Shrewsbury 1 Portsmouth 2: Neil Allen's verdict - Time for tattoos as Cowleys reinvigorate beige Blues and swiftly inspire a city
The tongue was planted firmly in cheek when one Pompey fan declared Danny Cowley’s face would be tattooed on his chest should there be another away triumph.
Not that Nicky Cowley’s contribution was being overlooked, James Ayles also pledged through his Twitter account to get the Blues assistant’s face tattooed on his back.
These are peculiar times at Fratton Park. The feelgood factor is intoxicating, the enthusiasm a touch overexuberant.
Nonetheless, Pompey occupy an encouraging place at present. With a fanbase united squarely behind a manager and the team now fifth in League One, you can excuse some feeling a little giddy.
A return of two victories in eight days has reinvigorated a campaign in danger of plummeting towards a wretched mid-table existence.
Pompey, of course, have been accustomed to winning matches since Paul Cook’s entrance in the summer of 2015. Kenny Jackett alone, for all his detractors, triumphed more than 100 times at the helm.
Yet it’s the manner of those recent 2-1 outcomes over Ipswich and now Shrewsbury to have captured the hearts and minds of the Fratton support.
The Cowley brothers have re-energised a club which had become stale and uninspiring. Positivity shines through every utterance and each kicking of the ball – the transformation is remarkable.
Indeed, these are early days. We should perhaps be wary of becoming inebriated over a flash of instant success from newcomers during the honeymoon period.
It’s akin to demanding that Matty Kennedy be signed permanently following a few eye-catching displays at the start of a loan spell from Cardiff City. Sometimes you need to pause for breath.
However, the embracing of the Cowleys’ Fratton Park entrance is entirely understandable. It is nigh-on impossible not to be swept away by ebullience they have generated.
The vast majority of Pompey fans craved life after Jackett. Well here we are – it seems there was little to fear stepping outside the comfort zone.
Anyhow, the new era has begun magnificently. The team is unrecognisable, the performances indistinguishable. It appears the patient has a pulse after all, doctor.
At Shrewsbury, Pompey even saw out the final 23 minutes with 10 men following John Marquis’ straight red card.
Impressively, they remained on the front foot when challenged to negotiate that testing period, with the hosts barely testing Craig MacGillivray, despite their numerical advantage.
Danny Cowley would later comment in his post-match interviews how he prefers to still operate with two up field when faced with such scenarios, rather than dropping deep.
Such positivity was the cornerstone of Saturday’s 2-1 success, particularly in the first half, especially driven by the recalled Ben Close.
Shrewsbury represented Close’s second League One start in the last year, his return coming at he expense of Andy Cannon, who was dropped to the bench.
Some will never be convinced of the 24-year-old’s talent, perhaps what he offers is too subtle, not explosive enough and lacking in swashbuckling swagger.
An understated professional on and off the pitch, team-mates present and past recognise Close’s immense passing ability, his calmness on the ball, and talent for conducting the tempo.
The homespun midfielder inspired a wonderful first-half display from Cowley’s side, reflected by 72 per cent possession and a thoroughly-deserved two-goal lead.
It was as good as the Blues have played this season. It’s just a shame they failed to maintain such dominance when the Shrews switched to a 4-3-3 system and introduced two half-time substitutes.
Let’s not quibble, though. Those opening 45 minutes demonstrated a desire to build from the back, rapid movement of the ball to team-mates’ feet, and tireless pressing – all orchestrated by the outstanding Close.
The Blues were unable to create an avalanche of chances, yet they still entered the interval clutching goals from the rejuvenated Marcus Harness and fit-again Marquis.
What’s more, both capped excellent team moves, with the telling final ball delivered by a full-back on each occasion.
Cowley had made four changes for the trip to Shrewsbury. Joining Close was Callum Johnson coming in at right-back for James Bolton having recovered from injury, and Michael Jacobs on the left for the absent Ronan Curtis.
Finally, Marquis had recovered from the ankle injury sustained at Wembley which kept him out of Pompey’s last two fixtures, replacing the injured Jordy Hiwula in attack.
Such is the extent of the Blues’ injury problems in the striking department, there were no back-up on the bench. Marquis’ incoming three-match ban will now deepen the developing crisis.
Still, Harness opened the scoring on 25 minutes, claiming his second in as many games after a drought stretching back to November.
Ryan Williams was on the right when he knocked the ball inside to Johnson, who in turn squared a pass to his left into the path of Harness, who struck a first-time right-footed shot into the far corner.
The former Burton man again demonstrated a natural finishing ability which requires a more regular presence in positions of danger, rather than trapped on a flank.
Then, on 37 minutes, Close crossed from the right-hand side, picking out Lee Brown ghosting in on the far post.
The left-back diverted the ball across the face of goal, allowing Marquis to tap home from a yard without disturbing the linesman’s flag.
It was goal number 16 from the ex-Doncaster man who undoubtedly will feel a change in manager will recapture previous glories yet to be glimpsed since his Fratton Park arrival.
However, Steve Cotterill’s side reduced the deficit out of nowhere on 52 minutes, when full-back Nathanael Ogbeta surged upfield unchallenged to beat MacGillivray from outside the box in a marvellous solo effort.
Then arrived a potential turning point – the dismissal of Marquis.
Miscontrolling a pass on 67 minutes, the striker enthusiastically attempted to retrieve the situation, yet instead jumped into a challenge on substitute Harry Chapman.
Referee Benjamin Speedie initially paused before awarding the foul, then brandished a red card which Cowley later remarked he thought was harsh.
Shrewsbury, however, were not allowed to step up their game, with Williams running himself into the ground up front to keep them occupied and prevent defensive players having time to influence.
The Blues eased to full-time, including seven minutes of time added on, and made it successive victories since the Cowleys replaced Jackett.
As for the Fratton faithful, suddenly they’re enjoying the ride. And how it promises to be a white-knuckle experience over the final 10 matches of the League One campaign.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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