Tonight’s defeat will have surprised few, and whilst supporters may be disappointed, it is just a reminder of where we are at the moment.
Being forced not changes is never ideal, and with Montsma, Morton, Walsh and Bridcutt injured, as well as Melbourne only just on his way back, there was a makeshift feeling about the side. This, against a side bang in form and boasting a £2m striker, as well as two other players in Curtis and Harness who would command seven-figure fees right now. That’s where we are though, League One, a division packed full of haves and have nots. For me, this was the final game of our horrible start, and whilst the result wasn’t a big surprise, we have to take stock of where we are on the whole journey, not just this one encounter.
Pompey are the only side to beat Michael Appleton’s Lincoln on a Tuesday night, and they’ve done it three times since he joined, but they are a side who operate in a financial sphere far in excess of our own. That was evident in the names that appeared on the scoresheet, one of which was the excellent John Marquis.
Four minutes in and the Imps trailed, which asked a real question of our young side which wasn’t answered. Marquis was the scorer, curling a wonderful shot into the back of the net with Alex Palmer stranded. Being a little critical, TJ Eyoma’s challenge was weak in trying to block the effort, but overall I thought Eyoma had a decent game. The sad thing to see was it wasn’t the first chance the visitors had, in an early spell of dominance. When a visiting team comes out of the blocks early, and gets something to defend, it doesn’t bode well.
Not that Portsmouth went defensive at all, the Imps just couldn’t find a flow, Pompey looked in complete control as the makeshift right-hand side lacked the potency usually seen Eyoma and Anderson. Jorge Grant’s endeavour was as consistent as usual, but there just wasn’t the space to exploit against a good, organised defence. The long, sweeping balls were not effective, and it appeared that the Imps needed to be patient. Still, half-chances did come.
The Imps first real opening came from a corner, but it was the efforts of Pompey keeper Craig MacGillivray that led to deep breaths from his own bench. He flapped at the delivery, but a red shirt couldn’t take advantage of the loose ball and the chance went away. The keeper was back in action on the quarter-hour mark, Robbie Gotts looking to get a shot away from the edge of the area from Johnson’s lay off. It was a half-chance, but it signalled that the Imps were trying to get back in the game.
Roughan turned provider a few minutes later, after work from Tom Hopper. The 17-year-old’s ball whipped across the six-yard box, where Anthony Scully’s header wasn’t quite enough to test the keeper. With little space to exploit, it was the best the Imps could hope for, a quick delivery into the area. Whilst the Imps were grabbing half chances, the constant threat of Marquis loomed large. His movement is excellent, and it is clear to see why he is so highly rated.
The final fifteen minutes of the half were best described as tepid. Anthony Scully looked hungry and created two corners for the Imps, but neither posed a problem against a side comfortable in dealing with balls in from wide areas. Eventually, Brennan Johnson and Scully began to come inside looking for the ball, but with little space and plenty of congestion, it seemed to be a blocked route. Whenever the Imps did lose the ball, Pompey were potent in pressing forward, looking to move through the thirds at pace. Sean Roughan was certainly having a tough time against Marcus Harness and for every good action he did, such as a pass or a cross, the youngster also had an adverse action, such as selling McGrandles short on a throw which led to Adam Jackson furiously remonstrating with the pair.
That’s not to just criticise Roughan though. Robbie Gotts had a suspect first half, looking easily barged off the ball by a strong and physical Portsmouth. Our midfield trio just couldn’t get going, Grant’s creativity was coming from too deep and neither McGrandles nor Jones looked capable of creating space for the wide players. Much of our approach was relying on Johnson and Scully getting on the ball and causing problems, but both were choked out by three or four players. When we did manage to get into decent positions, there seemed to be a lack of presence in the middle.
Still, at half time despite the obvious shortcomings, it was only 1-0 and Portsmouth certainly hadn’t handed us our arses as we did Crewe a week ago. Instead, a Lincoln who were not quite at it had weathered the storm against a side packed with quality and players arguably worth seven figures. Would the second half see the exciting young guns of Lincoln back to their best?
In a word, no, not at all. Ronan Curtis had the first effort of the second period after once again getting the better of Gotts, who had a thoroughly uncomfortable debut for City. When City did break Hopper either tried to buy a free kick, and failed, or was caught offside. The former Southend man certainly puts the yards in, but being blunt, he didn’t look like scoring a goal at that stage. John Marquis did though, and before we hit fifty minutes the game was over. A great cross went over Jackson’s head and there was Marquis to nod home. 2-0 down and having not looked like scoring from open play, the writing was on the wall.
Instead of us looking like scoring, an excellent Portsmouth kept the pressure on. Most of their good work came down the attacking left, Marcus Harness and Ronan Curtis both looking very lively indeed. Palmer’s save from the former on 58 minutes kept the score at 2-0, but only for a couple of minutes. Incessant Pompey pressure saw a shot across the goal just evade Marquis, but in the same attack, Ronan Curtis lashed in the third. Two minutes later, another Palmer save kept the score mildly respectable. Mildly.
Robbie Gotts came off just after, he had a torrid debut and with Lewis Montsma out, Harry Anderson slipped in at right-back. Harry’s introduction did seem to put a little stability onto the right side of the Imps’ attack, but it was never going to be enough. When it isn’t your night, it just isn’t. To be fair, we weren’t woeful, we were just poor in key areas and they were ruthless in possession. The enforced changes to the starting XI just didn’t work, this time. When Joe Walsh was forced into the side, he settled quickly, but as I’ve mentioned, Robbie Gotts struggled and Anthony Scully looked positive in flashes but just never got going. Roughan, who has been out of the side, was inconsistent in possession and although he showed some good moments, he also struggled at times to contain his man on the attacking right.
One thing this Lincoln side do have is spirit, and on 72 minutes we did get a goal from open play. James Jones and Anthony Scully broke on the right, and the ball ended up at the feet of Harry Anderson. He worked a great cross into the six-yard box and finally, Tom Hopper got his head on the ball to give the Imps a glimmer of hope. Hopefully, that will give Hopps some confidence going into to next few matches, because up until that moment I wouldn’t have bet on him being the Imps to get on the scoresheet. Brennan Johnson, maybe, but few of the other players really looked like being rewarded for their running.
It was the introduction of Harry Anderson which changed the emphasis, and if we were going to get anything from the game, it was coming through Harry on his 150th league game for City, despite Brennan Johnson believing it would be him. The Forest man had another shot straight at the keeper after good work from TJ Eyoma, but he may have been better feeding in James Jones, who needs a goal just as much as Hopper did.
The game just petered out after that, and we can have few complaints. Pompey always looked dangerous, from the first minute to the last. As for us, we can complain about the players who were off it, if we want, but the truth is we have outperformed expectation and if you’d offered my fourth and 22 points at the stage, I would have taken it. We must remember to never be too high when we win, and never too low when we lose, not against a side who expect to be in the top two, and who really should be. This wasn’t a disaster for City, we were outfought, but we stuck to our ethos and had a decent closing half-hour, even if the game was largely over by then.
We know how high the bar is now and without a £2m striker, we’re not going to get there, yet. However, there is still plenty to be optimistic about and sometimes, you have to accept where you are, where you’re going and that at times, the route might not always be easy going. There is no point in supporters reacting badly to one result when the overall play-off picture is one you never expected to be a part of in the first place.