Portsmouth’s promotion aspirations continue to disintegrate – Neil Allen’s report on draw with Bristol Rovers

Pompey’s promotion aspirations continue to disintegrate, crumbling in front of an increasingly-horrified Fratton faithful.

Wednesday, 20th February 2019, 6:02 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th February 2019, 7:09 pm
Tom Naylor brings Jonson Clarke-Harris down for a first-half penalty. Picture: Robin Jones/Digital South

On this occasion it was a 1-1 draw with Bristol Rovers – a result achieved with Kenny Jackett’s men having scrambled back from a losing position.

Yet a fourth-consecutive draw meant the brakes continue to be applied to once highly-encouraging Blues progress.

Connection with the automatic promotion spots in League One is growing ever distant, while belief around Fratton Park is ebbing away with every unsatisfactory result.

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Tom Naylor brings Jonson Clarke-Harris down for a first-half penalty. Picture: Robin Jones/Digital South

The long-time leaders have become a solid play-off prospect – and it is an agonising spectacle.

Jackett’s men are shorn of confidence, robbed of form and looking anything but capable of breaking back into the division’s top two.

What’s more, supporters have become disillusioned with Jackett’s 4-2-3-1 system – at one stage in the second half chanting for the introduction of a 4-4-2.

The anger from disgruntled fans is understandable, an abject January has stretched into a woeful February.

James Clarke heads past his own keeper under pressure from Omar Bogle as Pompey equalise. Picture: Robin Jones/Digital South

It has been three league wins since December 8, with two of those arriving against 10 men.

The third was over bottom-club AFC Wimbledon on New Year’s Day – their most recent league triumph.

Referee Neil Hair attracted criticism during the draw with Rovers, yet the Blues never looked capable of claiming a precious win.

Once again they were simply not good enough for victory, devoid of creativity and the ability to dictate proceedings, which was particularly disappointing on home turf.

Jonson Clarke-Harris fires his second penalty of the night high over the Pompey crossbar and into the Fratton End. Picture: Robin Jones/Digital South

They had even fallen behind to a debatable penalty from Jonson Clarke-Harris on 37 minutes – the striker far too easily tumbling inside the box under Tom Naylor’s challenge.

The leveller arrived on 58 minutes, James Clarke heading into his own net under pressure applied by substitute Omar Bogle.

Clarke-Harris could have even won it for the visitors during the second half, missing a second penalty following a foul by Jamal Lowe.

That represented a let-off for Jackett’s men, who pushed forward in search of a winner, yet in truth there was never a suggestion it would arrive.

Tom Naylor, right, dejected after conceding a first-half penalty against Bristol Rovers. Picture: Robin Jones

The effort was there, there was endeavour demonstrated but at present Pompey are painfully short of promotion quality – very much to their cost.

They now stand fourth, five points adrift of second place as the stumble down the table continues.

And for Jackett, the pressure is beginning to mount as his side continue to splutter with 13 league fixtures remaining,

Pompey’s boss had made three changes to the side which drew 3-3 at Southend on Saturday, when they disappointingly let a three-goal lead slip.

With his two-match ban over, Naylor was a welcome physical presence in the Blues’ midfield as he replaced Bryn Morris.

There were also recalls for Gareth Evans and Ronan Curtis, with loan pair Omar Bogle and Viv Solomon-Otabor making way.

Bogle, who had been regarded as 50/50 following a dead leg against Southend, dropped to the bench along with Morris and Solomon-Otabor.

That meant scrapping the 4-4-2 and restoring Jackett’s favoured 4-2-3-1, with Lowe, Evans and Curtis operating as the attacking three behind Oli Hawkins.

Elsewhere, fit-again Dion Donohue was named among the substitutes, although Brett Pitman’s absence from the squad was once more noticeable.

Hawkins won a free-kick in the opening 60 seconds of the match.

The set-piece, 30 yards from goal, was taken right-footed by Evans with Rovers keeper Jack Bonham comfortably gathering low down at his near post.

On seven minutes, an awful crossfield pass from Naylor found its way to Alex Jakubiak, who charged forward and fired a shot from outside the box.

Craig MacGillivray dived to collect the ball, only to inexplicably let it slip from his grasp, with Matt Clarke on hand to knock it behind for a corner.

Pompey won their first corner moments later, delivered by Evans from the left, with Christian Burgess’ header met by a swivelling shot from Curtis which flew straight to the keeper.

On 29 minutes, Hawkins cleverly flicked a header through for Curtis and his looping right-footed shot crashed against the inside of the far post and bounced out.

It was agony for the Blues, although the assistant referee’s flag had already been raised, with offside given against the Irishman in the build-up.

The deadlock was broken on 37 minutes, albeit through a controversial penalty in Rovers’ favour.

A good build-up from the visitors found Clarke-Harris down the right-hand side of the box and he crumbled to the ground under a challenge from Naylor.

It was undoubtedly soft from the striker but the penalty was awarded, with Clarke-Harris finishing comprehensively down the middle.

The score remained 1-0 heading into the break, with loud boos from many home supporters greeting the half-time whistle.

Jackett made a substitution at the break, with Bogle introduced for Hawkins in attack.

Referee Hair was also incurring the wrath of Fratton Park early in the second half, having failed to award fouls in favour of Bogle and then Lowe.

There was far more urgency over Pompey’s play, although Clarke-Harris did draw a save from MacGillivray following a powerful low shot.

On 56 minutes, the Fratton End chanted in favour of 4-4-2, followed by a rendition of ‘Kenny Jackett’s Blue & White Army’.

And the scores were level on 58 minutes through Clarke’s own goal.

Curtis clipped in a cross from the left and, under pressure from Bogle, the full-back diverted a header past his own keeper from six-yards out.

Within eight minutes, Rovers had the opportunity to regain their lead – once again from the penalty spot.

Lowe’s challenge on Clarke saw the winger booked for his protests, yet this time Clarke-Harris ballooned his left-footed spot kick high into a gloating Fratton End.

Immediately, Jackett introduced James Vaughan for Evans, while Lee Brown was booked for words he exchanged with the referee following the penalty miss.

Pompey made their third and final substitution on 79 minutes, with Solomon-Otabor replacing the below-par Lowe.

Curtis remained lively and when his shot deflected kindly into the path of the overlapping Brown inside the box, the left-back had a glimpse of goal.

However, he completely missed his kick against his former club and the ball ran out for a goal-kick.

The offering of five minutes added time delivered hope but no real opportunities emerged and it was another frustrating day for Pompey fans.