Pompey 1 Ipswich 0: Rain, Ronan - and no regrets
Sunday, 22nd Dec 2019 18:54 by Steve Bone at Fratton Park
For one reason and another I've not spent many Saturday afternoons at Fratton Park in 2019. In fact, the Ipswich game was my first Saturday home game this season. Was it worth the wait? You bet it was.
I love football in the rain. I love to see Pompey players winding up the opposition in whatever way they find possible. I love Ronan Curtis (not in the romantic sense). I love a clean sheet. And I love to see Pompey win when they really need to. All those reasons, and others, are why I was mightily glad to be back in the old routine.
Ir's been a funny old season down the Park, especially for those of us who have not seen too many games. I've never been a fan who's too bothered about the style of football played; results have always been pretty much the be-all and end-all to me - give me a messy 1-0 victory over a breath-taking 2-2 draw any day.
For that reason, you'll not, at any this stage this season, have found me wanting the Blues to get rid of Kenny Jackett. I've never been much of one for calling for managers to go. If they're bad enough they'll go, but most fans are too impatient. If I were chairman John Gregory would probably be in the middle of 'one more season to see if he can get it right'. And in any case, at no point this season has our position been terrible. I'll grant you, the early part of the campaign brought too many away defeats, and too many games where the team just didn't click, or play as well as its collection of individual talents suggested it should.
The low point was probably the defeat at AFC Wimbledon, which followed a dull 0-0 draw at home to Gillingham. But since then, you can't argue too much with results or performances. In the league, it's been five wins, three draws and just one defeat since that unpalatable afternoon at Kingsmeadow – decent form by anyone's standards - plus two or three cup victories.
It was noticeable how the 'Jackett out' brigade gradually became quieter as the weeks went by, only to produce a deafening roar again after one setback (admittedly a big setback, the woeful effort at the Crown Ground). But the Eisners don't seem the types to act hastily where the manager is concerned and while I may have reservations about the owners (I have never changed my view that we should have given fan ownership a longer chance to grow and see where it took us) I am happy that, whatever ups and downs occur week to week, we seem to be pretty certain that Jackett will be here at least for the rest of the season.
My lack of live games this season gave me a sense of trepidation as I made my way to Fratton through through the pre-Christmas traffic queues and rainy streets. How would the crowd, edgy all season, react if thy were given a home defeat on the back of the Stanley slip-up? Would the football be as turgid as some had led me to believe it now was almost every week? Would Fratton Park still be the place I have loved going to, and never tired of, for nearly 40 years now? I'd had nothing to worry about on any of those scores.
The first half was no classic – not helped by a referee who looked well out of his depth at times – but it was watchable as Pompey limited their highly placed visitors without looking very fluent. But the second half was everything I'd craved in going back to the north lower for my first Saturday game in months.
All along, from the opening few games of this season, I have rated Pompey as quite capable of reaching the play-offs, and there was certainly nothing on show on Saturday to make me change my mind. And can I confess something? I came away thinking... well, if that was Ipswich and they've been in the top two for most if not all the season, despite looking very ordinary on this occasion, is an automatic promotion spot within Pompey's reach? That's probably me with my festive glass half-full, and I'm sure a return of one point from the next three would make it look half-empty again, but we'll see.
I love a game in which one of your team's players gets booked after 15 seconds – sides should actually make that an aim every time, I think. From the moment Ellis Harrison went in for that challenge, you just knew he was going to get under his old team's skin. He didn't give the Town defender a moment's rest – provoking more than one of them into the referee's book and bringing about the sending-off of Luke Chambers.
I'm a big fan of Harrison and it's no surprise he has forced his way into Jackett's first-choice XI. Not only is he a decent finisher, he is excellent in the air and astute at holding the ball up and bringing other forwards into play. We've heard much recently about how few contenders there are for the striker's spot in Pompey's team of the past decade, but Harrison may soon be an early contender for that role in the 2020s side that's voted for ten years from now.
As for Curtis, well I was defending him early in the season when some were harshly saying his Pompey days might as well be over because he hadn't played well for months. Fratton fans are always so quick to write players off if they start well here then have a dip. Wingers seem to get particuarly rough treatment – Ricky Holmes and Kyle Bennett spring to mind when you consider how Curtis was singled out not so long ago.
Anyhow, after a brief break from the starting line-up the Irishman is back to his best and it's great to see. His goal against Ipswich was a lesson in single-mindedness from a player who wants to run at defenders and who wants to score goals so much more than he wants to climb the assists table. If he finishes like that on a regular basis, that at-time-selfish attitude is fine by me.
I am also a big fan of Ryan Williams. He has pace and, unlike some wingers, never wastes the ball. What a choice to have – Williams or Marcus Harness for one spot in the team.
Midfield has not always functioned well this season but Jackett should do all he can to keep Tom Naylor at his team's heart. Next time there is a shortage in centre of the defence, please Kenny, find someone else – anyone else - to fill the gap. Some have said it was a determined tackle by Naylor that set the tone for the win on Saturday. I don't know about that but he is certainly willing to do the hard graft and he does it well.
Defensively, clearly we still have weaknesses – and probably will have until Jack Whatmough is back alongside Christian Burgess and a left-footed left-back is back at No3. I have not seen enough games to judge who is Burgess' best partner while Whatmough works up his fitness, nor who is our best bet at right-back. Would it be outlandish of me to suggest Gareth Evans is worth a shot on the right if he cannot get in the side further forward? On the left, whoever gets fit first out of Brandon Haunstrup and Lee Brown will get the shirt and perhaps keep it.
Interest in the excellent and consistent Craig MacGillivray that could lead to bids in January is a worry; hopefully Jackett and the recruitment bods have their eye on a replacement just in case.
As ever it is only right to point out that one win – albeit one against one of the title favourites – does not mean much in itself. But for me there were plenty of signs of encouragement – not only on the pitch, but off it too as the home fans generated plenty of noise as well as doing their bit in a touching tribute to Ron Saunders, Jim Smith and especially to John Jenkins. I particularly enjoyed hearing 'Jim Smith's blue and white army' – and whoever thought of naming D-Day hero John as man of the match deserves a medal, if one less meaningful than those John wore with such pride on Southsea Common earlier this year.
Oh and the rain. I loved the rain, even if my particular north lower seat has rather too much sky above it to stay dry on such days. Rain adds something to football, just like floodlights do. The pace quickens, the likelihood of defensive howlers heightens and the crowd are lifted.
Any rainy Fratton Park occasion takes me back to one of my favourite games of my early Blues-watching career– a 2-2 draw with Orient in May 1983 when the rain swept down, Pompey surged towards the Fratton End and scored two goals that looked like leaving them a millimetre from promotion, before a late Os equaliser put a dampener on it.
On Saturday it was an uncomfortable walk back to the car, and an interesting journey home – though I think I reached a speed of 20 knots at one stage – but the enjoyment of what I'd experienced at the Park meant it was all worth it. I must try to do it more often in 2020, but first, Christmas, our traditional defeat at Gillingham and the lottery of the FA Cup loom. I'll drink to that, if Ronan hasn't quite drained that bottle of champagne yet.
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