Portsmouth 2-1 Cambridge United: The ground that time forgot
A rare treat - an AB away match report. Just a shame the match wasn't ...
Every football supporter has their Room 101, where they encounter “the worst thing in the world.” When it comes to visiting grounds, United supporters are spoilt for choice, from the hostile, unpleasant discomfort of Luton, to the theatre of unhappy memories that is Stevenage, the mundanity of Crawley, the desolation of Morecambe, and the sheer non-League shabbiness of Dagenham and Accrington Stanley. But there can surely be no venue more nightmarish for U’s followers than Portsmouth’s Fratton Park, where after an initial draw back in the 1970s, their team has now lost seven times in a row.
That is something of a shame, as there is no denying that it is an atmospheric, defiantly old-school ground of a sort which is gradually dying out, although it is undoubtedly tatty around the edges and does not seem to have changed much since yours truly last visited it back in November 1992, although the away end now has a roof at least. On that day United surrendered dismally, 3-0, in front of a crowd of just 8,956. Fast forward over 23 years (where did THAT go?) and there it continues to stand, tucked away behind houses in a fairly down-at-heel part of the town, that mock Tudor façade still there, dwarfed by the looming stands behind.
The approach to the away end was scruffy in the extreme, past a long hoarding of dreadful graffiti, then a steep climb to the back of an aged stand consisting of plastic seats bolted onto an old terrace, half of which had been cordoned off, empty. Fratton Park only possesses one cantilever stand, the substantial home end, while the crumbling stands on either side consist of faded blue seats in two tiers, the front tiers also previously terraces. The main stand is an Archibald Leitch original, something of a collectors’ item although in far from mint condition. Half of the floodlights did not seem to work either, one side of the ground illuminated instead by spotlights affixed to the side stand from which five flags flew vigorously. It was difficult to believe that this venerable but exhausted-looking place was the venue for Premier League football just six years ago before the club was felled by stunning financial incompetence.
The club’s continued ability to attract attendances in excess of 15,000 at League Two level, with the subsequent expectation that those figures bring, has made them favourites for promotion for the past two seasons, but big crowds do not a good team make, and since Harry Redknapp’s departure in 2008, they have burned their way through nine managers who have averaged around 30 matches each before being impatiently discarded. The abrasive Paul Cook is the present incumbent, but before today’s match a poor recent run had seen them drop outside the playoff places. He made four changes from the side which lost at Barnet in midweek, including a first start for four months for striker Conor Chaplin.
United line-up: Norris; Furlong, Legge, Coulson, Haynes; Berry, Ledson, O’Neill; Williamson, Spencer, Dunk
On the bench: Beasant, Omozusi, Roberts, Keane, Donaldson, Simpson
The only change in United’s starting XI was the introduction of Shane O’Neill, the Irish-American on loan from Cyprus, for his debut in place of James Dunne, unable to play due to a gentleman’s arrangement between the clubs following his move to the Abbey in January. Keith Keane returned from his loan spell at Stevenage, but the U’s still could not muster a full complement of seven substitutes.
It was dry but chilly day with a freezing cold wind setting those flags a-flutter. Jimmy Spencer had the first shot of the match inside two minutes, clutched by keeper Ryan Fulton, then Will Norris comfortably saved a Marc McNulty drive, before being unsubtly shoved to the ground by the ever-unpleasant Christian Burgess, but referee Langford showed no interest. United adopted a cautious approach, offering the hosts almost too much respect, with their nominal 4-3-3 formation more usually resembling a 4-5-1 with Ben Williamson and Harrison Dunk funnelling back down the flanks, leaving Spencer somewhat isolated up front.
Pompey’s main tactic was to hook the ball over the top for the speedy Chaplin to chase, and he fired a shot high and wide on 8, but the hosts did not look especially confident and the match soon settled into a rather dreary war of attrition between two frankly very ordinary sides. The United fans were in fine, vociferous form and many defied all the efforts of the stewards to get them to sit down, hardly surprisingly as the home supporters on their feet in the adjoining stand were being given no such instructions.
A little bored by the meagre fare on display, the U’s supporters enjoyed some sport with an amply-girthed home supporter – Billy Banter, if you will – which helped to pass the time in reasonably good-humoured fashion. Leon Legge and Darnell Furlong were the pick of the United defence, while O’Neill stuck to his task in a solid debut, but there was precious little creativity on display from either side, and goalmouth action was about as plentiful as reasoned debate in the US Republican hustings.
The ‘action’ was not helped by the incessant whistling of the referee and he carded Spencer a little harshly on 29 for a foul on Burgess, swiftly followed into the book by the hosts’ Ben Davies for a clumsy challenge on Dunk. Legge had a header saved from the ensuing free-kick, and a good run from Williamson culminated in a ball across the face of the goal which just evaded Luke Berry, but a dreary half looked like petering out goallessly until four minutes from the whistle when O’Neill was penalised for bringing down McNulty.
Michael Doyle took the free-kick but was pulled back by Langford, who seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to do anything. When it was finally (re)taken United switched off for a second, Kai Naismith flicked it into the path of McNulty, and he strode unchallenged through the defence down the left channel before thundering a shot past the exposed Norris and in off the underside of the bar. 1-0.
Spencer then got himself involved in some physical silliness with Enda Stevens, possibly involving one of his elbows, and he was given a final talking-to by the man in black which seemed to last about five minutes. The only remarkable thing about this tedious 45 minutes of ‘football’ was that the ref only added one extra, when he had wasted about ten himself.
Spencer was withdrawn for his own good for part two, replaced by Ryan Donaldson with Williamson moving up front, and United, sent out early by Shaun Derry, seemed to have been told in no uncertain times to up the tempo and take the game to the hosts. The first shot of the half went to Pompey’s Kyle Bennett, which he drove wide, and after some reasonably promising forward moves with some decent crosses from Dunk, Robbie Simpson replaced O’Neill on 56 and the team switched to a conventional 4-4-2.
This made a formerly moribund contest into something much more open, but it was to United’s disadvantage as they fell further behind on 62. Berry lost out to Doyle in midfield with a rather feeble challenge, he found Bennett and with no challenge forthcoming he blasted a shot for the top corner from 25 yards. Norris dived to his right and produced a superb fingertip save, tipping the ball onto the bar, but when the ball dropped from the sky it bounced off a Portsmouth player’s shoulder and fell nicely for Adam Webster, who pounced to sidefoot home from close range as Norris struggled to recover his ground. 2-0.
United’s complete failure to trouble Fulton in the home goal suggested an uphill battle as the ref continued to punish the men in black and amber for all manner of minor infringements, booking Berry on 70 for a challenge on Danny Hollands. Naismith was then forced off, to be replaced by Gareth Evans, but United’s attempts at attack were hit-and-hope, harum-scarum affairs consisting of hopeful balls punted up towards the strikers which inevitably foundered on the rocks of the hosts’ back four, with Dunk starved of anything to feed on down the left and Donaldson disappointingly ineffective on the right.
As the contest became increasingly fractious, Legge was next into the book for a foul on Bennett on 79, and United’s best defender was forced off by injury with six minutes to go to be replaced by Mark Roberts. By now Pompey were content to see the game out and Chaplin was booked for timewasting before being replaced by Matt Clarke.
Then in the last minute of normal time the U’s pulled one back with the first attempt on goal of their entire underachieving half; Dunk curled a corner into the box, Roberts powered a header towards the bottom corner, and Berry lunged in on the line to make sure it went in. 2-1.
Cue a frantic and unlikely finish entirely out of keeping with the turgid preceding 90 minutes. The hosts tried to waste as much time as possible, Ben Tollitt coming on for Bennett, and McNulty was indeed booked for timewasting, but United’s sheer lack of quality was their undoing as they failed to produce any more attempts on goal, their last break messed up by Simpson who waited too long to lay it wide to Dunk then overhit it anyway to sum up his team’s slipshod performance to a tee.
Let no-one think that this grandstand finish meant that United were in any way unlucky to lose. Their overall performance had been over-cautious in the first half and just not good enough in the second, barely troubling the keeper all match, and the most frustrating aspect of the whole afternoon was that a distinctly average Portsmouth side had been allowed to win the match with such relative comfort. United must improve dramatically in every single department of the team (barring goalkeeper) if they are to have any pretensions of making a playoff challenge, but my distinct impression is that mid-tale mediocrity would be a blessing in disguise because this half-formed, half-arsed team is in no way ready for higher grade football. It will take a close season of rebuilding for Derry to improve on the promising foundations he has been laying so far. And who knows, next season they might lay that Fratton Park hoodoo at long last…
United’s dreadful record at Fratton Park continues. After drawing 2-2 there in their first ever visit on 27th December 1977, thanks to two Alan Biley goals, they have lost all seven of their subsequent games there, five in the League and two in the League Cup.
United’s home record against Pompey is scarcely better, consisting of one win, two draws and five defeats. That victory came in the clubs’ first meeting at the Abbey, 1-0 on 25th March 1978, with Steve Fallon grabbing the goal. The teams in United’s Division Three promotion-winning season were:
U’s: Webster; Howard, Stringer, Fallon, Buckley; Streete, Spriggs, Watson; Sweetzer (Murray), Morgan, Biley
Pompey: Middleton, Wilson, Taylor, Ellis, Foster, Denyer, Pullar, Lathan, Garwood, Piper, McCaffrey (Barnard)
Today’s attendance of 15,425 is the 47th best ever for a match involving Cambridge United. It is also the fifth best for a regular season U’s game in the fourth tier of English football, beaten only by:
17,059 – Southend 2-1 U’s, 21/4/72 (Division 4)
16,671 – Portsmouth 2-1 U’s, 16/8/14 (League 2)
15,722 – Notts County 4-1 U’s, 26/12/70 (Division 4)
15,670 – Hull City 1-1 U’s, 22/2/03 (Division 3)
Shane O’Neill is the third man bearing that surname to play league football for United, after stylish midfielder Alan (1965-66 to 1967-68) and tigerish midfield man Tommy (1976-77 to 1982-83). In addition, Martin O’Neill turned out for the U’s as a guest in Steve Fallon and Steve Spriggs’ testimonial against Manchester United in July 1985 with a view to becoming the club’s player/assistant manager, but a broken leg sustained in that game ended any prospect of that.
Shane O’Neill is the 15th U’s player to be allocated squad number 17. The previous incumbents were: Jamie Cassidy, Steve Slade, Richard Logan, Richard Prokas, Franco Nacca, Tes Bramble, Ash Fuller, Stacy Coldicott, Rob Wolleaston, Gavin Hoyte, Simon Ainge, Simon Russell, Sam Ives and Liam Hughes.
Norris 7. Could not be faulted for either goal and his save from Bennett before the second score was simply sensational.
Furlong 7. Athletic and alert.
Legge 7. United’s rock again.
Coulson 6. A fairly average afternoon.
Haynes 5. Struggled badly against the pace of Bennett.
Berry 6. Not a vintage performance.
Ledson 6. Struggled to have any influence.
O’Neill 6. Solid enough debut.
Williamson 6. Spent most of the first tackling back and made little impression when he switched to leading the line.
Spencer 5. Too much fighting and not enough playing.
Dunk 6. Fairly anonymous afternoon, thanks partly to a lack of supply from his colleagues.
Donaldson 5. Brought on to take the game to Portsmouth; failed to do so.
Simpson 6. Put himself about with his usual commitment.
Roberts 6. Spent as much of his short time on the pitch up front as in defence and made the team’s goal with a fine header.
A timid United showed Portsmouth too much respect in the first half, and when required to take the game to a distinctly average home side after the break, failed to produce any forward play of any quality until it was too late. A disappointing missed opportunity.
Man of the Match
Leon Legge. Colossal once again.
Langford 4. Awarded far too many unnecessary free-kicks and was far too easily influenced by the home crowd, as evidenced when Ledson placed the ball legally to take a corner but was ordered to move it by the referee, who was 40 yards away and could not possibly have been able to tell, because of the hysterical reaction of the Pompeyites.
Soundtrack of the Day
Lush “Out Of Control”