Stevenage 0 Pompey 2 '“ Neil Allen's match report
On the snakes and ladders board of Pompey's season, it was two squares advanced.
A Lamex Stadium triumph, a first clean sheet in 12 fixtures, a maiden away win since December, the positives were queuing up.
Yet crucially, the result enabled Paul Cook’s side to claw back ground on those promotion frontrunners.
Never quite out of sight, yesterday’s results have reduced the necessity for the Fratton faithful to squint in an attempt to catch a glimpse of those in the distance.
Suddenly there is hope. Meagre, but still hope. There remains a pulse.
Elsewhere in League Two, rivals Plymouth and Oxford United couldn’t be separated at Home Park in a 2-2 scoreline.
Coupled with Pompey’s 2-0 success against Stevenage and suddenly the league deficit has been reduced by two points.
The target now reads nine points, admittedly still a daunting figure to match with 12 fixtures remaining as the season gallops to a finish.
However, a trip to Accrington on Tuesday night represents the Blues’ game in hand on Argyle and the opportunity to reduce the gap further.
What’s more, the Pilgrims also have to visit Fratton Park, with April 16 the scheduled encounter.
Should both fixtures attract Pompey victories then the challenge for automatic promotion is most definitely a realistic one.
Of course, to muscle into those promotion spots will require a consistency of results so glaringly absent from Pompey since the turn of the year.
In contrast, the top three have not faltered, negotiating every possible blip with impressive ease.
Yet Plymouth remain the most susceptible to the potential of a late charge. Discount all fantastic thoughts about Oxford and Northampton self-combusting.
With seven points earned in a week, Paul Cook’s side are daring to suggest they are beginning to build timely momentum.
The ladders have been climbed but this Blues campaign has demonstrated there is always a snake to tumble down around the corner.
Yesterday it was a good day for a Pompey side not at their best, yet worthy of a comfortable victory over caretaker boss Darren Sarll’s side.
In the build-up, Cook talked of restoring the ‘cavalier’ attitude to his side, he promised to restore the ‘identity’ so lauded earlier in the campaign.
He has oozed positivity at a time when pressure has been ramped up through the team’s on-going underachievement, both in terms of performances and results.
In practice, they demonstrated one of their most fluent away performances in recent weeks, displaying a greater attacking threat and a tighter control on the match.
Amid the wind and occasional heavy showers, the game was not a classic, the football struggling to breathe on an increasingly destructing pitch.
Pompey had their moments of impressive play, yet generally the positive result was secured through grit and determination rather than stunning style.
An occasion for Michael Doyle and Danny Hollands to reign supreme rather than Gary Roberts and Kyle Bennett.
Even so, the latter pair conjured up the two decisive moments to secure the 2-0 scoreline and once more tantalisingly dangle the possibility of promotion.
Both have attracted criticism this season, the vast majority of it harsh, however yesterday each provided the touch of inspiration required to eke out victory.
Backed up by a sound defensive display and a first clean sheet for Ryan Fulton in his 10th Pompey outing and it represented an efficient showing from Cook’s side.
For the occasion, the Blues boss opted to return to the tried and tested, both in terms of personnel and system.
Out went the 4-4-2 employed against Cambridge United and Exeter, replaced by his favoured 4-2-3-1 system.
Gareth Evans was back in the side following a brief spell on the bench after injury, operating on the right of the attacking three in place of Kal Naismith.
The second and final alteration to the team which collected four points from the previous two games was replacing Conor Chaplin with fit-again Roberts.
Chaplin netted a classy goal at St James Park in the week and remains one of the few players blessed with a presence which can instantaneously lift the Fratton faithful.
In addition, the teenager served as the club’s joint-top scorer before the match. Certainly many would have questioned the wisdom of the talented teenager’s exclusion.
Cook, though, made the call, finding a way to squeeze Roberts into his starting line-up having only returned to training 48 hours earlier following a hamstring injury.
The Pompey manager’s previous gamble saw the creative midfielder limp off after eight minutes at Barnet with that very problem.
On Saturday, Roberts lasted 71 minutes before substituted as a precaution, by which stage he had conjured up what would prove to be an unassailable lead.
On 22 minutes, the former Chesterfield man slid into a tackle to dispossess Stevenage’s Lee Cox in the final third.
Pompey’s midfielder then served up a delicious pass into the path of Marc McNulty, who applied a right-foot finish in customary clinical fashion to break the deadlock.
A moment of wondrous class from Roberts to justify his inclusion. Pompey fans will now be hoping his injury absences can be restricted during the season’s run-in.
Fulton was never truly threatened by the hosts, irrespective of forcing a number of corners in the opening 45 minutes.
After the break, Stevenage did raise their game, yet this was a Pompey side intent on not letting slip their advantage.
Cook threw on Naismith and Michael Smith on 71 minutes to maintain an attacking approach rather than sitting back on their lead.
It worked. On 82 minutes Hollands fed Bennett and his pass into the path of Naismith down the left saw the winger finish confidently past Jamie Jones.
There was still time for the outstanding Tom Conlon to strike Pompey’s bar in time added on, but the result was in no doubt.
And hope’s flame still burns.