Taking candy from a baby

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

1 February 2003

Portsmouth 3 Grimsby Town 0

A surprisingly pleasant afternoon by the sunny Solent, though a lurking chill caught the unwary among the 150 or so Town fans (inclusive of half a dozen displaced locals) scrunched together in a corner, under the floodlight, behind the bikesheds, in the back garden of the house next door. After some Premiership-class stewarding, where they insisted we sat in an even tinier section until they realised that they'd sold more tickets than there were seats, the unhopeful travellers settled down to play I-spy. And we spied with several little eyes that today's missing players began with the letter B. No Barnard, no Boulding...oh bugger - Cooke, for those dedicated followers of fashion, was dressed in a frilly nylon tracksuit, pulled right up tight, which indicated he would be absent from the starting XI. So another spatchcock, patched-up collection of the young and the infirm.

Town lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Coyne, McDermott, Ford, Chettle, Gallimore, Campbell, Groves, Santos, Bolder, Livingstone and Mansaram. The substitutes were Allaway, Cooke, Ward, Soames and Parker. Bolder played as a left midfielder and Santos in central midfield, all of which seemed very odd, especially considering that Portsmouth lined up in a 3-5-2 formation. So we were awaiting a swamped midfield. Ah, I see, Mansaram. Flash, ah-ha, played in a strange left-sided role which was neither one thing nor the other. Perhaps he'd misread his collected works of Craig Shakespeare - neither a striker, nor a midfielder be.

The pre-match entertainment was provided by a big bug-eyed Cookie Monster a-like, blue frog, which muppet fans weren't in love with, that stalked some small children as they walked around the perimeter. Not forgetting the two Chinese dragons that pranced about in front of the main stand, cynically churning up the pitch in an attempt to halt Mr Tony Gallimore rampaging down the wings in search of lupins. He robs from the poor, and gives to the rich, Gallimore, Galimore, Gallimore. Or perhaps Pompey were using psychological warfare techniques on our back four; two fluorescent dragons is some acid flashback, man.

Enough peripheral nonsense and abstract mental doodling (and I'm not referring to Livvo or Vincent Pericard's hair). The game.

First half

Town kicked off away from the massed Mariners, with a twist. Instead of whacking the ball straight out for a throw-in, Groves lumped it downfield for a goal kick. Already preparing for Division Two, I see. Within a minute, Pompey had sliced through the melting snowmen in Town's defence. The ball broke to Portsmouth on their centre left: a few quick exchanges of passes, a surge forward from Aiyegbeni and a pass outside Ford to Todorov, on the right corner of the Town area. He swayed left, right, wiggled his hips and curled a shot around his marker towards the top left corner. Coyne stretched and plucked the dead chicken from the production line, sealing it in a cellophane wrapper with slight concern, but little fuss.

Town totally dominated the next eight or nine seconds, even getting up towards the Portsmouth area. The pattern of the first half was already set - Portsmouth were content for Town to play the ball around in midfield, merely awaiting a loose pass or clearance to set up a counter-attack, where they flayed Town mercilessly. They had power and pace (Aiyegbeni), perception and poise (Merson), allied to Todorov, the Bulgarian Lee Nogan (whose full name, Todorovside, is too long for his shirt), together with raiding wingbacks. What shall they do to fill the empty spaces? Fill them with fast men running. I shall leave aside the moments when Portsmouth didn't shoot, but still unpicked Chettle and Ford like a curious child with a large daisy, and concentrate on the chances created.

Ah, four minutes gone and Toappenings in the Town defence. It's rather expected these days.

Is there more? Of course there is. That's just the surface scratchings. After 30 minutes, Santos bundled Merson over after the 20th (or was it the 35th?) fast break by Portsmouth. Just about 20 yards out, in the centre, a goal was certain. Coyne stood in the middle of his goal and Merson caressed the ball over the wall and towards the top left corner. Coyne flew, Coyne flapped, the ball crawled around the angle of post and bar.

Five minutes later, a Pompey corner was half cleared and returned back into the centre of the goal. Sherwood, unmarked and eight yards out, swivelled and half volleyed the ball down the middle. Coyne raised a hand and flipped the ball over the bar.

Gallimore hasn't been mentioned yet, has he. He was in trundle and backtrack mode. Relieved to be up against sheer pace rather than a Croatian water torturer, Galli did what he does best: run backwards - allowing Harper to get to the by-line and cross at will. From one of Galli's 100-yard backward dashes Harper swept past him, into the area and smacked a low drive across goal, which was blocked away by one of Coyne's shins. Another Harper surge past the hapless and hopeless Galli resulted in Ford miskicking the ball two yards out and McDermott donning his brown overalls, picking up a trusty broom and sweeping up after the youngsters.

Stood in front of the Town support, Galli grizzled and growled, raging at the floodlights in frustration. Or was that us? Fortunately, the referee's back was turned when Galli leant into Todorov at a throw-in, brushing his head down the Bulgar's neck. Harper - like Taylor, their other wing-back - spent most of the first half alone, like the shyest of teenagers at the sixth-form discotheque. Always willing, rarely asked.

There you are, that's the major incidents of the first half, the half that nearly didn't end. For, in addition to the collapsed net, we had the collapsed vet; Chettle crumpling and clutching his back. Yet again, his bad back, which always seems to coincide with a tonking.

Portsmouth were almost irresistible. Only bad finishing and some fine goalkeeping kept the score down to one. Just the one, and there was the faint hope. It was only 1-0, although should have been at least 3, probably 4. It was highly likely that Town would have a shot in the second half and, you never know, it might take a huge deflection and go in. What Town attacking did go on was frequently ended by the linesman's flag. Oh, the irony: the only person in the ground able to see Campbell was the linesman. Some Town fans have spent a lifetime in search of the abominable no-man. Poor old McDermott was frequently exposed to two and three Portsmouth players running at him at speed, as Campbell was frequently absent, or perhaps obscured by clouds.

No matter how many times we rearrange the deckchairs, it came down to one plain, simple fact. They were better than us. Individually and collectively. They had Aiyegbeni, pumping powerhouse eager to please on his debut. We had Livvo. They had Merson, full of vim and verve, we had Santos playing tippy-tappy, pretty-pretty football, shrugging very Gallicly whenever tackled. Perhaps 20 minutes of intelligent conversation deep within the away dressing room would change things?

Stu's half-time toilet talk

"The steward can't complain - my orange peel piles are arranged in an orderly fashion."
"It's humiliating for them, only 1-0."
"Is this queue for the burgers or the bogs? Is there a difference?"
"The question is Galli. The answer is nooooooooooo."
"They think it's a torpedo, but it's really a candle holder".

Second half

No changes in personnel were made by either side at half time, though perhaps there was some tinkering by Town, for the game was completely different. Portsmouth were no longer such a threat on the counterattack, and rarely seemed to have the ball for the first 20 or so minutes. They certainly didn't threaten. There seemed to be a slight change to the Town formation, with Mansaram firmly out on the left, Bolder more centrally placed and Groves and Santos playing more in a diamond in the centre. It all meant that Town were able to defend a bit better, having players in the right places more often than not, and players in spaces when the opportunity to attack arose. And that was frequently. Portsmouth were a bit slack in passing, so Town managed to disrupt and break, mainly through Campbell, who had a fine first part of the second half.

As early as the 47th minute Town had a shot! A Campbell cross from the right was scooped over the bar by Livingstone at the near post, from about six yards out. There were some deep philosophical discussions within the Town support regarding that moment. Some were unsure what it was. What is a shot? What is a Livingstone? Was it a Livvo shot or was Livvo to be shot? And if so, when? And how much can you get for a tonne of glue these days?

I have the vaguest of vague recollections that Pompey had a shot sometime within the first quarter of an hour. Harper ran quickly; Galli backed off; Harper shot across goal, but well wide. Quashie thwacked a shot from the left edge of the Town area across goal and a few feet wide. Neither looked likely to enter the kingdom of the Coyne; they were just shots, not chances. Portsmouth were invariably caught offside, with Todorov instilling a Pavlovian response from the linesman. Todorov has the ball, up goes the flag. Super. The annual bad trumpet award is still held by that splutterer in the big stand behind the goal. Give up - it's embarrassing you, not us.

The pattern of play was most frustrating as Town were, as usual, raising false hope with some attacks which almost promised but, like a furniture store, never delivered on a Saturday. The moment we knew Town's day was wasted arrived after about an hour. A fine quick break down the right with a Campbell dribble, some interplay and passing through the centre of the defence. Groves, 12 yards out, passed outside to the unmarked Mansaram, in a similar position to the one Aiyegbeni scored from. The Town fans rose to their feet. Mansaram swung his left boot, and the ball zipped through the penalty area, between the defence and the Town attackers, just missing Campbell as he slid in at the far corner flag. A thrown-in to Portsmouth. The shot was wayward; the ball could have hit anyone and deflected in. It didn't, so luck was not around to help the aged.

More Town attacks were frittered and wasted in an offhand way. The recurring memory is of Campbell beating his man and crossing to...yeah, who? Mansaram was frequently free beyond his marker, but the crosses were behind him, in front of him, and never but never to him. Hislop was forced to touch the ball a couple of times, to catch and plunge upon crosses. He probably only did it to keep his hand in.

Another shot, again following some decent interplay, this time down the left. Mansaram received a pass from Gallimore, twisted by the fool and pulled a pass back to Groves on the edge of the penalty area. Leaning back, twisting and on his left foot, Groves ballooned the ball over the bar, over the back of the stand and off towards Havant, which probably explained the need for engineering works on the railway, causing such travel disruption after the game ended.

Oh, and if you really want to know, there were a couple of decent crosses which went approximately towards where a centre forward may have been. If only, eh?

Well, all very well, with Town in the ascendancy - but Pompey were merely dormant, not extinct. After nearly half an hour Portsmouth suddenly awoke as Town snoozed. Or rather Gallimore reverted to type, giving the ball away and not closing down. Sometimes I wish Gallimore would have a closing-down sale. In the blink of a wink, Merson burst forward from midfield and the ball was chipped over the top of the Town defence. Coyne rushed out to the edge of the area and leapt up as Merson lifted the ball over and around from about 20 yards out on the centre left. The ball slowly, slowly looped and dropped onto the top left hand side of the net.

The game had changed completely, for a minute later they scored again. A series of Gallimore fluffs down the left resulted in Harper being given another chance to run directly towards goal, without fear of human contact. Town had been passing the ball across the field, with little danger to either team, when it was knocked back to Gallimore, who ambled and panicked as Todorov glided past him. Free kick given, taken quickly; up the left Galli dallied, Harper surged; the ball was played into Todorov in the area, who simply laid a pass back out to Harper; Harper crossed high into the centre, missing all. That's all but Taylor - who collected the ball on the corner of the six-yard box and smacked a low drive into the centre of the goal. The ball hit somebody and flew in, the somebody alleged to be FORD.

Town then had a brief period of attacking, which almost brought a goal. It's that word almost, which should preface any description of Town. Campbell easily beat Taylor and crossed to the near post; Ford and Mansaram converged and Ford headed firmly down and across Hislop from about seven yards out. Hislop snapped into action, diving low to his right and firmly scooping the ball away, straight to a defender. It was a very good save, but one that brought no joy to a little pocket of Pompey that was temporarily Grimsby.

Soon after this Soames replaced Bolder, with Soames playing as a right winger and Campbell occasionally on the left. Groves poked a shot just over the bar from about a dozen yards, after some fine twisting, turning, spinning trickery by Mansaram.

And finally, the moment Pompey fans had awaited for several weeks - Todorov not offside. With 10 minutes left, the ball was dinked in from their right to Aiyegbeni who headed back across goal to the unmarked Todorov, perhaps six yards out, right in the centre. He carefully placed a gentle header a foot or so wide of Coyne's right post.

A little later Gallimore was absent attacking, so Portsmouth merely filled the vacant space with Merson, who passed inside to Todorov, who in turn played a short pass between Chettle and new left-back Paul Groves. Quashie sprinted through the gap, cut back inside as Campbell slid towards the new B&Q that has been built behind the stand, and whizzed a shot towards the near post, which Coyne pushed aside at chest height.

With a few minutes left Ward replaced Santos, who had been a very peripheral and occasionally feeble presence in the second half. [Say that to his face - Ed.] Ward seemed to play in an indeterminate midfield position. I could be kind and say Town had a fluid formation at the end, though that translates as nobody knew where they were.

And now, the end is near, we must have the injury-time goal. Hello, here it is. Again Town gave the ball away in midfield as they attacked in number down the left. Pompey broke away, filling the vacant left back (and how often have those words been seen side by side, which is a shame given that Town haven't got a barrel of money to buy a replacement) spot with Merson, who chipped the ball to the very centre, right on the edge of the Town area. The unmarked QUASHIE controlled the ball on his chest and lifted it wide of Coyne and into the bottom left corner. At least it wasn't a third own goal.

Redknapp wasted time with a couple of substitutions, allowing players to get personalised ovations, and possibly to allow us the opportunity to see five minutes of Pericard's hair, which is beaded badly, reminiscent of Fu Manchu's wispy beard stuck on the back of a bald man's head. Harry, we appreciated that. A bit of light relief for the suffering Townites. But not enough.

The half-time scoreline flattered Town; the full-time one didn't. Town were outclassed for 45 minutes, but coped admirably for the next 30. Thereafter the end was near. This was no worse than many a Solentside stuffing of yore and didn't tell us anything we didn't know already. Portsmouth, given space, were sumptuously sweet in their forward surges, but there was a hint of a brittle centre in the way they failed to crush Town at the start and Town recovered to dominate possession for much of the second half. One can see why they sometimes fail. They didn't look appreciative of hassling and tackling. But that's their problem, not ours.

We didn't get anyone booked and no-one limped off. There you are: a double negative makes a positive!

Nicko's man of the match

Well, Campbell played well in the second half, but was not apparent in the first. So he gets a half mention in half despatches. Groves was fine for 70 minutes. But overall only Coyne was consistently adequate. Yet again he kept the score down. So Danny Coyne it is.

Official warning
Mr A Bates

Yes, yes, yes, a punster's delight. He wasn't too bad, just leant a bit towards the home team with indulgent interpretations of the occasional tackle and dive. We could quibble about minor matters, but that won't alter the fact he was not a factor in this game, which instantly elevates him above 6. How about 7.167? Too high - OK, a more realistic, and sour, 7.094.