Bristol Rovers fan view: Valiant Portsmouth performance sets the standard
Bristol Rovers were cruelly denied their first opening day win since 2011/12 but despite Portsmouth’s late equalier there were plenty of positives.
Though there’s always an element of disappointment to conceding a last-minute goal, I witnessed Rovers defend valiantly and attack with flair against one of the early-season promotion favourites. Finishing up 1-1 on the day, there was a recognisable buzz around Fratton Park, with the travelling contingent of Gasheads in fine voice throughout.
Before a ball was kicked, expectations were high, but I would have certainly taken a point pre-match, considering our abysmal opening day record, and Portsmouth’s eye-catching Summer recruitment drive. It was Joey Barton’s new signings who truly looked the part, and Rovers can no longer be accused of being a one-man team, with Luke Thomas and Jevani Brown particular standouts. If this performance is anything to go by, we no longer rely on Collins as our main attacking outlet, with multiple avenues to create chances.
Pre-match team news filtered in an hour before kick-off, and Rovers lined up with an impressive attacking quartet - and fantastic depth available on the bench should stand-in manager Andy Mangan need reinforcements. Beginning the game with a surprisingly aggressive 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation, Brown and Thomas were handed starts – and impressed throughout the 90 minutes.
The assured presence of James Wilson made a difference at the back, and James Connolly started over Connor Taylor, responsible for suppressing the considerable threat of Colby Bishop, and succeeding with some clever movement and alert defending. Tasked with combating the trickery of Gavin Whyte and Anthony Scully, Luca Hoole and Lewis Gordon hardly put a foot wrong, with Luca averting some early nerves and stopping the tricky Scully from cutting in onto his stronger foot.
The midfield pivot of newly appointed captain Sam Finley and the industrious Grant Ward performed admirably, with the heavy downpour early on meaning that our playmaking pair were more than happy to mix it up with an uncharacteristically direct approach.
Front-foot running from Luke Thomas provided our earliest goal threat, and opened up an early effort which was missed by reigning League One Player of The Year Aaron Collins, who rounded Will Norris, but failed to slot the ball in the net. A card-happy referee booked the typically combative Sam Finley within the first 10 minutes, and followed this up with several yellows to both Gas and Pompey players over the course of the match. This included an awful challenge from ex-Bristol City man Joe Morell on Luca Hoole.
We saw plenty of it in pre-season, and a well organised passing move was the decisive moment of the first 45. Capitalising on a stray pass, Rovers broke the deadlock thanks to a fantastic team move and finish from Luke Thomas, with an unselfish assist from debutant Jevani Brown.
Though there was a spell of Pompey pressure following our goal, Rovers returned the favour during 8 minutes of first half added time, and ultimately, the first period was a good half for Rovers, characterised by a noticeable lack of creativity from Pompey. I came away from this 45 with the idea that Joey Barton, Andy Mangan and the coaching staff have clearly organised the players well, with each having a clearly defined role and understanding of their responsibilities.
The dangerous Christian Saydee emerged as a half time sub for Pompey, who came out swinging. More aggressive off the ball and happy to retain possession. Marlon Pack was guilty of some niggly challenges, which again went unpunished. As Rovers grew into the half, Jevani’s quick feet made him a constant threat - either running in behind or playing in our attackers with an angled pass on the turn. A spell of pressure resulted in a great chance for John Marquis who forced a save, and this was followed by a long-range curler from Jevani which was easily saved.
To fortify the defence aerially, Connor Taylor made his second debut around the 60-minute mark as a straight swap for James Connolly, though the recent arrival from Stoke did display some ring rust at times, letting a few touches stray far from his feet, and clumsily sliding in to compensate. Nonetheless, Taylor and Wilson were an imposing pair for the Portsmouth attack to deal with. Also bolstering the defence, the travelling fans were able to witness the long-awaited return of Josh Grant after almost a year, and the versatile wingback didn’t look at all out of place.
Despite restricting their hosts to mostly long-range chances, the writing was on the wall as Pompey managed to hit the post with an ambitious long-range hit around the 80-minute mark, and eventually, sustained pressure resulted in a scrambled added time equaliser from substitute Kusini Yengi, which was rebounded in off the post. Not undeserved, and perhaps a fair reflection of the way the match was going, the 90 minutes ended with intense Portsmouth pressure, and although Rovers defended competently, they were perhaps guilty of playing too direct at times towards the latter end of the second half, allowing Portsmouth to regroup and quickly recycle possession.
Ultimately, 1-1 was perhaps a fair result with all things considered, representing a solid point away at a packed ground. Fitness levels from Rovers were noticeable, with our 10 outfielders running constantly and swarming around any stray balls. I’m expecting a tough challenge against Barnsley next week (who dismantled Port Vale 7-0 to begin their campaign), but this performance was certainly cause for optimism.