Portsmouth 1 Bristol Rovers 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Energized Ronan Curtis' sprint finish driving Blues towards dramatic promotion finale
Nicky Cowley delivered his pep talk from the heart of Fratton Park’s pitch upon seizure of an important three points.
John Marquis was the subject of the assistant head coach’s post-final whistle attention, a moment culminating with a touching embrace between the pair.
The striker’s crisis of confidence is deepening with every barren outing, his latest blank arriving on the occasion of his 100th Pompey appearance.
Nonetheless, before the players had returned to the dressing room following Saturday’s 1-0 success over Bristol Rovers, Cowley was consoling the wilting Marquis with words of comfort and lashings of positivity.
The £1m buy from Doncaster may be scratching around for goals and form, yet, in his on-going scoresheet absence, it is Ronan Curtis who has admirably stepped up to fill the void.
Having netted three times in seven matches, including successive fixtures, the Irishman is finishing the season with a flourish. Thankfully.
This stuttering Pompey side alarmingly lack a goal threat at present, whether it be midfielders Tom Naylor, Ben Close and Andy Cannon, or the more attack-minded Ryan Williams and Marquis.
Certainly Marcus Harness has had his moments, but is becoming infuriatingly unpredictable – and not solely in terms of scoring consistently.
Then there’s Curtis, who has registered half of Pompey’s goal tally over the last seven games, all from open play.
Motivated by his insatiable desire for Championship football, the 25-year-old is striving to drag this Blues side over the line to secure play-off qualification.
Saturday was a case in point, the ex-Derry man weighing in with another man-of-the-match performance. Full of heart, brimming with purpose, evidently this is a sprint finish.
Coupled with self-confessed determination to overhaul Yakubu and Brett Pitman’s Pompey goal tallies, Curtis is not short of motivation at present – and it has become increasingly apparent in his play.
Pompey have long been crying out for inspiration to drive their season and against Bristol Rovers it was supplied by both Curtis and George Byers.
Curtis should have claimed goal number 40 for the Blues on Saturday, but for a wasteful right-footed finish following substitute Harvey White’s wonderful ball over the top from deep in his own half.
Within earshot of the press, Danny Cowley afterwards called back the Spurs loanee from his journey towards the Fratton Park exit to coo over an impressive second-half block rather than that eye-catching moment.
Yet the head coach also recognised the quality of White’s pass which should have made a 1-0 victory rather more comfortable.
Regardless, Curtis offers the Blues’ chief attacking threat at present, in the process demonstrating he could yet be the key to a top-six finish.
With 39 goals from 139 appearances, a total which does not consist of a single penalty, it represents a remarkable haul from the player initially perceived as a gamble when he arrived at Fratton Park in May 2018.
While there is a strong argument that the Irishman has not developed this term when compared to his opening two campaigns, his strong finish to the season could signal late personal progression.
Certainly the Cowleys are unabashed fans of Curtis’ talents and his often swaggering self-belief, albeit recognising the necessity to control some of the passion which can cloud his on-pitch judgement.
Still, in a year when the player of the season vote lacks outstanding candidates, perhaps his late charge may yet swing it his way? How Pompey require somebody to grab the play-off push by the scruff of the neck.
The key moment arrived on 27 minutes, emanating from Craig MacGillivray’s quick throw to Ben Close catching a Rovers corner.
When the pass came Curtis’ way, he slipped it to Byers on the left, before setting off to receive it back inside the penalty area.
How it was presented to the Irishman was a touch of class, with Byers cleverly back-heeling the ball into his path and, such was its weighted perfection, Curtis didn’t even need a touch before driving it into the far corner of the net.
A team move of quality, yet Byers and Curtis should largely accept the plaudits in what would prove to be the match winner in a game full of tempo, yet lacking in penalty area action.
It was also sufficient to relegate Joey Barton’s side to League Two, having required a miracle to stay up heading into the Fratton Park encounter.
Still, the Blues had their own problems ahead of the clash, namely addressing four games without victory, including a dismal 3-1 defeat at previously rock-bottom Swindon on Tuesday night.
Danny Cowley responded by dropping the deeply-disappointing Charlie Daniels, recalling Byers and fielding a side without a recognised left-back.
Crucially, however, he introduced a 3-4-2-1 system, with Callum Johnson, Sean Raggett and Rasmus Nicolaisen operating as the centre-halves and Williams on the left flank, with Harness on the right.
The previous day, Naylor had been ruled out with a hamstring injury, yet awoke on Saturday morning reinvigorated enough to surprisingly declare his availability.
Pompey’s skipper partnered Close in the middle, with Curtis and Byers ahead, while Marquis, as the sole fit senior striker, retained his place in attack to earn his 100th Blues outing, a total achieved over two spells.
For Byers it was a maiden start under Cowley and his first in 10 games during an ongoing battle for match minutes to prove his worth following his January arrival from Swansea.
In fairness, he grasped his opportunity well and now remains a genuine contender to retain his place, albeit should the Pompey management persist with the same system during the final three matches of the League One season.
It’s a fixture quirk that two of those three fixtures involve Accrington, with a trip to the Crown Ground on Tuesday night a match the Blues can ill afford to lose.
As it stands, they are being kept out of the final play-off position by Blackpool, courtesy of an inferior goal difference, although the Tangerines do have a game in hand.
Realistically, it’s six teams vying for four positions, while of those sides behind seventh-placed Pompey, Charlton are the only ones who still have a chance.
Clearly this is heading right to the final day of the season – and Curtis is suggesting he intends to be the inspiration for this last-gasp Pompey surge.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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