As Pete Sixsmith shows a worrying tendency towards part-timism by missing his second Sunderland match in a row (ok, he did report on the Reserves and Under-18s this week), his shoes are ably filled by Malcolm Dawson who enjoys his trip to an old-style ground, but not the reminders of the playground …
For nostalgia buffs such as myself, Portsmouth is a great place to go. You can locate the ground by driving randomly, spotting the floodlights towering above the tightly packed terraced housing and parking a couple of hundred yards away, only a five minute stroll from the turnstiles. The illusion continues inside the ground where the primeval urinals consisting of a concrete trough with no splash backs, necessitate a plodge through an inch or two of undefined liquid to dispose of the pre match Speckled Hen.
Although, like Villa Park and Anfield, ground regulations have meant that plastic seats have been bolted onto the old standing areas, I still half expected to see men in long white coats parading round the pitch with paper bags of monkey nuts and the smell of a hundred pipes full of Ready Rub wafting over the tightly packed hordes.
But the Ford Populars and Singer Vogues have been replaced by people carriers and four wheel drives, every third person seems to be talking into their mobile and the P.A. announcer reminds us that Fratton Park is a no smoking stadium.
The illusion wasn’t completely shattered as, at times, the defending of the men in red and white took me back to my school playground in the sixties. You remember those games? Twenty a side, or more, a tennis ball or better still a spongy. The technique of playing in those kick abouts involved as many kids as possible crowding round the ball, heads down and kicking aimlessly in any possible direction. That was our lads on occasion yesterday.
We started off OK. I had my doubts about playing Richardson at full back but McCartney hasn’t impressed lately and having Turner alongside Da Silva and Reid on the bench gave the squad a more solid look than that which started the previous week’s debacle.
For twenty minutes or so we looked as if we would boss the game. Zenden, playing wide left, was winning everything and showing a good touch. Pompey threatened little and we dealt comfortably with their attacks. It was no surprise when Bent got around his marker to volley into the net and surely from there we would kick on and find ourselves in the fifth round draw.
But soon the rot set in and old habits took over. Let’s be honest. Here were two poor sides. We obviously aren’t Chelsea, but what impressed me when I saw them at the SOL early in the season was how, whenever they had the ball, there were always one or two players in space ready to receive the simple pass. Yesterday free headers in midfield and unpressurised clearances from defence were aimless and more often than not went to a blue shirted player.
Short passes went astray – over hit, under hit or simply misdirected.
Zenden and Richardson kept plugging away down the left but as the first half wore on they proved less and less effective, leaving gaping holes at the back. Kenwyne was trying harder than he seems to have been recently, but his first touch wasn’t tight enough.
Portsmouth are a poor side and we should have coped. The goal when it came was an error that wouldn’t have been out of place on that 1960s playground. A hopeful ball to the edge of our area saw John Utaka and Phil Bardsley go up together. It looked for all the world like Bardsley would get there first but the Pompey man got the touch and a weak, looping header should easily have been dealt with by Gordon had he stayed on his line. But for some inexplicable reason he found himself in no man’s land and could only turn and watch as the ball found the back of the net.
It got no better in the second half. Still unable to retain possession we created few chances. A kick from Gordon was headed back into space and Utaka again was the only player near the ball. He was able to sprint clear and bury his shot unchallenged.
After that we showed a bit more commitment and urgency without really improving our play. Reid came on for Meyler, Jones limped off to be replaced by Campbell and forgotten man Healy substituted for Bardsley as we looked for the equaliser.
It nearly worked. I’ve no idea if the ball was over the line from Healy’s shot. From where I was it might have been. I certainly shouted for a goal. A draw might have been a fair result but on this performance Wembley never looked like an achievable dream.
I could have enjoyed my trip to Portsmouth yesterday if I’d gone to visit the Mary Rose, HMS Victory or Charles Dicken’s birthplace. As for the football? Disappointment doesn’t do it justice, but then we are Sunderland and it goes with the territory. So when I’m dragged along to Goodison in midweek, to paraphrase Admiral Lord Nelson, I shall still expect every man in the red and white to do his duty. I live in hope.