Portsmouth 2 AFC Wimbledon 1: Neil Allen's verdict - From goal-shy prospect to prolific winger, Blackburn target truly flourishing in Fratton Park glare
Rather harshly, the indisputable advances in Marcus Harness’ game are often overshadowed by his frustrating inconsistency.
Back in July 2019, Pompey’s interest in the Burton winger was cranked up following a scouting trip which witnessed him net a stoppage-time stunner in a pre-season victory over Sheffield United.
Within 48 hours, Kenny Jackett had splashed out around £800,000 on a player earmarked to replace Wigan-bound Jamal Lowe, once that tiresome haggling had been resolved.
Yet his Brewers goal-scoring contribution against the Premier League was a little misleading, having registered just eight career goals in 125 competitive outings before his Fratton Park arrival.
For all Harness’ faults, largely centred on not fulfilling that rich talent, there can be no disputing his goal output has flourished considerably since his Pompey switch two-and-a-half years ago.
Certainly 27 goals over that period represents an impressive addition to the 25-year-old’s CV, while, since September, he’s producing the scoring form of his entire career.
A last-gasp winner against AFC Wimbledon signified a seventh in the last 11 matches from the adaptable attacker, whose performances are now encouragingly scaling fresh heights.
That’s eight in the season so far for the Blues’ leading scorer, who is closing in on upping his goal return for a third straight campaign. Undoubted progress.
Harness has consistently demonstrated he is the finest finisher in the Blues’ squad, with Ronan Curtis his closest rival, the wing pair far more clinical than conventional strikers John Marquis, George Hirst and Ellis Harrison.
Rarely is he cast in the part of poacher, an uncomfortable role which almost saw him spectacularly miss against Wycombe little over a week ago at Adams Park.
Instead the former Coventry apprentice has demonstrated time and again his ability to cleanly strike the ball from the edge of the area, primarily right-footed, while who can forget that sumptuous backheel in his hat-trick against Burton.
He came to Pompey with eight career goals – with the Blues alone he possesses 27 in 108 appearances – and none from the penalty spot.
Clearly Harness will be the ongoing transfer saga of January, if not the summer, as his three-year contract ticks down towards expiry.
Pompey are, of course, in no rush to renegotiate a fresh deal to replace the one that finishes at the season’s end, having the safety net of a club option to extend it by an additional 12 months.
Although he will be able to negotiate with interested parties from January, any prospective departure will solely rest on whether the Blues wish to activate that clause.
Considering Harness’ escalating development and previous Blackburn interest, it would a no-brainer not to retain a player who has now emerged as their prized asset ahead of Curtis.
In contrast, while Marquis also possesses such a clause, his Fratton future is far more uncertain, reflecting his declining value, sinking performance levels and a wage which, until this summer, established him as the Blues’ top earner.
Rarely do club options specify a player must take a pay cut to remain on their books.
Still, Harness’ scoring game is blossoming under Danny Cowley at present, and is the driving force behind the club’s eye-catching resurgence since that Ipswich debacle.
A shell-shocked Cowley appeared a broken man in the aftermath of that humiliating 4-0 home hammering at the hands of former boss Paul Cook, yet the response has been as impressive as it has surprising.
Suddenly the players have demonstrated a character and heart so alarmingly absent for much of the season, in particular that two-game spell when they were blitzed 4-1 at Rotherham, followed by the Ipswich outcome.
Harness himself has netted in four of the Blues’ subsequent seven unbeaten matches in all competitions, which has lifted them into ninth and seen progression in the Papa John’s Trophy and FA Cup.
It’s a morale-boosting run which also consists of four straight wins after Saturday’s 2-1 triumph, albeit two of those arriving against Harrow Borough and Crystal Palace Under-21s.
Regardless, the in-form winger is at the forefront of a heartening Pompey revitalisation, despite ongoing injury issues to a small squad which still requires a new centre-half and fresh striking addition in January.
In their latest success, Cowley’s team selection against Wimbledon could be seen as bold, no doubt it would have been branded foolhardy should the outcome not been as positive.
Following a season’s best display at Wycombe, generating a 1-0 victory, the Blues’ head coach opted against retaining a winning side.
Of the two changes, the return of Gavin Bazunu was a little more understandable, although still a touch harsh on Alex Bass after successive clean sheets and the quality of his Adams Park display.
The other alteration represented something of a shock, with Michael Jacobs handed a maiden League One start since damaging medial knee ligaments at Wigan on April 5.
Subsequently, the side’s potential talisman turned in a display full of neat attacking touches and also weighed in with the important equaliser on 63 minutes which finally lifted a flat Fratton Park.
With the ball fortuitously ricocheting firstly off his upper body and then Paul Osew to send him scampering into the box, Jacobs’ low right-footed shot was helped into the net by the fingertips of diving keeper Nik Tzanev.
Earlier, on 24 minutes, Wimbledon took the lead through a highly-debatable penalty which, Cowley later claimed, was even disputed by fourth official Alan Young.
Curtis was jostling with the flying Nesta Guinness-Walker down the left, struggling the contain him, when the Wombles man threw himself to the floor with sufficient drama to earn a spot kick.
It was an appalling decision from referee Thomas Bramall, with the resulting penalty finished by Ollie Palmer, hitting it right-footed down the middle.
That moment proved to be an irrelevance in the grand scheme of the result, thankfully.
On 89 minutes, substitute Joe Morrell played a pass inside to Harness, who collected the ball and surged forward with purpose, before drilling a low right-footed shot from outside the box into the far corner.
For the first time this season, Pompey had come from behind to win – for the eighth time this term a goal had been netted by the blossoming Harness.
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