Rotherham 4 Portsmouth 1: Neil Allen's verdict: Brittle Blues implode to surrender with a whimper as weak character exposed once more

Surveying the carnage, Danny Cowley declared chief tormentor Michael Smith as League One’s finest number nine.

Sunday, 17th October 2021, 9:00 am
Ryan Tunnicliffe is dejected after a third goal in eight minutes hands Rotherham a 4-1 lead on Saturday. Picture: Daniel Chesterton/phcimages.com

Not that the 10-goal striker wears such a number, rather the back of his Rotherham shirt sports 24. Nonetheless, we understand entirely the point behind made.

He was once Pompey’s, yet it didn’t work out. Nobody’s fault, these things happen, and there were barely any Blues followers raging at the time of his August 2017 exit.

Perhaps, armed with powerful hindsight, they may now claim foolish Kenny Jackett should never have let him depart. Not that such views were voiced at the time, of course.

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Still, hypothetically talking, exchanging the in-form Smith for counterpart John Marquis from Saturday’s sides would likely have had minimal impact.

The truth is, the Blues’ issues at present run considerably deeper than the identity of the man leading their front line.

You see, this is not a side which lies an agonising one signing away from being transformed into promotion contenders. Infuriatingly, the leaks are springing everywhere.

Even Gavin Bazunu, the untouchable talent in goal, demonstrated he’s human after all with an awful second-half mistake which changed the course of the match.

There remained important saves either side of that costly 55th-minute fumble, nonetheless it was pivotal, heralding the shocking capitulation which yielded a 4-1 defeat.

Of course, in Bazunu’s case, that moment was merely a blip – expect normal high levels of service to resume for the remainder of the season.

The goalkeeping position is not an issue, there remain bigger headaches to torment Danny Cowley during this period of transition which will inevitably have its pain.

Unfortunately the scoreline misleads a little. Granted, the Blues deserved defeat, if purely for the embarrassing surrender when they shipped in three goals in eight minutes.

By the end of the match, they would have leaked 11 goals from their last six league fixtures, having previously been water-tight during the opening four games of the League One season.

That has coincided with the injury absence of skipper Clark Robertson, who sat among the Pompey fans with his son for the return to his former club.

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Similarly, Cowley has operated with a back three system during five of those matches. It may be the right system moving forward, but whether it’s the right time with the current personnel is surely a debate to be had.

Yet at Rotherham, until Bazunu’s slip, Cowley’s men had gone toe-to-toe with genuine promotion contenders with the scoreline at 1-1. Certainly there was no indication of what was to come.

Millers boss Paul Warne admitted his side didn’t deserve to be leading at the break, while Pompey’s head coach was convinced his men were the better team until that decisive second-half moment.

Fair assessment from both. When Marcus Harness’ sublime finish from outside the box hauled the visitors level shortly after the break, the Blues were unquestionably in the ascendancy.

One of the worrying traits of this side, however, is its brittle underbelly, an observation voiced by Cowley during his post-match media address.

Pompey appear to struggle to raise themselves once floored by a set-back. It’s an unfortunate characteristic glimpsed several times this season, in particular at MK Dons and, of course, on Saturday.

Cowley labelled it as an absence of ‘resilience’, others may brand it as a lack of heart, fight and spirit. Criminal from any Fratton Park team.

Once Bazunu made his mistake, the side capitulated embarrassingly. Panic mode set in and the hosts, who minutes earlier were wilting, now possessed a swagger and a strut as they marched to a handsome victory.

Alarmingly, Pompey were unable to lift themselves, meekly accepting their fate. As ever, you learn about players during defeat, irrespective of the size of the scoreline.

How Rotherham capitalised and could even afford the luxury of bringing off the outstanding Smith with nine minutes remaining, clutching two goals against his former club.

Transformed by confidence, form and natural development since his poor Fratton Park days, Smith is unrecognisable from the player discarded by successive managers and, at one time, forced to train with the Academy.

How he enjoyed his opening goal in front of the away support too.

On 29 minutes, the ball was pushed wide to Wes Harding on the right and, in the absence of being closed down, the right wing-back was able to take a touch before delivering a superb cross.

There was the unmarked Smith at the far post to steer a header past Bazunu, before standing in front of the 1,242 visiting fans with his finger to his mouth and then pointing to the name on his shirt.

For Rotherham, a goal of beautiful simplicity. For the Blues, abject defending stemming from Lee Brown’s failure to swiftly close down Harding before his cross.

It had been an encouraging start from the visitors, albeit again found wanting in terms of quality of the final ball and shooting opportunities to cap heartening approach play.

Now they headed in at the break 1-0 down and cursing yet more defensive problems.

There was help at hand, though, in the form of top-scorer Harness on 49 minutes, after Ryan Tunnicliffe had battled away to dispossess Dan Barlaser on the left touchline to launch the attack.

He fed Harness inside, who took one touch before effortlessly stroking the ball into the far corner of the net from outside the box for a sublime finish to make it 1-1.

The Blues had their lifeline – yet withing 13 minutes were trailling 4-1.

Firstly, Ollie Rathbone’s speculative long-range shot appeared harmless enough, only for Bazunu to pad it down onto his foot, ensuring the ball bounced loose.

Kieron Freeman’s desperate block initially denied Smith, only for the striker to then backheel the ball into the net.

Then, on 60 minutes, John Marquis gave away a cheep free-kick which was delivered into the box by Barlaser and headed home unmarked by Richard Wood.

The third goal of the disastrous eight-minute spell arrived from Ben Wiles, who was allowed a touch before driving a left-footed shot into the far bottom corner after Mikel Miller’s low cross from the left.

Game over on 62 minutes as Pompey’s flaws were again brutally exposed. It needs more than Michael Smith to transform this team at present.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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