Portsmouth 4 Sunderland 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Desperate and tiresome but Lee Johnson drastic measures cannot deny Blues brilliant victory

When Sunderland’s King Canute realised he couldn’t halt the tide, drastic measures necessitated.

Sunday, 3rd October 2021, 9:00 am
John Marquis celebrates netting Pompey's third goal in their convincing 4-0 triumph over Sunderland. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

Swept away by the rain and battered by a hurricane, the Black Cats weathered a Pompey display of biblical proportions. For large parts, it was brutal viewing.

Lee Johnson sought assistance from the natural elements, a desperate appeal designed to throw a lifeline and thereby spare a drowning team which deserved little leniency.

Crucially, referee Ben Toner was unmoved by calculated calls for abandonment on the grounds of an unplayable Fratton Park surface.

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Granted, amid torrential downpours the pitch became saturated, rendered significantly more problematic to play on as Saturday’s match progressed towards its soggy conclusion.

Puddles appeared in the second half, the ball was unable to roll freely in some parts, grinding to a halt through excess water, particularly on flanks and in corners.

The League One leaders found themselves 4-0 down and wanting the game called off. Of course, all sides would launch a similar scramble for the lifeboats, let us not pretend football is constructed upon admirable principles and noble honour.

Certainly Johnson should not be castigated for his second-half crusade to declare the match null and void, although, admittedly, his antics – backed up by Sunderland’s players – swiftly became tiresome.

For those with long memories, it echoed the infamous visit of Leicester City in November 2002, when Blues boss Harry Redknapp failed to influence a postponement with his table-topping side trailing 2-0 to their promotion rivals.

That occasion was epitomised by Mark Burchill rounding keeper Ian Walker, only to be impeded by a puddle and ending up shooting into the side-netting.

Almost 19 years later, it was the visiting manager pressuring the match officials, yet his increasingly frenzied pleas fell on water-blocked ears.

On Saturday, Sunderland deserved everything they got – as did brilliant Pompey.

No excuses, no tales of woe, the weather didn’t favour one team over the other. The Black Cats were hammered 4-0 by the far superior side on a sodden south coast afternoon.

How Danny Cowley and his troops needed such a boost too. A wretched run of eight matches without victory, with their most recent loss at Burton in the week, had prompted tempers to fray a little.

Hostilities had turned on owners Tornante and their financial handling of the club’s footballing affairs. It’s to be expected that sights would soon also be trained on the head coach.

Performances, Burton aside, had improved of late with at last the discovery of a goal touch, albeit offset by conceding twice in each of their previous four fixtures.

It had been a month-and-a-half since the Blues lasted tasted triumph, condemning them to 13th place during what is, realistically, a season of rebuild rather than promotion aspiration.

Considering the precarious situation heading into a Fratton Park clash with League One’s table toppers, it was perhaps surprising that Cowley named the same line-up for a fourth straight match.

Truly a bold selection decision by the Blues boss. Whether it was a remarkable show of faith in his first-team or damning indictment of his trust in fringe players, can be open to debate.

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Nonetheless, it was a gutsy call which, with some inevitability, was not particularly well received by supporters before kick-off.

Still, managers live and die on such decisions – and Cowley’s turned out to be a wonderful masterstroke which could well change the course of this spluttering season.

Certainly it would have been easy to ditch the wing-back system after three matches, while the majority of fans would have applauded the removal of John Marquis from the starting XI.

Cowley, however, refused to play to the gallery and stuck by his beliefs, irrespective of the Burton 2-1 defeat which publicly saw him question his team. Such actions deserve to be admired.

As it was, with Connor Ogilvie and Clark Robertson still missing through injury, Kieron Freeman and Shaun Williams continued to deputise in a back three anchored by the magnificent Sean Raggett.

Elsewhere, Marquis retained his place, despite one goal in 11 matches this term, with Ellis Harrison and George Hirst again overlooked, and Gassan Ahadme once more failing to make the 18-man squad.

Of course, it would be Cowley – and Marquis – who would prove their doubters wrong in the match which unfolded against Sunderland.

With 10 wins and one draw from their opening matches in all competitions, the Black Cats represented daunting opposition, particularly for a side which had failed to conquer anyone since August 17.

Few of the hardy souls which braved that wind and rain on Saturday afternoon would have anticipated anything other than a convincing Pompey defeat at the hands of Johnson’s promotion chasers.

As it turned out, it was the impressive 2,110 travelling support which trudged away from Fratton Park grumbling about their side’s performance, while being knocked off top spot as a consequence.

The deluge began on 19 minutes, through a superbly-worked Pompey goal.

Bazunu’s ball down the left was headed back by Lee Brown back to Curtis, whose first-time pass released the left wing-back down the flank.

He squared a cross to Marcus Harness, who, from just inside the box, took two touches before unleashing a low right-footed shot into the corner of the net.

On 33 minutes, it was 2-0 when Curtis’ challenge helped win the ball back for Harness down the left flank and he delivered a low cross into the feet of Marquis, who cleverly flicked a first-time pass back to Brown.

With a first-time right-footed shot, the defender finished into the far corner for this third of the campaign and, remarkably, fifth in his last 12 outings.

On the stroke of half-time, Curtis was brought down on the left, paving the way for number three for the hosts.

The Irishman’s right-footed delivery into the box was touched by either Marquis or Sunderland man Dennis Cirkin for an own goal. Regardless, it was 3-0 and Cowley’s men were running rampant.

The scoring didn’t stop and, on 61 minutes, Joe Morrell flighted a delicious right-footed cross into the box from the left, which picked out the head of Marquis from six-yards out.

The striker’s initial header was brilliant saved by the outstretched right hand of keeper Thorben Hoffmann, but the ball fell kindly for Marquis to then tap home left-footed into an empty net.

Predictably, the pitch protests from the opposition bench became more vociferous, their actions more desperate, but sometimes you must accept your fate. Sunderland were simply beaten by the better side.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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