Portsmouth 1 Harrogate 2: Neil Allen's verdict - Fratton Park wake-up call as Blues post timely reminder of why paper-thin squad needs essential January work
With the growing influx of houses drowning in festive lights and cleaving of Christmas trees, reminders of what lies ahead are unmistakable.
Similarly, on Saturday, the football pitch demonstrated a timely nudge, albeit in terms of the forthcoming January transfer window rather than Christmas Day.
Pompey strode into their FA Cup second-round weekend boasting a nine-match unbeaten run and toasting the finest league form of the top five divisions in the English game.
It’s a remarkable transformation which will likely earn Danny Cowley November’s manager of the month as richly-deserved recognition. To think there was once an online poll questioning whether he should be removed as boss.
Then it arrived, that cold reality check to ground soaring expectations threatening to influence some to scale heights of delusion – Harrogate Town.
In truth, the Blues’ deficiencies have remained glaring, irrespective of the eye-catching run since the Ipswich debacle. Hardly papering over the cracks, yet vulnerabilities have failed to helpfully fade from existence.
Certainly Cowley has refused to be distracted by short-term thrills, even if George Hirst’s shock emergence subsequently prompted a little reappraisal.
He has long craved centre-forward and central defence additions in January – and it’s a transfer wishlist unaffected by the recent upturn in results.
Overall, Pompey struggle for squad depth, particularly when impacted by long-term injuries such as Clark Robertson, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Paul Downing and Jayden Reid.
Coupled with a fresh injury in the case of Louis Thompson and squad weaknesses were exposed alarmingly, with the outcome of FA Cup elimination to a League Two side.
Not wishing to do Harrogate an injustice, they fully warranted their win, especially for a second half display in which they looked considerable more capable than the hosts of snatching it late on.
Nonetheless, Cowley was unable to freshen or rotate his starting XI, while his bench contained five teenagers, among them Gassan Ahadme, whose involvement continues to decline.
In the instance of Adam Payce, hours earlier he left an Academy match against Exeter at half-time to answer the first-team SOS, thereby swelling substitute numbers to the permitted nine.
While unquestionably a strong side lined-up against Harrogate, it was the absence of realistic options, particularly from the bench, which restricted the Blues.
The midfield pairing in particular – Miguel Azeez and Shaun Williams – struggled to impose themselves and remained in place for the full 90 minutes.
Azeez’s fleeting outings have been well documented, with Cowley himself acknowledging that Arsenal may well request the 19-year-old’s return in January following just seven appearances.
He did little to enhance his first-team calls on Saturday, slipping into anonymity as the match progressed, worryingly so too.
Alongside him, Williams' mistake led to the visitors’ opener, so wonderfully finished by Luke Armstrong in the 44th minute.
More of a concern, however, is the 35-year-old being asked to turn out in a match Cowley wanted him rested for, an act which generated a 19th start of the campaign for the ex-Millwall man.
It was telling, with Williams, who had been restored to midfield from operating at centre-back at Gillingham, too often caught in possession and not distributing the ball swiftly enough.
Alas, he deserves mitigation, embroiled in an unrelenting fixture list with the head coach unable to rest him due to injury, illness and suspension unavailability among others.
Meanwhile, up front, Ellis Harrison was named in place of the ill Hirst, while John Marquis was hurried onto the bench following a five-game injury absence and just one training session under his belt.
It was Harrison who netted the leveller during first-half injury time with a well-take finish to take him to four goals for the campaign.
Despite none arriving in League One, he is now the Blues’ joint-second top scorer, along with Marquis. A damning statistic if ever there was one.
It represented Harrison’s first start since mid-September as he battles to convince Cowley he is worth of a new deal beyond this season, and, understandably, was a little rusty during proceedings.
Relying on him and a similarly undercooked striker in late substitute Marquis was hardly an ideal scenario, yet it was needs must for the Blues.
Merely another example of Cowley’s shallow squad at present, albeit with the January transfer window tantalisingly approaching and potentially offering a little assistance.
That is, of course, providing he can offload some of the unwanted members of Pompey’s dressing room to create space for fresh additions to bolster playing resources.
In the meantime, it was defeat for Pompey against seventh-placed League Two outfit Harrogate, who deserved their memorable Fratton Park triumph in front of the 121 travelling supporters.
Indeed, their bench contained just four substitutes, which perhaps renders complaining about Pompey’s squad size a little fraudulent. It hardly did the visitors any harm.
Yet this is Pompey, financial resources and supporter expectations are incomparable, and, in a competition such as the FA Cup, the options for such a club were undeniably paper thin.
The Blues scraped into the second round with a wholly unimpressive 1-0 victory over non-league Harrow Borough – and on Saturday didn’t deserve to progress any further.
The moment which sealed their fate arrived in the fifth minute of time added on, when most were braced for the prospect of an unwelcome trip to North Yorkshire on a cold December midweek evening for the replay.
Harrogate’s counter-attacks as the second half wore on were becoming more problematic, particularly with the game opening up as Pompey searched for the winner.
Then Mahlon Romeo carelessly gave the ball away in the centre of the pitch to spark another surge up the pitch for Simon Weaver’s men.
It resulted in Lewis Page delivering a ball from the left and there was Jack Diamond, on loan from Sunderland, to produce the decisive finish.
Few present could possibly begrudge Harrogate their moment. This was no smash and grab, they had performed positively and demonstrated the willingness to attack throughout.
They also highlighted the essential transfer window work required on this Pompey squad – not that Cowley needed reminding, of course.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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