On Saturday, Pompey prepared for the last of their three fixtures over the Christmas period against Crawley Town. The previous two games had yielded only one point for the Blues, making the encounter with Crawley a must-win game. In the reverse fixture, which took place in August, Pompey could only draw 0-0 at the Checkatrade.com Stadium after some less-than-admirable tactics from the home side stifled out the game. Pompey chose to make one change from the side which drew a blank against Luton six days previously, with Adam Webster coming back in to partner Matt Clarke at the back in place of Adam Barton after his one match suspension. The Crawley starting eleven included two familiar faces at Fratton Park in ‘keeper, Darryl Flahavan and skipper, Sonny Bradley.
The game started off well for Pompey, as they instantly put their opponents on the back foot. Ben Davies worked some space for himself down the right before crossing for Lavery. Lavery did well to get across his marker and threw himself wholeheartedly towards the ball, but couldn’t get enough on the ball to send it goalwards. Pompey kept possession well, moving the ball all around the pitch confidently, meaning that, at times, Crawley couldn’t get a touch of the ball. Kyle Bennett managed to beat a couple of players on a marauding run into the area on the left, but couldn’t keep the ball in play as he shaped to cut the ball back for the poised strikers. On 13 minutes, a nice piece of play between Enda Stevens and Michael Doyle resulted in the former getting to the by-line. The left back saw his cross deflected behind for a corner, but it was clear to the Fratton Faithful that the pressure was mounting on Crawley. Sure enough, from the resulting corner, Matt Clarke rose at the near post to head home Ben Davies cross and put his side in front. It was Clarke’s first goal in professional football, and the Fratton End were all too happy to celebrate it with him. Soon after, Kyle Bennett cut inside his man and unleashed a fierce shot at goal from 20 yards, which looked goal-bound until Bradley bravely put his head in the way to block the shot. Caolan Lavery had appeals for penalty turned down when he beat his man and appeared to be tugged back by Josh Yorwerth just inside the area. However, the referee deemed the Canadian born striker to have gone down too easily and play continued. On 26 minutes, Enda Stevens got to the by-line and cut the ball back across goal for McNulty, who controlled it, took a touch past the defender, and clinically fired past Flahavan into the bottom left corner. The ex-Pompey goalkeeper had no chance whatsoever of stopping the ball and the defenders have to take the blame for failing to pick up the Scotsman. After half an hour, Bennett played a great ball through to McNulty, who angled a shot at goal but saw it blocked well by the centre half.
On 38 minutes, Crawley had their first shot at goal, when Roarie Deacon warmed the hands of Brian Murphy by firing the ball straight into them from 20 yards. Luke Rooney then orchestrated a counter attack for the Red Devils, as he sped away towards the penalty area, only for Kyle Bennett to show tremendous work ethic to slide in and hook the ball away from him. On 42 minutes, Bennett made another dangerous run with the ball and shot from the edge of the area. The ball took a wicked deflection on its way through, and Flahavan did well to keep the ball out of his net. On the brink of half time, Ben Davies was brought to the floor and enjoyed a friendly tussle with Simon Walton by the corner flag, which resulted in a free kick being awarded to Pompey. When Davies took the free kick, he found the head of Gareth Evans, unmarked from three yards out. However, Pompey’s league top scorer got his angles all wrong and glance his header wide when it seemed easier to score. The half time whistle blew straight after the resulting goal kick, bringing to an end a great first half of football for Paul Cook’s side.
When the game restarted for the second half, it didn’t seem to flow as well as it had in the first 45 minutes. Perhaps it was due to the visitors accepting that the game was beyond them and that they were just facing the formality of playing out the final 45 minutes while trying to concede as few goals as possible. However, in the first five minutes of the half, Bennett, who was looking by far the most lively player on the pitch, managed to unleash two shots at goal which narrowly missed. On 61 minutes, Crawley came the closest to scoring when Gwion Edwards beat the wall and Brian Murphy with a free kick, only to see it balloon off the top of the bar and be scrambled clear by the defence. The half time instructions from Cook to Pompey seemed to have been to retain ball possession and pick their moments to launch an attack on the defence, which is what they did. Doyle and Hollands in particular were doing a very good job of moving the ball around the pitch and dictating the tempo of the game. However, shots at goal were hard to come by in the second half, as Crawley seemed to have taken the approach of damage limitation, perhaps fearing that what happened to York and Hartlepool could happen to them if they were not careful.
A Ben Davies corner was cleared off the line on 67 minutes, as Caolan Lavery was denied a deserved goal by the defender on the post. Cook then made a double substitution, replacing Marc McNulty and Gareth Evans with Ben Tollitt and Gary Roberts. Ben Davies did well to stop a goal on 70 minutes when a dangerous ball was driven across goal with Murphy in no-man’s-land. However, Davies managed to divert the ball clear, with Rooney poised to tap the ball home just behind him. Pompey maintained their possession game into the closing stages of the game, dropping deeper as time went on, until a corner for Crawley resulted in a swift counter attack from the Blues. The corner was headed half clear by Lavery at the near post, then Tollitt picked up the looses ball just outside Pompey’s penalty area. The Liverpudlian then used his pace to get away from his defender and dribbled the ball right to the edge of the opposition box, before squaring to Gary Roberts who slotted past the helpless Flahavan. That was the last meaningful action of the game, though Conor Chaplin was brought on in the closing minutes for Caolan Lavery to give him some valuable first team experience. The young striker did not have much of a chance to make an impact on the game, and the final whistle blew with the score at 3-0 to Pompey.
The game has to go down as a success, considering how important it was. Going into the match, the Blues had taken just one point from two fixtures over the Christmas period – hardly promotion form. However, they were able to get themselves back on track with a great result and started 2016 on a high. The first half performance was very positive, being played at a high intensity, putting the visitors to the sword whenever possible. However, the second half was completely different, though of the same high standard. With a two goal lead to lean on, Pompey were able to take their time on the ball and move it around the field, playing the waiting game as they drew Crawley out of position before springing an attack and trying to add to their lead – something they ultimately succeeded in doing. Although Bennett deservedly got man of the match, you would struggle to find any Pompey player to have underperformed and the award could easily have gone to Davies, Stevens, Lavery, McNulty, or Hollands. All in all, it was a very good performance. The next thing for Paul Cook to turn his attention to is the situation regarding loan signings. Jayden Stockley, Matt Clarke, Caolan Lavery, and Marc McNulty’s loan deals all expire this month. Clarke has already been allowed to stay until the end of the season by Ipswich, his parent club, while Stockley is being sent back to Bournemouth. Although McNulty has supposedly been been allowed to extend his loan by Sheffield United, nothing has yet been confirmed on the matter, while Lavery still has a week running on his current loan deal. The loan signings of Lavery and McNulty have been much discussed by the Pompey crowd, due to the increased number of goals scored since their arrivals, and both players left the field to renditions of ‘sign him up’ against Crawley. The next game in store for Pompey is an away FA Cup tie against Ipswich on Saturday, as they will look to earn their passage into the fourth round of the competition against Championship opposition.