Portsmouth 3 Wigan 2: Neil Allen's verdict - Sensational second-half sees brilliant Blues deny returning pair a Fratton Park promotion party

Jack Whatmough and Tom Naylor were among the last Wigan players to leave the pitch, rightly attracting generous applause from the South Stand.

Tuesday, 26th April 2022, 10:07 pm
Aiden O'Brien is mobbed by his Pompey team-mates after his late winning capped a sensational fightback. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages
Aiden O'Brien is mobbed by his Pompey team-mates after his late winning capped a sensational fightback. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

There was no promotion at Fratton Park after all, just like four seasons spent under firstly Kenny Jackett and then, at the tail-end, Danny Cowley.

Merely delaying the inevitable, of course. Wigan will be in the Championship next season, with Whatmough and Naylor deservedly among their number.

At half-time they must have surely been contemplating securing the point they required to go up, especially backed by a 2-0 lead.

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A sweet homecoming for the duo, who departed as free agents in the summer and promptly found themselves a club capable of promotion.

However, they, along with former Blues assistant manager Leam Richardson and 792 away fans, were left stunned following a sensational second half of football.

In truth, Pompey were harshly done-by to find themselves two down at the break, with Callum Lang and Will Keane netting against the run of play.

Wigan had demonstrated their worth at the top of the table with two clinical finishes on the counter-attack, much to the disbelief of the home support.

Then the comeback began.

George Hirst struck twice in four minutes to level and lift the roof off Fratton Park at a time when the match was petering out.

Then, three minutes from time, substitute Aiden O’Brien produced a first-time angled shot into the far corner to cap a stunning turnabout by Cowley’s men.

It was brilliant, it was exhilarating – and it was Pompey’s best performance of the season as they finished unbeaten in their last 10 home matches.

Victory leaves them ninth, yet they have now surpassed last season’s points tally of 72 and remain in the hunt to also match that eighth-placed finish.

Disappointingly, there was never a play-off challenge, but they have been strong since the end of the January transfer window – led by Wigan heroes Hirst and O’Brien.

Cowley performed the relative rarity of naming an unchanged Pompey team for their penultimate game of the campaign.

The Blues’ head coach stuck with the side which defeated struggling Gillingham 3-1 on Saturday.

Having recently operated with squad rotation, it perhaps reflected those players he believes are his better performers – and those on the bench on their way out.

Meanwhile, Denver Hume, Reeco Hackett and Kieron Freeman remained on the sidelines as the season entered its final week.

Pompey began brightly to encourage the home faithful and won the game’s first corner on five minutes, which was delivered by Michael Jacobs.

The cross was a good one, but Will Keane rose well to win the aerial challenges and head it clear.

Certainly it was a good early tempo from Cowley’s men, belying the lack of importance of the match to their own season.

On 11 minutes, Callum Lang latched onto a ball through the middle and managed to navigate his way past Sean Raggett, but Hayden Carter popped up to put his foot in to concede a corner.

At the other end, Joe Morrell surged forward with the ball and was urged to shoot by the home faithful, only to screw his attempt well wide of the target.

Then Marcus Harness dispossessed Tom Pearce and then found a way past Naylor, before producing a dangerous low cross from the right which was diverted away.

In the 24th minute, Morrell managed to acrobatically volley Raggett’s long pass across goal, only for momentum to take him flying over the hoardings and into the Fratton End.

Thankfully, the midfielder reappeared after receiving treatment, albeit sporting a bandage, which he immediately took off and left on the sidelines.

Pompey’s pressing from the front was causing real problems and keeper Ben Amos was almost caught in possession by the chasing George Hirst on 30 minutes, much to the delight of the home support.

In the 37th minute, Jacobs picked the pocket of Naylor, with Hirst picking up the ball and driving in a right-footed shot from 22-yards just past the post.

However, in the 38th minute, the deadlock was broken through Wigan’s Lang.

Hirst was caught in possession down Pompey’s right, with Jordan Cousins playing the ball down the line to Tom Pearce and his superb cross was headed home by Lang.

It was very much against the run of play, hitting the Blues on the counter, and suddenly the league leaders had the advantage at 1-0.

On 42 minutes, Tendayi Darikwa collected the game’s first booking after tugging back Ronan Curtis as he surged past him in the centre circle.

Pompey should have levelled during three minutes of time added-on after Hirst had pulled the ball back from the byline to Ogilvie.

However, the defender somehow fired a left-footed shot wide from eight yards when he should have scored.

Wigan immediately charged up the other and made it 2-0, with Keane applying a first-time finish to another Pearce ball from the left.

The second half began with Naylor meeting a corner from the right with a flying header, which was kept out at his near post by Gavin Bazunu.

The Blues required an early goal to find a way back into the match, yet with Wigan holding a two-goal advantage, they were in firm control and now in no hurry.

Pompey had their lifeline on 62 minutes following excellent work from Harness down the right.

The winger battled his way down the flank before pulling the ball back, where it was met with a first-time left-footed finish from Hirst into the bottom corner.

Fratton Park erupted, while there was the strange sight of Curtis grappling with keeper Amos for the ball in the goalmouth, which earned both a booking.

Just two minutes later it was 2-2, with Hirst grabbing his second of the match.

Curtis’ shot was blocked by Naylor, with the ball dropping to Darikwa, who made a mess of clearing it.

Hirst pounced, taking a touch, before curling a wonderful right-footed shot into the far corner of the net for a stunning equaliser.

A few minutes earlier, Fratton Park was flat, now it was loud and vibrant, with the travelling Wigan fans stunned at what had just occurred.

Pompey were rejuvenated and when Harness got the better of Whatmough down the right, his fierce cross was palmed out by the keeper when it threatened to enter at the near post.

The visitors were rocking and, on 73 minutes, Amos appeared to be taken by surprise by Louis Thompson’s right-footed 25-yard shot, which bounced off his body.

Hirst then had appeals for a penalty waved away when Hirst tried to get away from Whatmough, but the defender’s last-ditch slide challenge was brilliant and nicked the ball away.

On 77 minutes, Aiden O’Brien was introduced for Jacobs in the Blues’ first change.

Then, with three minutes remaining, Hirst’s shot was brilliantly stopped by Amos at his near post, yet the ball bounced the way of O’Brien.

The Irishman met it with a first-time angled left-footed shot which found the far corner to hand Pompey a 3-2 advantage which they were not going to relinquish.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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