Thoroughbred Pompey still leading the pack
The distance measured 40 yards, the winning post tantalisingly in view.
Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse, had progressed five lengths clear of its rivals down Aintree’s final straight. The 1956 Grand National had its champion.
Then arrived the infamous slip.
Ridden by future author Dick Francis, Devon Loch crumpled to the turf, with Irish-bred horse E.S.B. benefiting in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Certainly a comparable scenario to that witnessed in last season’s League Two title race.
With leaders Plymouth drawing and former long-time frontrunners Doncaster losing on the final day, it was Pompey instead claiming the crown following the 6-1 annihilation of Cheltenham.
Paul Cook’s men had occupied top spot for 32 minutes during the entire season. Crucially, that would be for the last 32 minutes.
Incidentally, in the history of the Football League, no title winner has triumphed after spending as few minutes at the summit.
Still, the Blues and their bridesmaids of Plymouth and Doncaster had secured passage out of the Football League’s dungeon, cause enough for celebration irrespective of careless late stumbles.
The trio were accompanied into League One by play-off winners Blackpool, a side who finished seventh, at least 15 points adrift.
In the present, the current campaign approaches its halfway stage and, intriguingly, it’s Pompey continuing to lead the pack when it comes to the old League Two gang.
Encouraging progress for the Blues considering they are the sole side to have changed manager since earning promotion, albeit enforced after Wigan’s charms lured Cook.
Not that it appears to be a disruptive factor, with a seventh placing at present – three points away from the play-off spots.
Indeed, 21 matches into the League One campaign, the champions are faring considerably better within their new surroundings than their promotion companions.
Not quite the same fate for Plymouth, of course, as they battle to remain in the division following that hard-earned elevation.
Pipped to the title courtesy of Pompey’s 14 goal difference on them, Derek Adams’ side have struggled adjusting to the step up, despite strengthening substantially in the summer.
The season commenced with one win from their opening 17 matches in all competitions – a run which unsurprisingly condemned them to the bottom of the table.
There has been a rally, mind, with four wins from eight matches lifting them into 22nd spot, although still nursing a second-worst goal difference in the division of minus 13.
During the recent improved run, there was defeat at Fratton Park, incidentally Pompey’s maiden victory over the media-coined ‘Dockyard Derby’ rivals since August 2015, when Gary Roberts and Matt Tubbs netted.
Adams’ curious post-match assessment of the game will undoubtedly be remembered more than the actual fixture, although taking nothing away from the Blues’ display.
Outside the relegation zone, albeit separated by a mere three points, are Doncaster – the club whose remarkable implosion proved so crucial in last season’s finale.
Darren Ferguson’s side collected one point from their final five matches, losing the last four of them, as they frittered away a table-topping advantage to slump into third spot.
As one of just two teams to complete the double over Pompey last term – the other being Stevenage – Donny have maintained their Indian sign during the current term.
When the sides met at the Keepmoat Stadium in October, the hosts ran out 2-1 winners, with the consolation even scored by one of their own in the form of defender Mathieu Baudry putting past his own keeper.
However, one win from nine league matches earlier in the season has ensured Ferguson’s troops have never been able to put sufficient distance between the drop zone.
They lost 1-0 at Oxford United last weekend following Josh Ruffles’ last-gasp winner, while remain in the FA Cup’s third round, where they will host Rochdale.
John Marquis, last term’s 26-goal striker and player of the year, continues to find the net at a level higher, with six in 20 league outings.
Meanwhile, record appearance holder James Coppinger remains a fixture.
Finally, Blackpool occupy 14th position and, like Pompey, appear spared of the battle to avoid an instant return to League Two.
Last month at Bloomfield Road, a late flurry of goals saw the Blues depart with a 3-2 victory, representing a first league win there since August 1980.
Gary Bowyer’s team have now won just one of their past eight league games.
However, five victories out of seven earlier in the campaign continues to provide an excellent platform.
They stand five points away from the Blues and in Kyle Vassell boast an in-form striker with eight league goals to date.
Certainly differing fortunes, while in terms of home attendances, Pompey, Doncaster and Blackpool have registered increased crowds in League One.
On the other hand, Plymouth’s figures have dropped from 9,652 to 9,090. Last term they were the best-supported League Two club – behind the Blues.
It was a haul of 10 wins and a draw from Pompey’s final 12 matches which last season inspired their surge past the finishing post.
From a starting spot of fifth, it was a truly remarkable chase during the final 61 days of League Two.
And after others fell at the death in Devon Loch fashion, the thoroughbred Blues have maintained their gallop well into the following season.