Pompey embarked on the 650 mile round trip to Hartlepool on Saturday knowing that promotion to League One was very much in their hands and that, with a six point cushion between themselves and Stevenage in fourth, they could even afford a couple of slip-ups in the final seven matches of the season. However, with a good result against Newport the week before, the Blues were keen to continue their momentum when they visited a Pools side who were still not mathematically safe from relegation.
Paul Cook’s team selection sprung only one major surprise, as three changes to the team which beat Newport meant that Christian Burgess returned from suspension in place of Tom Davies, Noel Hunt came in for the injured Eoin Doyle, and Jamal Lowe replaced Carl Baker, who was missing with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, Hartlepool were robbed of one of their key players as Trevor Carson has missed the second half of the season after requiring surgery on his arm. The Northern Irishman’s heroics in goal were the main reason that Pompey were held to a goalless draw when the sides met at Fratton Park earlier this season so many supporters will have been pleased to see that the ex-Blues man could not thwart them this time around.
The game did not start in the way many Pompey fans expected, with League Two’s 22nd placed team piling on the pressure early on with a series of counter attacks after some careless passing in Pompey’s midfield. Pádraig Amond was almost played in on goal in the opening ten minutes but some good defending from Matt Clarke foiled the ex-Grimsby and Morecambe striker and prevented him from getting a shot away. However, Pompey then recovered well from their wobbly opening and started to dominate the ball, creating a few half-chances through good work from Kyle Bennett. The Blues were struggling to create anything clear cut, with the hosts keeping men behind the ball where possible and Noel Hunt struggling to find much joy up front, despite working very hard and challenging for every loose ball. Pools were given a warning on fifteen minutes when a drilled cross flew across the face of goal with Hunt inches away from getting a decisive touch with a diving header.
Pompey managed to get in front just before the twenty minute mark when Enda Stevens completed one of his characteristics runs up the left wing before cutting the ball back to Kal Naismith just inside the penalty area, and the Scot did brilliantly to hit the ball on the half volley so that it flew past Joe Fryer in the Hartlepool goal. The home side did there best to craft an instant response and put Pompey under the cosh for a ten minute spell but were unable to really test David Forde. The closest they came was when a Nathan Thomas free kick from the right wing was hooked back across goal at the far post but the Pompey keeper was able to come out and collect the ball without any difficulty. Although the visitors did not find themselves under any considerable threat, it was evident that they seemed happy to go in at half-time with a 0-1 lead, and Forde was doing his best to run down the clock towards the end of the first half. The half ended with no further chances, although there was a blow for Pompey when Noel Hunt was stretchered off in the closing seconds with what later transpired to be a dislocated shoulder. In an interesting move, it was Gary Roberts rather than Conor Chaplin who replaced Hunt, meaning Kal Naismith led the line for most of the match.
Neither side made any half-time substitutions, but Hartlepool came out looking reinvigorated and almost pegged the Blues back immediately when Nathan Thomas showed his potential by cutting inside onto his right foot and unleashing a curling shot from 25 yards which came back off the bottom of Forde’s post. Thomas caused another threat soon after when he whipped in a cross from the left wing which had to be punched away in the face of a crowd of oncoming attackers. With encouragement from the 977 travelling fans, Pompey then mounted an attack of their own on the Hartlepool goal and some good build-up play almost resulted in a goal. Kyle Bennett knocked the ball into the path of Enda Stevens with an intricate backheel and the left-back’s cross was met by Roberts with a diving header, but the veteran midfielder was unable to keep the ball down from six yards out. Roberts was more successful soon after, however, when Kal Naismith intercepted the ball on the halfway line and, after seeing his initial shot blocked, showed good awareness to slip the ball to the scouser who couldn’t miss from five yards.
That all but ended the game as a contest and Dave Jones’ side seemed to retreat into their shells once it was clear that they were not going to get anything from the match. Naismith came close to adding to his own tally when he received the ball on the right from Jamal Lowe with fifteen minutes to go and rattled the base of the far post with a right foot drive from outside the penalty area, with Lowe firing the rebound over the bar. Lowe was withdrawn soon after and was replaced by Conor Chaplin in a move which saw Naismith drop back into the midfield. With two minutes of normal time remaining Naismith was substituted to a standing ovation and Nicke Kabamba came on in his place for his second Football League appearance. Kabamba almost managed to bag a goal during his short time on the field, but scuffed his volley into the ground when he was presented with an opportunity to score his first goal in professional football. The full-time whistle blew to cheers from the visiting fans as they saw their side take one more step towards League One football.
There is now light visible at the end of the tunnel for Pompey fans, although Pools supporters will be less confident as they are now only separated from the relegation zone by five points, with Newport County on good form below them. That is none of Pompey’s concern though, and they will simply switch their attention to next Saturday when they host Yeovil Town at Fratton Park. Paul Cook often reminds fans that the most important thing at this stage of the season is to “just keep going” and not to over-analyse matches, but it was clear that Kyle Bennett and Kal Naismith are both in inspired form at the moment and continuing that could well be all Pompey need to win promotion. It was also encouraging to see Gary Roberts getting on the score sheet again after his lull in form so hopefully he can get back to his best for the remaining six games. The only negatives which came out of the match were the injuries to Noel Hunt and Carl Baker. Hopefully both of them will be back soon, but I would be very doubtful about whether Hunt is fit to return before the end of the season. Stevenage also win yesterday, meaning the gap between third and fourth remains six points, but Plymouth lost to Accrington Stanley so the gap between them and Pompey is down to just four points with the sides still to meet at Fratton Park.
It is vital for Pompey not to get ahead of themselves and become complacent, but any Pompey fan would surely have taken this position at the start of the season. Hopefully Pompey can carry on their current good form and get promotion wrapped up in the coming weeks so that they can start to focus on catching Plymouth rather than looking over their shoulder at the likes of Stevenage and Luton.