Twenty minutes left at Fratton Park, and the Tigers were barely clinging onto a 1-1 scoreline amid seemingly incessant pressure, when suddenly we saw what you can get for a million quid if you spend it wisely. Nolberto Solano tapped a cute ball to the substitute striker, whose control was immaculate, the turn was razor sharp and the finish wholly assured. Our new forward is one Matty Fryatt, who in this brief performance looks a forward capable of unleashing devastation in an instant.
It’s why City emerged from Portsmouth with a win that few statistics beyond the number of goals suggest we deserved. For large spells the home side were dominant, yet the flawless finishing of the Tigers saw three points greedily swept into our swag bag and smuggled back north. We’ll take that.
It was a cool afternoon on the South Coast as Nigel Pearson strove to deal with a number of unexpected absences – it meant that City only named six substitutes, a move mirrored by the home side. Aiming to put the Leicester disappointment behind the Tigers, the City boss carded an XI that looked an awful lot like this: Guzan; Solano, Zayatte, Gerrard, Dawson; Harper, Ashbee (c), Bullard, Stewart; Mclean, Simpson.
A far from unadventurous line-up, with another three forwards on the bench – Messrs Barmby, Cullen and Fryatt. Sadly, the game kicked off with dozens of City fans still outside, and reportedly hundreds of Portsmouth supporters too, all trying to pay on the day and all caught out by a shambolic operation from the home club. To travel such a distance and then miss a large portion of the game is exceptionally poor.
Only a little less worrying was how City started the game. Portsmouth took the ascendancy rapidly and rarely yielded it. Nugent swished a shot over when he ought to have tested City’s new loan keeper, long-standing panto villain and sneaky fop Liam Lawrence saw a fine free-kick clip the top of the bar on its way over, the ageless Kanu headed over – all in the first ten minutes or so. It was a fine start from the home side that City failed to live with, and a goal looked imminent.
And so it proved. For City. In fact, we nearly managed it twice. Mclean was rather dozily upended about twenty-five yards from goal, in a position ideally suited to Jimmy Bullard. His gorgeous curling shot hit the underside of the bar and, from our distant view, appeared to have gone in. Unfortunately, it’d stayed out, and we had to grin and bear the derisive taunts of the home fans at our premature celebrating.
However, revenge wasn’t long in coming. An inoffensive-looking attack for City saw the ball break to Cameron Stewart, about fifteen yards from goal on the left-hand side. He beat Greg Halford to the ball, who became about the 9,000th player this season to be beaten for pace by Stewart and barged into the City winger with the ball having already been shifted to one side. Stewart’s tumble was a trifle theatrical but it was a clear penalty even from 100 yards away. Bullard was entrusted with the kick, and he smacked the ball low and hard past the home keeper to give City an improbable lead.
Back came Portsmouth, probably as bemused at this turn of events as us. Nugent, he of solitary England cap fame, illustrated why that tally is unlikely to increase with a wasteful header at Guzan. At the other end, Simpson glanced a header from a Bullard cross narrowly wide – he appeared unmarked, so this was disappointing profligacy given the infrequency of our adventures forward.
Lawrence sent a low shot from twenty yards skimming across the turf that was well pouched by Guzan as Portsmouth continuing to dominate possession and chances. Worryingly, given their ability to isolate City’s wide men, Solano picked up a deserved caution for a foul on Utaka, from which Lawrence sent the ball zooming a pleasingly great distance over. Meanwhile, Rocha had hobbled from the pitch with what looked a hamstring injury – the Icelandic veteran Hermann Hreidarsson was his replacement.
Portsmouth had one more chance to squander before the break, when Utaka headed a superb cross wide. He should have scored. Portsmouth should have lead at the break. They didn’t, to our considerable relief.
Portsmouth’s an odd place to watch football. The prices have fallen from the eye-watering £35 charged on our first Premier League visit; £20 is a fair(ish) price for a game of football at this level. However, it’s hard to truly enjoy. Sure, there’s a low roof for the away end and you can make plenty of noise – its uncovered days are gone. However, there’s a tosser with a drum at the far end (“if you can’t get a woman get a drum” was given an outing), the stewards are unsmilingly unfriendly, and some idiot policeman felt the need to bring down a video camera to film us with a glower – a stupidly inflammatory gesture. The toilets are sub-Boothferry Park, there’s no alcohol on sale and it’s horribly cramped outside (no concourses, just an open area behind the stand). All we can find to commend it was that at least the stewards weren’t trying to throw people out for standing this time around, and that the pies were awesome.
For the second game in succession, Nigel Pearson had the job of raising the performance level of his charges at the interval. At least this time there was a lead to preserve rather than a match to rescue, and the Tigers looked a little more secure as the second half got underway. It seemed as though City were going to get beyond the hour mark – one can almost hear some dullard commentator calling it “psychologically important” when the lead was lost.
Referee Mr Shoebridge, officiating City for the first time and a cut above the dolt in charge of the Reading game, spoiled his previously good afternoon at the same time. A piercing Portsmouth raid on the right was ended when Gerrard put in a fine sliding challenge just as Lawrence looked set to shoot. From our angle, and surely that of the referee (except 80 yards closer), the ball must have been taken by Gerrard to go out of play in the direction it did. However, the linesman, less well placed but eager to make his mark, flagged for a penalty. Mr Shoebridge failed to overrule him, and despite hot protestations from those in white, it was given. Liam Lawrence converted it with aplomb, the Portsmouth fans celebrated lustily, and suddenly a even a point was far from assured.
Enter Matt Fryatt. Actually no, enter Nigel Pearson. He withdrew Simpson, who’s looked leggy in the last week, and brought on Fryatt. Managers can never be sure their decisions will make a positive impact, they must simply hope that enough of them do over the course of a season. This one did. Fryatt’s classy finish, described above, meant we retook the lead, in no less perplexing a fashion than the first time.
Sometimes, it’s really your day. This was our manager’s day. Off went Stewart; on came Barmby – here came another goal, three minutes after the second, and also from a substitute. Solano crossed for Harper to neatly cushion the ball to St Nick, who immediately lashed the ball past the dazed keeper to send the away end completely mental. A City masterclass of finishing, and all that was left was for the defence to remain solid and the win was ours.
Credit Portsmouth, however. They must have sensed it was not to be their afternoon, yet they continued pouring forward. With quarter of an hour left and the City fans bouncing, the lead was halved. Given the generally resolute defending in the second half, it was a disappointing way to concede: a corner from the right saw Halford beat Zayatte to head Lawrence’s corner past Bullard’s attempted interception on the line. Ulp.
Yet, Portsmouth never really built up the kind of momentum that would prove to be irresistible. One could sense City roll up their collective sleeves and dig in, meaning that clear chances for Portsmouth were almost completely prevented as the clock agonisingly ticked towards full time. It wasn’t until injury time – four offered when three felt about right – that we were nearly breached. Kitson headed straight at Guzan with most of the goal to aim at and little pressure to contend with, then the world’s oldest-looking 26 year old scampered from his line when Nugent burst free to effect a tremendous blocking save.
In desperation, Portsmouth threw Ibrahima Sonko on up front – he was jeered by the City fans but nearly had the last laugh when a massive Halford long throw found him troublingly unattended. He headed at Guzan. The points were ours.
So, how did we manage that? Simple, really. Few City fans would contend that Portsmouth weren’t the better side for most of the game. Presumably, once the disappointment abates, our southern counterparts wouldn’t concede that they were taught a lesson in the art of finishing.
There are goals in this City side now. You sense it when the Tigers put together an attack, a feeling of anticipation builds with so many clever attackers at Pearson’s disposal. Things happen. Opponents worry. The Leicester blip aside, City are very good to watch at the moment. And hey, if the team and management concentrate on the performances and let the results take care of themselves, well, there are only six points between City and sixth…