Portsmouth 2 Sunderland 2 (5-4 penalties) – Neil Allen’s verdict: The Checktratrade Trophy which meant nothing, but victory meant the world

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Monday, 1st April 2019, 4:43 pm
Updated Monday, 1st April 2019, 4:52 pm
Nathan Thompson scored to get Pompey back level and on the road to what turned out to be a dramatic victory. Picture: Joe Pepler

The Checkatrade Trophy, the competition Pompey fans didn’t want to partake in. Up to a point, of course.

Interest refused to climb off the couch, attendances meandered into the meaningless, a piffling insignificance in the fixture calendar.

It meant nothing – but victory meant everything.

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Nathan Thompson scored to get Pompey back level and on the road to what turned out to be a dramatic victory. Picture: Joe Pepler

The club which almost died, yet resurrected by its fans, with many such heroes present in an EFL Trophy record attendance of 85,021.

The dark days produced a colossal collapse comprising of three relegations, two administrations and potential liquidation at the High Court.

There were more than 100 staff redundancies, two former owners imprisoned, a club-record 23 games without victory, several HMRC winding-up petitions, a total of 29 deducted points and 90th in the Football League.

Don’t dare let anyone bemoan their club’s fate rates worse.

Wembley, though, the venue which earned supporters five visits in 25 months during membership of the Premier League, yesterday provided a fitting stage to announce continued rejuvenation.

The Checkatrade Trophy shouldn’t have mattered, but by God it did.

To the new generation of Blues support, those too young to be present for the club’s last attendance at the home of football nine years ago, it was glorious.

A penalty shoot-out success over Sunderland, the often-maligned Oli Hawkins grabbing the winner, added a nerve-wracking climax to a dramatic fixture which had finished 2-2.

And the greatest match-day gathering of Pompey fans for more than half a century observed it.

Not since a Fratton Park crowd of 44,050 for the February 1968 FA Cup fourth-round replay with Fulham had so many congregated.

Some 51 years later and the Fratton faithful invaded Wembley in historic numbers.

Of course, promotion to the Championship remains the priority, infinitely more important than the Checkatrade Trophy in whatever guise it portrays itself.

Yesterday, however, it was about savouring the present.

Some clubs bask in the past, a dog-eared black and white photograph of an existence. Pompey possess silverware in glorious technicolour. Once more.

Yet they were out of it at half-time, seemingly doomed to defeat during an abject opening 45 minutes in which Aiden McGeady deservedly handed the Black Cats a 38th-minute lead.

Kenny Jackett’s men were fortunate to limp into the break with just a goal disadvantage. Half-time chat among supporters was subsequently gloomy and resigned.

Then came the introduction of Gareth Evans on 56 minutes to change the match.

From that point, the Blues were a very different proposition, with Nathan Thompson’s first goal for the club on his 70th appearance the unlikely leveller eight minutes from time.

There appeared just one winner, Sunderland’s fans silenced, their players wilting, and Jamal Lowe lobbed in on 114 minutes to make it 2-1.

Then McGeady struck at the death, trickling over the line despite Matt Clarke’s best efforts, to proclaim penalties.

Craig MacGillivray saved Lee Cattermole’s spot-kick, Sunderland’s second, and suddenly the Blues were in control.

Man-of-the-match Evans, Brett Pitman, Lee Brown, Lowe and Hawkins all netted – victory was Pompey’s.

How the crowd celebrated, among them former players Hermann Hreidarsson, David Norris, Kanu, Conor Chaplin, Jed Wallace and Ben Thompson.

They were here to see Pompey, the club they served with such distinction, developing an unbreakable bond. Special players, a special day.

Team selection had seen Ronan Curtis defy the doctors by reclaiming his first-team spot – more than two weeks ahead of schedule.

Returning to training on Wednesday following the removal of stitches in his injured finger, he was handed an instant comeback.

That meant Evans dropping out, representing the sole change to the side which won at Shrewsbury in the previous fixture.

Curtis came in on the left of the attacking three, with Lowe returning to his customary position on the right flank.

That meant Pitman continuing to operate in the number 10 role, situated behind lone striker Omar Bogle.

The Curtis quandary was the most dominant selection question in the build-up to the Sunderland encounter – and he was fit to resume.

Evans dropped to a bench containing Hawkins, the pair having both scored in the 3-0 semi-final success at Bury.

When the game got underway, it took just 32 seconds for Sunderland to launch the maiden attack.

George Honeyman broke down the right and his cross went through the legs of Clarke and narrowly missed the lunge of Will Grigg inside the six-yard box.

Thompson put the ball out for a corner at the far post, a flag kick which was subsequently comfortably claimed by MacGillivray high above his head.

Pompey then won a free-kick down the right on 12 minutes when Jack Baldwin took out Bogle as he initiated a counter attack.

Brown’s left-footed delivery to the far post was met with a Christian Burgess header just wide.

At the other end, Lewis Morgan’s right-footed shot from inside the box took a slight deflection off the lunging Brown for another Black Cats corner.

On 21 minutes, the busy Morgan came in from the left and fired a shot straight at MacGillivray.

Then Tom Naylor took out McGeady down the left, with Grant Leadbitter’s testing free-kick diverted over the bar by the head of the Blues midfielder.

Morgan then crashed a right-footed volley from outside the box which MacGillivray reacted to brilliantly, beating out when he could have only seen it late.

The deadlock was finally broken on 38 minutes, inevitably Sunderland the scorers.

Thompson was pulled up for a foul on McGeady just outside the box and the winger took the free-kick himself, his direct strike flicking off the shoulder of Clarke as it found the net.

That remained the score at half-time and, when the teams re-emerged after the break, there were no substitutions

Bogle won a corner down the left and, from Brown’s delivery, the striker’s header struck Tom Flanagan on the line.

However, Bogle was adjudged to have fouled O’Nien moments earlier and it wouldn’t have counted anyway.

Jackett made his first change on 56 minutes, with Evans introduced for Curtis, also slotting into the vacated left-sided spot.

Then, on the hour mark, Pitman hit the far post with a wonderful strike.

Evans’ diagonal ball from the left was headed back by Lowe and the skipper took one touch, before firing a half-volley which struck the woodwork with Jon McLaughlin beaten.

The Blues were reinvigorated and when Pitman forced his way into the box, Lowe took over and screwed an attempt wide.

On 69 minutes, Hawkins entered for Bogle as Pompey’s second substitution.

A lovely piece of skill from Evans then saw him flick the ball over the head of O’Nien and charge down the middle before flashing a right-footed shot wide.

Then arrived the equaliser, with Evans at the heart of it.

The advancing Clarke flicked the ball outside to the midfielder and his first-time right-footed cross was headed home at the far post by Thompson.

A first goal for the club from the defender, arriving in front of the jubilant Fratton fans situated at that end of Wembley.

Pompey were in the ascendancy and, in four minutes of time added on, the goal opened up for Evans, only for a brilliant flying block from Leadbitter to deflect it over.

The encounter entered extra-time and Jackett’s men maintained their dominance.

On 99 minutes, Ben Close slipped the ball inside to Hawkins, who laid it cleverly into the path of Lowe, whose first-time shot screwed wide when he should have done better.

During the opening of the second period of extra-time, Evans saw a shot charged down, while Pitman’s lofted follow-up flew over.

Close limped off on 113 minutes to be replaced by Anton Walkes who, within seconds, had drawn a save from McLaughlin.

Then, Clarke lofted the ball down the left channel and Lowe pounced to make it 2-1.

The winger forced his way past Baldwin before calmly clipping the ball over the keeper and into the empty net.

There was a still a twist in the tail – and a Black Cats leveller to temporarily shatter Pompey spirits.

With the clock on 119 minutes, McGeady turned in a shot at the far post which crept over the line, despite Clarke’s desperate lunge.

Then penalties arrived – and Hawkins earned the Checktrade Trophy.

A meaningless trophy, which meant the world.