Stevenage 3 Portsmouth 3: Neil Allen's verdict - Craig MacGillivray inspires penalty triumph and sparks future team reshuffle
Alex Bass and Craig MacGillivray hugged outside Pompey’s changing room, the touching embrace lingering a little.
It was a poignant post-match moment between the goalkeepers whose first-team battle took a significant turn at the Lamex Stadium on Saturday.
The classy demonstration of respect eclipsed selection rivalry – and how MacGillivray deserved the gesture.
Bass had spent the bulk of the second half seeking solace in the vacant area beneath the main stand, with club jacket zipped up to his chin and hood swallowing his face.
There was the occasional nod in the direction of a passing team-mate on a dressing room errand. Yet the distraught 22-year-old’s communication was chiefly conducted with his phone.
In July, the highly-regarded Academy product was attracting admiring glances from Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough following an eye-catching regular spot in the side.
For Pompey’s opening match of the 2020-21 campaign, he was substituted at half-time, the fall guy for the team’s abject first-half showing.
From his new-found vantage point, he witnessed the Blues rescue themselves from the spectre of a humiliating defeat at a Stevenage side which until a few weeks ago were preparing for non-league life.
And while replacement MacGillivray had little involvement in the second half as the rejuvenated visitors fought back to claim a 3-3 draw, he emerged as Pompey’s hero in the subsequent penalty shoot-out.
Remarkably, the Scot saved three consecutive penalties and was beaten just once during the spot-kick decider in the Carabao Cup encounter.
Danny Newton, Elliot Osborne and Ben Coker each saw attempts thwarted by magnificent diving stops from the keeper whose save in the 2019 Checkatrade Trophy help earn the Blues’ last silverware.
Stevenage represented MacGillivray’s third appearance of 2020, the year which began with his shock New Year’s Day removal at Gillingham in favour of Bass.
While the youngster thrived under Jackett’s backing, it has been difficult not to feel sympathy for the increasingly-demoralised former Walsall man forced to watch from the bench.
Then Saturday arrived.
Bass had paid the price for Pompey’s shocking opening 45 minutes in the season’s curtain raiser staged behind closed doors at the League Two outfit.
Defensively, Jackett’s men were shambolic, finding themselves 3-1 down entering first half stoppage time as Stevenage seized control of the fixture.
Bass and Sean Raggett were the chief culprits in the defensive embarrassment which threatened to inflict further misery upon a manager already under heavy fire from a disenchanted support.
It was the first time the Blues had conceded three in a match since December 29, ironically MacGillivray’s last League One appearance.
Incidentally, the central-defensive pairing of Raggett and Paul Downing was a partnership deemed not good enough after mid-September last season, yet are now regarded as first choice.
If that wasn’t sufficient concern, they also creaked alarmingly at Stevenage, who were reprieved from a National League existence following further punishment for Macclesfield earlier this month.
Behind them was Bass, who contributed to calamitous defending for two of the goals.
During the post-match inquest, Jackett also confessed to the press that Raggett felt he had heard a call during the build-up to the opening goal, crucially prompting his hesitation in dealing with the initial danger.
If accurate, it makes it a full house to forget for the keeper.
Still, Pompey’s boss felt change was urgently required at the break with the Blues 3-2 down – the outcome was substituting Bass. Nonetheless, it proved pivotal, particularly considering MacGillivray’s penalty contribution.
With the Blues’ next outing against Colchester at Fratton Park in the EFL Trophy on September 8, it seems certain the former number one whose shirt actually still sports that number will retain the spot he has now seized back.
Albeit in his new role as Jackett’s first choice, unless he is saved for first-team duty once the League One campaign kicks off against Shrewsbury on September 12.
In truth, there was no surprise seeing Bass named in Pompey’s maiden starting XI of the 2020-21 campaign whose start was pushed back by the coronavirus crisis.
Jackett had named a strong side considering the context of Saturday’s match – a Carabao Cup game against a League Two outfit.
Missing Ellis Harrison and Reeco Hackett-Fairchild, who only returned from injury on Thursday, his team represented a safe selection, relying on experience.
Certainly there was no blooding youth or offering fringe performers the opportunity to impress, as the competition has been known to allow in the past.
Granted, Academy graduates Haji Mnoga and Alfie Stanley were on the bench, yet merely reflected the small size of a Blues squad impacted by the salary cap and number restrictions.
In terms of the line-up, Tom Naylor was back – and as skipper – following his play-off omission last term, with Bryn Morris and Gareth Evans as his midfield partners in an initial 4-3-3.
John Marquis led the attack, flanked by Ronan Curtis and Marcus Harness, while James Bolton and Lee Brown were the full-backs.
However, the visitors found themselves behind after just nine minutes when Raggett misjudged a diagonal ball delivered from Stevenage’s half into the box.
Elliott List capitalised, taking a touch before finishing right-footed past the onrushing Bass.
Within a minute, Pompey’s woes worsened when Bass collided with Downing as they attempted to deal with a ball over the top.
In the ensuing mess, Raggett dawdled on the ball before his clearance was charged down and then Charlie Carter bundled his way through to make it 2-0.
On 21 minutes, Brown laid the ball inside to Curtis, who curled a right-footed finish in at the far post to reduce the deficit.
However, eight minutes later, Bass misjudged his flying punch when dealing with a corner from the right and, in the subsequent goalmouth scramble, Stevenage skipper Scott Cuthbert forced the ball home.
It appeared Jackett’s men would be heading into the interval 3-1 down, only for Marquis’ shot to be handled by the floored Coker.
Evans stepped up to send the keeper the wrong way to make it 3-2 deep into first-half stoppage time.
Pompey’s equaliser arrived on 51 minutes, when Curtis’ clever first-time pass allowed Marquis to outpace Luke Prosser and crash an unstoppable right-foot shot into the top corner.
With neither side able to be separated, the fixture entered penalties rather than extra-time, with Marquis, Curtis and Brown all netting for the visitors.
Yet it would be MacGillivray who earned the applause of the banished Pompey support – and admiration of the man he appears to have dethroned.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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