Blood and thunder at Fratton Park


Portsmouth 2-2 Plymouth –

Play-off semi-final first legs are often known for being tight, nervy and, in some cases, uneventful. Portsmouth’s 2-2 draw with Plymouth Argyle represented a deviation from the norm, with plenty of action, full-blooded challenges and eye-catching goals, providing a good advert for League Two. Marc McNulty’s low shot opened the scoring but Jamille Matt’s first half brace put Plymouth in front, before Gary Roberts levelled from the spot in a dominant second half from Pompey.

The day started well for the hosts, who led after three minutes thanks to McNulty. Michael Doyle showed tenacity to win the ball in an advanced position, allowing his former Sheffield United colleague to plant the ball home.

When in front, Portsmouth looked to keep the ball rather than defend in numbers. The Hampshire hosts played via the left side, full-back Enda Stevens seeing a lot of the ball while Plymouth looked lost. Out of nothing however, the Pilgrims levelled. After a ball in from the left, Matt bullied centre-backs Adam Barton and Christian Burgess, as well as questionable goalkeeper Ryan Allsop, to bundle the ball over the line.

On that occasion, the Pompey rear-guard lacked aggression, a criticism one could not aim at manager Paul Cook, who was sent to the stands after an altercation with Argyle coach Paul Wotton. If he was unsettled then, he will have been even more so when Matt put the opposing side in front. The 26-year-old has impressed since joining Plymouth in March and controlled a long throw on 19 minutes, before sending a looping overhead kick over Allsop and into the net.

Plymouth had come from behind to win 2-1 in April’s corresponding league fixture and a repeat looked plausible. Roberts was struggling to have an influence, suffering from a lack of pace and movement around him. He and Kyle Bennett both wanted to pick perfect passes, but neither showed the pace to get on the end of through balls. Gareth Evans had a limited influence while McNulty was feeding off scraps.

That had something to do with the way Plymouth were set up. They worked hard and were committed to the cause, a theme typified by left winger Gregg Wylde tracking back to negate the threat of Ben Davies. Plymouth counter-attacked in bursts with creative midfielder Graham Carey impressing whenever he got on the ball, the 26-year-old firing just wide on 27 minutes. Bennett came even closer for Portsmouth when he hit the post, but the hosts were otherwise playing at too slow a tempo, lacking the width required to break Plymouth down.

They started the second half brightly however. McNulty and Roberts combined more freely than they had done in the opening period and it was of little surprise that those players were key to the equalizer. McNulty won a penalty off Peter Hartley on 50 minutes, Roberts converting the spot kick to restore parity.

The goal did not change the way Plymouth had set up after half-time. They played almost entirely to avoid conceding, their lack of intent partly a consequence of Matt’s increasing tiredness. This meant that Pompey centre-backs were able to push forward with no apprehension and therefore Argyle midfielders, particularly Carey, had no time to impose themselves in a creative sense.

Adams could have fixed this problem by turning to one of many quick forwards on the bench, but he did not freshen his side up until the 80th minute. That could have cost the Scotsman’s side, as Portsmouth piled on the pressure, taking more and more risks in wide areas as the half went on, knowing the counter-attacking danger was non-existent. Though Argyle right-back Kelvin Mellor stood his ground well, Gary Sawyer was targeted and struggled against the pace and bravery of Davies. Only good saves from Luke McCormick and manful last-ditch defending from Plymouth stopped the hosts making their dominance count.

Portsmouth were the more enterprising side in the second half and they perhaps deserved another goal. Plymouth, on the other hand, will be relieved to return to Home Park on Sunday all-square.