unsuccessfully operating in the number 10 role, and a completely out-of-sorts Solomon-Otabor, had matches to forget against a spirited Accrington.
The visitors struck the bar on eight minutes when Janoi Donacien’s cross from the right was met with a looping far-post header by the dangerous Sean McConville.
At the other end, Christian Burgess should have broken the deadlock on 35 minutes when left unmarked from eight-yards out to meet Gareth Evans’ free-kick.
Instead the defender glanced it wide, with the lineman’s flag remaining down to suggest offside was also not an issue.
Then, 44 seconds into the second half, Tom Naylor lost possession to Luke Armstrong, with McConville picking up the ball to surge forward.
The attacker next drove a wonderful right-footed shot from outside the box into the far corner past the despairing dive of Craig MacGillivray.
The Blues’ equaliser arrived on 59 minutes, when Close won the ball, exchanged passes with Hawkins and drove into the box before producing a left-footed finish inside the near post.
It was the ninth goal of an excellent campaign for the Southsea lad blossoming at pace – and he almost won it 10 minutes from time.
Bogle slid the ball into the path of the midfielder, who unleashed a first-time right-footed shot from 25-yards which crashed against the bar.
So a 1-1 draw on the final day of the League One season, now onto Sunderland.
Pompey have always been a play-off side – but they possess the ability to become a promotion-winning play-off side.