Portsmouth 2 Ipswich 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Subtle but the world of difference as Danny Cowley reinvigorates promotion ambition

Such was the level of loathing surrounding Kenny Jackett’s chosen style, it was inevitable supporters would heartily embrace any successor’s playing mantra.

Sunday, 21st March 2021, 9:00 am
Pompey's players celebrate what would prove to be the matchwinner from Marcus Harness against Ipswich on Saturday. Picture: Joe Pepler

You get the impression that had Danny Cowley raided the Jacketts’ cupboards, switched labels on a tin and served precisely the same contents under this different guise, Pompey fans would have declared the meal delicious.

There’s a new chef in the Fratton Park kitchens – and Saturday’s first helpings were gobbled up with lip-smacking relish.

The tactical changes against Ipswich were subtle, minor evolution rather than revolution, such was the lack of time available for the Cowleys to implement their fresh philosophy.

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Nonetheless, the result tasted sweet to a Fratton faithful who long had their palettes dulled by Jackett’s footballing fare.

Certainly the system wasn’t groundbreaking, with Ryan Williams operating behind sole fit striker Jordy Hiwula, flanked by two wingers in Marcus Harness and Ronan Curtis.

Whether it was a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, or a 4-4-1-1, there was a distinctly familiar look about the Blues’ starting XI in terms of formation and personnel.

No grand overhaul, no unveiling of radical concepts. Clearly the wheel was not being reinvented following Jackett’s removal after almost four years at the helm.

Yet there was a difference, a tangible change in playing approach strikingly apparent to all those who watched, whether at Fratton Park or in the comfort of their front rooms.

Against the Tractor Boys, Pompey pressed high, increased tempo in possession, operated on the front foot, and there appeared to be a desire to build patiently from the back.

They were urged on from the touchline by Cowley, from roaring ‘press, press’, to enthusiastically applauding a particular moment delivered by a member of his side, accompanied by words of admiration.

Meanwhile, brother Nicky clutched a black book in his left hand for periods, while similarly chiming in with full-throated motivation and praise.

Backed vocally by injured strike pair John Marquis and Ellis Harrison positioned in the South stand, a noisy deputation drove on Pompey throughout.

At one point, Paul Cook jokily fired back at one Marquis comment aimed at one of his grounded players, while ex-Pompey player Gary Roberts, now Cook’s assistant, glared at Marquis on several occasions with ill-disguised disdain.

There was unquestionably an edge, despite the absence of the Fratton faithful – and it was the Blues who came out on top against their play-off rivals.

What’s more, they recovered from conceding first, finally banishing the remarkable statistic which had grown to haunt Jackett through the final two years of his Pompey reign.

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Coventry at Fratton Park in April 2019 was the last time the Blues fought back to triumph after falling behind to the opening goal in a League One encounter.

Impressively, Cowley achieved it in his very first match as head coach. Even sweeter, it was accomplished against Cook.

Cook, of course, masterminded Pompey’s return to League One before controversially walking out in favour of Wigan, carving open wounds which continue to fester to this day.

The 54-year-old himself maintains more than a little resentment over the manner of his departure, despite yet to come up with a clear argument to justify such feelings.

Regardless, Cook’s fine Pompey successes should never be overshadowed by a grubby exit – and now he has endured defeat on each of his two Fratton Park reunions.

How the home supporters would have relished Saturday’s occasion and such an outcome. After all, the noise generated during the the April 2018 triumph over Cook’s Wigan could be heard from Hayling Island.

Not that Ipswich, the side he inherited earlier this month, truly represented his footballing philosophy. Why he even lined up in a 4-4-2, a system barely ever rolled out during Blues days.

Still, this was Cowley’s day in the battle between Pompey present and future against managerial ghosts from the past, as the era kicked off with a perfect result.

The end of five straight defeats, a first victory in seven fixtures, a second win in eight at Fratton Park, a first goal from open play in five matches, overall a first goal in 341 minutes of football – it highlights the depth of Blues’ frightening malaise under Jackett.

Throw in Marcus Harness’ first goal since October, ending a 25-game drought, and Tom Naylor’s second in his last 21 outings, and Cowley’s instant reinvigoration was stunning.

At the final whistle, Mark Catlin punched the air and roared delight, exploding with emotion following a torturous week which began with a Papa John’s Trophy final visit to Wembley.

Pompey’s chief executive felt compelled to act in the aftermath of that wretched showing, while oversaw the appointment of Cowley as head coach within six days.

What’s more, an agreement struck until the season’s end is a canny one, a try before you buy managerial policy which could still yield a place in the League One play-offs.

For the occasion of his first game, Cowley recalled Harness and Jordy Hiwula, dropping Ben Close and Rasmus Nicolaisen to the bench, while removing the back three which operated at Peterborough.

However, the hosts fell behind on 32 minutes after Alan Judge picked out James Norwood’s clever run behind Sean Raggett, and the striker produced a fierce first-time effort from the angle to make it 1-0.

Ipswich had their lead for just nine minutes before Ronan Curtis’ corner from the left was headed met by the head of Naylor from five-yards out, capping a perfectly-timed run into the box.

The winner arrived on 72 minutes following a lovely move, emanating from Naylor bringing the ball out of his half before feeding Lee Brown down the left.

The full-back played it inside to substitute Michael Jacobs, who cleverly played a short pass into the path of Curtis on the left-hand side of the box.

The Irishman drove to the byline before pulling the ball back left footed, finding its way to Harness, whose first right-footed attempt was blocked by Judge, but made no mistake from the second.

Victory lifts the Blues into seventh place, one point short of the play-offs with two matches in hand.

A much-desired managerial change has already changed the whole complexion of Pompey’s remaining season.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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