POMPEY 0 TORQUAY 1: Another home flop that leaves more questions than answers
By Steve Bone at Fratton Park
Saturday 01 Feb 2014 20:15:00
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Given that you have to go back to last March to find the last time Pompey won two league games in a row, we shouldn't have been surprised by a home defeat to Torquay. But in taking four points from six at Morecambe and Wycombe, Pompey had suggested they had turned the corner. If they had, they have now disappeared back round it.

 

 

Here's a question for you, two in fact: In how many home games this season have Pompey played well? And when was the last one in which they did? Exeter, possibly, although that ended up with squeaky-bum time, so maybe Rochdale, beaten 3-0 at the start of October, were the last victims of a convincing home display by the Blues.

Since then I've seen us play Bury, Scunthorpe, Wycombe, Newport, Northampton, Mansfield and Torquay. One win; three draws, three defeats - but seven far-from-vintage displays. Remember when we used to call the place Fortress Fratton? Now the drawbridge is down and there's a 'come on in and enjoy yourselves' sign on the entrance.

So why is home form so bad, and what can be done about it? You can't blame it on one manager or one group of players because, if you go back to the start of the season, when Oxford became the first of many teams to leave Fratton with three points, this woeful run spans two managerial reigns and several very different line-ups on the pitch.

There does seem to be a bit of a Fratton fear factor at work. Players who, from all accounts, often play with freedom and confidence away from home look short of confidence at home. That's a worry and it needs to be turned around fast, because home games - despite the record so far - still offer our best hope of the sort of points total we need between now and May to ensure we're nowhere near the bottom two in the final reckoning.

The crowd can play their part, but I'd argue they are trying to play their part. Yes, they (we) have become more critical as a whole because of some of the rubbish they've been served up in recent times, but, as shown when Pompey attacked with more purpose in the second half against the Gulls, they (we) are still a crowd who will make a noise when we have something to make a noise about. You can argue all day about whether it's up to the crowd to inspire the players, or vice-versa, but the simple truth there has to be a bit of both going on.

Pompey have surely never been booed off so many times in a season as they have been this term. Maybe that's because they are performing in front of fans who, less than four years ago, were still watching the Blues play in the Premier League and feel the decline in standards has now gone on long enough.

On this occasion, had we seen two halves of effort like that witnessed in the second half, Pompey would have won - no doubt about it. Torquay were an average side at best and didn't have a shot in the second half. But one of the themes of this season of under-achievement is that they seem capable of only one good half - and too often, especially at home, it's the second half.

To say Pompey started slowly against Torquay would be incorrect. They didn't start at all. They showed absolutely no sign in the first half - from the goalkeeper through to the strikers - that this was a game they intended to run, to dominate, to grab by the scruff of the neck and go on and win, ugly or otherwise.

They let Torquay - a team second from bottom of the Football League - run the game. It was like the Gulls were the home team, Pompey the away side, chasing shadows for much of the half. Was it complacency that made the Blues second best, and a close third at that, in the first half? That fear factor creeping in? Or just a case of too many players having an off-day? That's a question for Richie Barker to ask himself and his players - and to sort out before AFC Wimbledon turn up, probably hopeful of being the latest in a long line to embarrass Pompey in front of their own fans.

The second half was much, much better - the frustration for fans being two-fold: one that, even with so much possession, it still took Pompey until the last five minutes to get a shot on target, and two, that if those players were capable of that sort of possession football, aggression and cohesion, why hadn't they seen it before 4pm? Sometimes, we want 'shoot from anywhere', we want bodies in the box, we want nine men coming up for corners. At least it's something to get excited about.

Torquay took a deserved lead in the 28th minute when Billy Bowden finished past Trevor Carson, but it was another messy and rather soft goal for Pompey to concede, a cross taking at least one deflection, and at least one chance to clear missed, before it fell to the scorer.

The goal apart, Pompey's defence is looking stronger these days. Joe Devera has improved no end and Ben Chorley looks the sort that will put any body part anywhere to keep out the opposition - though as the new captain, and a player who has worn the armband many times throughout his career, there is a big onus on him to be one of the leaders on the pitch who simply doesn't allow team 'performances' like the one in the first half to happen.

Daniel Alfei was less impressive on this occasion, although he clearly has talent, so the securing of his services for the rest of the season is a great move. Likewise, Marcos Painter. Overall, his performances so far suggest his season-long stay is a shrewd deal, although against Torquay, nothing seemed to come off for him.

Ricky Holmes was back in the side for the first time since January 1 and was named man of the match, which was a questionable decision but not as questionable as the one given in the last home game. Holmes does at least look for the ball and try to make things happen, but he didn't get enough crosses in for my liking. On the other flank was Jed Wallace, who I must admit I feel increasingly sorry for.

Since he burst into Pompey's first team just over a year ago with such force, too much expectation has been placed on Wallace's shoulders. He's a victim of his own success in a way. Had his rise to the status of first-team regular been more steady, people would be quite happy with most of the displays he is turning in now.

He is desperate to do well but is possibly trying to hard. He's a demonstrative character, not afraid to show his frustration when things go wrong, and I'd be interested in the views of fans who watch home and away games on whether Wallace is one of those who is more effective away from home when not under the gaze of 15,000 pairs of eyes who he must think are almost waiting for him to do something wrong. Unlike Holmes, he did get crosses in - but too many were too close to the Torquay keeper.

Up front, the goal Pompey needed came at Oxford - where, with a certain inevitability, David Connolly scored the winner against AFC Wimbledon. Oh and just for good measure, Ryan Bird followed up his two-goal debut for Cambridge Utd by winning a penalty in their FA Trophy win at Eastleigh.

Barker's decision to let Connolly go on loan for the rest of the campaign looked a solid-enough one to me yesterday, but after a goalless display in which Jake Jervis, Ryan Taylor and sub Patrick Agyemang hardly had a sniff between them, it suddenly doesn't look so good. But the decision has been made - Barker is clearly bullish about it and happy it was the right one - and you'd like to think Jervis and Taylor won't have too many afternoons so devoid of decent service as this one if they are to be the regular duo fielded.

One thing Barker needs to decide on, and stick to, is his best midfield two. Nicky Shorey hasn't impressed greatly so far but has the experience to grow into the role. I don't happen to think Romain Padovani is the right man to play alongside him. He's lightweight and should be used as an impact player when needed off the bench.

If Barker wants creativity alongside Shorey, Wes Fogden could be the man to provide it, though I wonder if you can afford only one 'anchorman' in the centre if you are playing with two wingers. Thery Racon alongside Shorey would surely leave less chance of us being dominated in the centre of the park like we were against Torquay.

I'd like to see us try a midfield three of Shorey, Racon and Fogden with only one wide man - and it might be time for Andy Barcham to be given a couple of starts.

I remain convinced that Pompey will put a run together and get nicely away from the pack at the bottom, but the current crop of players need to realise it's down to them and them only to achieve this. They need to get over their fear of playing at Fratton, if that's what's affecting them, and realise that if they put in 100 per cent for 90 minutes, the odd 1-0 defeat will be seen as a blip and not, as it is at present, as the norm.

Pompey: Carson; Alfei, Devera, Chorley, Painter (Barcham 79); Holmes, Padovani (Fogden 73), Shorey, Wallace; Jervis (Agyemang 63), Taylor. Subs not used: Smith, Bradley, Ertl, Racon.

Referee: Dean Whitestone

Attendance: 15,474 (741 away fans)

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