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Meldrum's verdict: Cherries 2 Portsmouth 0
JEFF Mostyn’s smile flashed through the tunnel as the Press concluded their post-match interviews here.
He hasn’t always smiled. Almost five years ago to the day of this match, Mostyn reluctantly put Cherries into administration. It was February 7, 2008 for those whose memories of more unsettled times have been washed away by waves of delight.
That same week, Premier League Portsmouth beat Bolton 1-0 at the Reebok Stadium. The week before, they drew 1-1 with Chelsea at Fratton Park. They won the FA Cup that year, too, while Cherries were relegated to League Two.
Don’t things change quickly in football?
Mostyn, thoughtful and respectful, wished two members of Guy Whittingham’s back room team well. He knows how they feel. He knows how the supporters feel, too, as cautious as they are not to affirm any kind of despondency towards the sorrowful plight of their club.
Deep down, they will be hurting. FA Cup winners to the foot of League One can only be thinly masked by cries of ‘How s*** must you be, you still haven’t scored’ after only nine minutes.
They didn’t stop there, though. Several hundred remained long after the final whistle, chorusing until the fluorescent jackets closed in.
There is a commendable backs against the wall mentality radi ating from Fratton Park, laced with good humour in the face of adversity. But it is not enough and Portsmouth will almost certainly be relegated. If they even survive at all.
Cherries fans, like Mostyn, will sympathise for a time, but life at the other end of the table will dictate that their attentions move swiftly closer to home.
If last weekend’s win over MK Dons was a triumph of self-discipline and class in the face of provocation, then this victory was one laden with patience and a clear refusal to panic.
Portsmouth made life difficult. They sat deep, were focused on choking Cherries’ attempts to play and showed laudable concentration despite hardly any meaningful time with the ball to feet.
Lewis Grabban headed wide and Harry Arter saw a well-struck drive charged down during a largely drab first half. Therry Racon blazed a shot over the crossbar at the other end, while Grabban was unlucky to find himself at a tight angle when missing the target following Brett Pitman’s clever ball over the top.
Cherries’ best chance to convert their possession into a goal came when Pitman headed on to the crossbar as half-time loomed.
Portsmouth were more progressive after the break. Cherries passed and moved with succinct and distinguished accuracy as they had done in the second half at stadium:mk. It was, in spells, a joy to watch.
Shwan Jalal charged from his goal-line to reach the ball before Patrick Agyemang, while the debutant should have found the target from Yassin Moutaouakil’s cross, but headed wide.
Jalal pushed Dan Butler’s rising effort over the crossbar and Cherries finally took the lead shortly afterwards.
Josh McQuoid’s cross found Grabban, who twisted and turned to open up enough space to shoot into the bottom left corner on 65 minutes. Portsmouth’s Andy Awford berated the referee’s assistant from the technical area in front of the main stand, suggesting McQuoid had handled in the build-up.
The benefit of DVD footage had downgraded that accusation to “unclear” by the time Whittingham had joined the media pitch-side.
Still the away section pulsated and throbbed with noise but, 12 minutes later, it was 2-0 when Pugh confidently side-footed the ball past Simon Eastwood from Pitman’s assist.
Whittingham defended his side’s stifling game plan, insisting trying to outplay Howe’s side would have been foolhardy. How many more sides will visit Dean Court between now and April with the same agenda? It is likely there will be several.
How many will succeed is a wholly different matter.
Cherries: (4-4-2) Jalal 8; Francis 7.5, Cook 8, Seaborne 8, Ritchie 8.5*; McQuoid 8, Arter 7.5 (Hughes, 83), O’Kane 8, Pugh 8; Grabban 8 (Tubbs, 82), Pitman 7.5 (MacDonald, 90).
Unused subs: Fletcher, Partington, Fogden, Allsop (g/k).
Pompey: (4-4-2) Eastwood; Moutaoakil, Gypes, Rocha, Butler; Reed, Cooper (Walker, 82), Ertl, Racon (Wallace, 69); Agyemang (Keene, 65), Akinde.
Unused subs: Sodje, Harris, Webster, Smith (g/k).
Booked: Butler, Reed.
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands).
Attendance: 9,135 (1,338 away fans).
Ritchie is fast earning rave reviews as a full-back, having impressed at MK Dons and again on Saturday.
Composed and classy in defence, Ritchie also worked well with Marc Pugh down the left and both men were a thorn in the side of Pompey right-back Yassin Moutaoakil.
Ritchie will almost certainly be redeployed in his favoured position on the wing once either Charlie Daniels is fit or Eddie Howe has sourced a suitable short-term replacement at left-back but, for now, he is proving a reliable and influential stand-in.
A mention should also go to rock solid central pairing Dan Seaborne and Steve Cook. Both dealt superbly with the physical threat of John Akinde and Patrick Agyemang. Cook, in particular and wearing the captain’s armband, was a tower of strength.