A FANTASTIC trip home: buzzing after a battling display and a precious point against Pompey that shrivelled the distance of the drive back, there was an animated debate on who deserved the other stars after Rhys Williams had been ceremonially presented by Eric Paylor with the big three on a red silk cushion.
This is radically different to previous long, bleak trips home – Reading for instance – when there were groans at having to present anyone at all with such plaudits and impassioned pleas to scrap a system that gave that bunch of wasters such tainted praise and instead award anti-matter black stars to denote the worst performances.
Pompey were everything that Boro should have been scared of – in form after six wins in a row at home, physical, direct, fast, six foot four – but the unchanged team (for the first time in an increidible 46 games and just short of a year) coped well.
They worked hard to close down, they crashed into tackles, fought for first and second and third balls and showed a real fighting spirit, especially in the second half as it got tetchy and threatened to boil over. It threatened to kick off big style between fiesty Barry Robson and aggressive Hermann Hriedarsson as the pair snapped and snarled and hand-bagged and seemed to enjoy every minute.
In the first half Pompey had the bulk of the possession and pumped the ball into the box but Williams was a one man defensive whirlwind that blocked everything. He went sliding into perfectly timed blocking tackles, nipped in to head away from Kitson and Nugent, charged down shots and generally got in the way of whatever Pompey thre into the box. He cleared off the line before Kitson could pounce as Nugent’s header bounced down off the bar and blocked another effort at the near post.
Seb Hines did his share too, clearing another goalbound Nugent effort and matching the aggression and aerial power of Kitson and Nugent to repeatedly clear balls into the box. In midfield Robson and Nicky Bailey were in the forefront of an industrious collective effort to chase and snap and break up Pompey’s shape and intent.
It was never pretty and in the first half Boro had to work very hard just to stay in the game but after the break the balance of play shifted. Pompey’s attacks fizzled out, Boro pushed the scene of the action first into a harmless midfield quarantined zone and then as the game wore on, increasingly into the home side’s half.#
Again it wasn’t pretty. far from it. Boro struggled to keep the ball and struggled to get any kind of passing rhythm going and runs into the channels by Lita and McDonald were fruitless and carried very little threat. Boro scrapped for the ball, knocked it forward where the front two were hustled away and then it came straight back. The only real threat for the first hour was from free-kicks.
Boro’s only real chance came when Emnes wriggled into the box onto a Bennett ball 10 minutes from time but with time and space to cut inside to find a more generous angle he drifted wide and fired in a shot that was blocked at the near post. That said, the header against the post aside, Pompey had few real chances and new keeper Smith barely had anything to do bar a few routine catches and punches from corners.
So scrappy but spirited, but solid and confident too. It was a world away from the collapse at Reading. And in Williams it offered a shaft of sunlight. If he can steady the backlne until McManus, Davies and Bates return to add experience and power then we may be over the worse (although now with Lita limping out with a hamstring the focus of the exposed fragility has moved up front).
And in a double rollover result, the bonus point came on a day when the three teams below us lost and a few immediately above slipped as well. The safety cushion is now seven points and with just ten games left the teams below need to suddenly find a dramatic improvement to catch us. If we can maintain that work-rate and spirit and the current points return then we’ll be fine.