A Bridge Too Far: Imps 0-2 Portsmouth

Credit Graham Burrell

Going over the weekend’s game almost feels pointless right now. Given the time it’s taken me to get in front of my keyboard, it seems like a long time ago that I walked out of the Bank feeling ever-so-slightly gutted.

It isn’t – it’s a little over 48 hours, but they’ve been a long 48 hours, spent conversing with many different people in many states of inebriation about the game. I’ve tried avoidance, as I did before the game. I’ve tried objectivity, I’ve tried red-glasses anger, and none of it really fits. The one thing I haven’t tried is blame because of all the things that have happened to our football club, of the failures that litter my time as a fan; this one has no real blame.

So Danny Mandroiu slipped when taking the pressure penalty – that’s not his fault, and he kept his cool a fortnight ago against Oxford to give us our chance. So we put good efforts over and wide – the players that did that have served us diligently this season. So Portsmouth were a team of time-wasting game managers; they had nothing to play for but integrity, and acting in one game, as they had in the previous 45, is the very least they owed the league. So the referee might have had a poor game in terms of managing that game; he’s not the first, and he’s not the last.

Credit Graham Burrell

When push comes to shove, we’ve been the seventh-best team in the division, and that’s one place shy of extending our season. We’ve dealt with key injuries at challenging times; you could argue losing Conor McGrandles and Ethan Hamilton for the last two months has had more impact than losing all our strikers for the first three or four. We got to within a whisker of the top six without the strikers, but we couldn’t maintain that push in the final weeks because we just lacked that extra body in midfield.

Of course, a season is about much more than a single game, but this is one game that always invokes a little extra emotion. I mean the final home game of the season because we get to see a wreath laid at one end of the ground, honoring and remembering the victims of the Bradford Fire Disaster. As always, the event was perfectly observed by both sets of supporters, and officials from both clubs. It’s always poignant on a day like this, whether playing for pride, the play-offs or to save ourselves in a relegation battle, there’s a moment to be had to remember the supporters who did that almost 40 years ago and didn’t make it home.

Credit Graham Burrell

If we were to break the game down, you could say the result was entirely influenced by our need for a win. Blackpool, Oxford and Barnsley all took early leads, and that meant we needed to win. In the first half, it looked like the best team in the division were in town. Even with a slightly weaker side, Pompey played the ball around nicely, retained possession, and had control. We were nervous, and despite the noise coming from both sets of fans, it felt easier for them to be up for it, knowing they were champions, than for us, needing a win. Those early goals at Blackpool and Oxford will doubtless have got through to the players, and that only ramped up the nervous energy about the place.

The first half was punctuated with few fouls and incidents, nothing too controversial, but enough to break up the rhythm of the game. Perhaps Mousinho felt stopping us getting into a rhythm was the way to get in our heads, and it worked. His side were the better without a doubt, and they controlled play with confidence, perhaps safe knowing they didn’t really need to push forward. They could have come out and passed the ball between the back four for 45 minutes and they wouldn’t have lost the fans. That gave them a bit of a safety net to pick and choose their moments, and that’s what they did. On the other hand, we couldn’t get any solid possession together as the occasion threatened to overwhelm us a little, if one can be a ‘little’ overwhelmed.

Credit Graham Burrell

In a cagey first half, we managed six shots, none on target, compared to five and one for Portsmouth. Had this been game 24 instead of 46, we’d have been happy at containing one of the bigger sides. There were shades of Derby and Peterborough in that we had a foothold, never looked over-awed, but also faced an opponent you knew had a sting in the tail.

I felt if this had been game 24, then we’d have played out a draw, especially as Pompey eased off the gas in the second half. They’re a good side, obviously, but I didn’t feel like they were ever going to swarm all over us. However, with all three of the other results going against us, we needed to come out with a better plan on how to inflict defeat on the champions.