By Steve Bone at Fratton Park
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Two Saturday afternoons at Fratton Park. Two games that had an early goal but no later ones. Two weeks apart. And yet - a world apart.
I said after the York defeat I was fast losing faith in Richie Barker, and that that if we continued to struggle under him for much longer, Andy Awford should be put in charge until the end of the season. It happened perhaps a little sooner than I expected, but there was nothing to be gained by the Blues in waiting longer to make their second managerial change in a season.
Pompey's win at Newport was a superb start for Awford - and was only the second time we'd scored twice in a game since the former defender's last game in his first spell as caretaker, at home to Wycombe - but it would have meant little had it been followed by another Fratton failure against the Monkey Hangers.
But what was clear from the start of the afternoon to the end was that everyone, on and on the field, was up for making sure that didn't happen. Awford had prepared his team very, very well - not just tactically but mentally too.
Fans had seen too many games this season - home and away - in which the players representing their team hadn't given total commitment. Defeats can be excused by Pompey fans - God knows, they've seen enough of them in the past five year - but defeats without 100 per cent by every man on the pitch cannot.
So while some put up with the Barker era all the while the team were ekeing out the odd 1-0 win, the fact they were increasingly interspersed with lacklustre, limp performances like those at Scunthorpe, Fleetwood and Rochdale meant he had no chance of keeping fans onside any longer.
We may be only two games into Awford's second spell of Pompey management, but it's already difficult to imagine any team he sends out daring to under-perform. Clearly, Awford demands the high level of commitment and concentration he showed throughout a Pompey career that saw him make 373 appearances. The battling win at Newport that showed that - this similarly hard-fought victory over the Pools gave further evidence.
The mood was set before kick-off. Fratton Park felt like a totally different place to the one fans had trudged out of 14 days earlier after seeing an insipid, characterless display in that defeat to York, when they trailed for 86 minutes and never once looked like snatching even a point.
This time, there was expectation not dread in the air, and the pre-match minute's applause and the release of a Pompey-coloured heart-shaped balloon in memory of young Jack Robinson, who died a few days ago from a brain tumour, only served to bring the Fratton family closer together.
Banners around the ground reminded people of the spirit of another hero no longer with us, one Alan Ball, and you could just sense that everything was set up for the type of game, the type of occasion, Pompey and their fans are good at. When the pressure is on, we perform. It's when it's been released we have trouble.
What Barker would have given for an early goal once or twice in his reign, especially at home. Some will say you make your own luck in that respect and it's certainly the case that Awford's instructions to his team as he sent them out would have been more attacking, more daring, than any Barker had issued.
Even so, what a start. Little more than a minute had passed when Adam Webster - whose surprise recall from Aldershot already looks a masterstroke - poked the ball into the Milton end net from close range after Hartlepool failed to deal with a Ricky Holmes free-kick into the heart of the area.
It might have been 2-0 a couple of minutes later had Ryan Taylor not failed where he succeeded at Rodney Parade, from the penalty spot, after Wes Fogden had been brought down. But such was the upbeat feeling around Fratton after the early goal, even a spot-kick miss didn't seem like any more than a blip.
And it wasn't, for although Pompey failed to add the second goal craved by a crowd enjoying the chance to be noisy and not nervy, Webster's effort was enough.But anyone not present who thinks the scoreline tells the story of the day, and this was just another 1-0 win, is missing the point.
This felt like one of those occasions that will be remembered for years to come. Not, perhaps, a game talked about in the same terms as Stockport 98, but still the day a corner was turned. A day when Pompey told the football world 'Right, our decline has gone on long enough; it will go on no longer.'
It was a performance by the Blues that, apart from another goal or two that the Fratton end would have liked to see go in after the break, had everything a Pompey crowd wants. Attacking flair; players willing to chase everything, lost causes included; passion, commitment - and players wanting the ball, something not visible often enough in a season when playing in front of large home crowds has apparently been something some have feared.
When was the last time you came away from Fratton debating which of five or six players was Pompey's man of the match? Often in recent times, the tricky bit has been finding one deserving recipient.
Jack Whatmough got the sponsors' vote and no-one in the crowd would have begrudged him the accolade. This is a player with enormous potential who is performing way beyond his years. He won everything in the air, he played the ball sensibly to his midfielders when he had time and sensibly into the stand when he didn't. Whatmough reads the game superbly and has made Pompey's defence look as solid as it has all campaign.
But he didn't get the MoM vote uncontested. Plenty would have given it to Fogden, whose energy levels are remarkable and who must be a right pain to play against. He was and is everywhere and was unfortunate not to get a goal or an assist.
Then there's Webster. You couldn't help watch his assured display at right-back and wonder if we'd be as close to the bottom two had the youngster been at Pompey, and not Aldershot, all season. Like Whatmough, he's clearly one of Awford's protogees - both can expect plenty of game time between now and the end of the season and, we hope, beyond.
There were other MoM contenders, too. Holmes gave his full-back a torrid time, although ran out of steam a little in the second half. Simon Ferry showed that had he stayed injury-free this season, he'd probably have been a permanent fixture in the middle of the park and Danny Hollands did enough to suggest he can become a crowd favourite too.
And Taylor, despite his 12-yard miss, deserves praise too. He had a hard afternoon's work as the only out-and-out striker but led the line well, and on all the occasions he received the ball with his back to goal, he always found a team-mate with an intelligent lay-off or longer pass.
In fact, you'd struggle to name a single Pompey player who didn't do their job nor do it well, and we've not been able to say that too often recently.
You can never be complacent when Pompey are 1-0 up but although Hartlepool did their share of attacking in the second half, Trevor Carson didn't have any genuine scares. Even in six minutes of injury time - most of it, ironically, being necessary because of the visitors' liking for rolling around, staying down and making far too much of innocuous challenges - home hearts were not in mouths.
Clear-cut chances for a Pompey second were few and far between - a couple of low Jed Wallace crosses into the Fratton goalmouth were probably the closest they came in the second half. But Pompey's fans, who rarely stopping chanting 'Andy Awford's Blue and White Army' for the whole 90 minutes, won't have minded the lack of daylight in the scoreline.
Some of the above might sound a bit over-the-top - a tad too positive - to some. And it's true that Pompey's first back-to-back wins in just over a year don't in themselves mean much. In fact, Northampton's win at Accrington means Awford's troops remain only five points above the relegation zone. There's work to be done, starting by the need to get at least a point at Dagenham next Saturday.
But the key point is this. On March 22, against York, Pompey looked like a team in trouble - a group without inspiration or direction. Now, a fortnight later, they look anything but.
No-one should blame Barker for everything that was going wrong. He was doing his best but, as chairman Iain McInnes has said, for whatever reason or reasons, Pompey plus Barker just didn't add up.
If you want to continue the mathematical theme, his replacement with Awford, whether it is only until the end of the season or - as is beginning to look likelier - a longer-term appointment, looks a winning formula.
The Pompey family are no longer one at war. They are one again. And young Jack Robinson might just be looking down, clutching his Pompey balloon, and smiling.
Pompey: Pompey: Carson; Webster, N’Gala, Whatmough, Shorey, Ferry (McCabe 69), Hollands, Wallace, Fogden (Ertl 86), Holmes (Drennan 93); Taylor. Subs not used: Smith, Devera, Bradley, Jervis.
Referee: Andy D’Urso
Attendance: 15,273 (187 away fans)
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