Fan’s View – 2019/20 – no.49 – Play-off Semi-Final Second Leg

Article by Paul Beasley Tuesday, July 7th, 2020  

LEAGUE ONE PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL SECOND LEG

The build up

It was inevitable that the nerves would kick in again before the re-match but it took a little longer for them to overwhelm me than I had thought. When they did come mid-morning of the match day they were even more forceful than the previous dose. That’s probably because this time if anything goes wrong there will be less time to put things right, no luxury of a second game. This is it and with the possibility of extra time and penalties.

My distraction this time is writing this with housework again on the agenda. There’s less than three hours to go. If fans feel like this what state are the players from both teams in?

I vowed to wear the same jeans and top as I had for the game on Friday. Also to drink the same beer. Why, asked my wife and son. This wasn’t because superstitions are nonsensical but because, as they pointed out, we had drawn, not won, at Fratton Park and to get through we had to go one better, at least marginally (by that I’m thinking even if it is on penalties although I don’t know if I could stand that without passing out).

For me home advantage doesn’t exist. Northampton, who will be performing in L1 next season, lost their play-off home leg 2-0. Fleetwood of course got turned over 4-1 on their own patch against Wycombe who now look very much the favourites to face the winners of this one at Wembley in the final. In our first Conference campaign having won away at Exeter we contrived to lose the tie on penalties at the Kassam thus failing to make the final. (A certain Jamie Mackie converted one from the spot for the Grecians that day).

It’s horrible. It knots the stomach up.

Mind games come in to play. Talk yourself up. Sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the opposition. Pompey’s Bryn Morris is at it, claiming strength in depth could be the decisive factor in tipping it their way. He started the first match with the Portsmouth captain, Tom Naylor, only on the bench, as was John Marquis their second leading scorer. One of our subs was a young guy who has never played a second of competitive first team football for us. Another factor has to be the fitness of key players. Cameron Brannagan went off with about 10 minutes remaining. Hamstring or cramp? Marcus Browne and Matty Taylor, just niggles? The camp has remained quiet. Rightly so. Keep the opposition guessing.

I still believe.

With kick off getting ever closer I was asked on FB how I was feeling and replied, “Not great. One minute I’m not too bad, then the next. At least I have not cracked open the first beer yet. That can wait. Think I’ll go for a little wander round the garden next.” That beer was soon poured and I walked to the bottom of the garden to find one of our rose trees which was an anniversary present a few years ago had produced a bright yellow rose. They’re quite rare. They come and go one at a time and don’t last long. This was an omen. I insisted we would win if my son took a picture of me next to it. He said we’d win anyway but I made him do it all the same.

The rose in question. Without me.

OXFORD UNITED 1 PORTSMOUTH 1 (aet)

OXFORD UNITED WIN 5-4 on penalties

Never can two teams have been so closely matched since Oxford City and Alvechurch in 1971. This season:  8 Oct, Checkatrade 2-2 at the Kassam. Pompey win on penalties. 2 Nov, League One at Fratton Park 1-1 and now two repeats of that score in the play-offs with us getting through by converting 100% of our penalties to Portsmouth’s 80%. Thank you Simon Eastwood for keeping out the 20%.

In Karl I trust and fully understood the two changes he made. Ben Woodburn had understandably looked rustier than most on Friday and Mark Sykes had brought energy. With Matty Taylor having a “niggle” somewhere in his body and the potential for extra time and penalties it was absolutely right not to start with him. Much better to end with him and what better replacement than Jamie Mackie? This was never about winning by playing free-flowing football. It was all about getting the result to get to Wembley. With attrition being the name of the game Mackie is likely your man even coming up 35 years of age. He’ll rarely do anything spectacular and isn’t likely to score a goal, although he did have the first effort of the game and a decent one it was too, but he will work the defenders. Really work them. Fresher and younger legs may well be the later beneficiaries.

Some people think I talked up our performance in the first leg a little. Here I had expected an improved showing but have to confess that at half time I was a little disappointed in our display although obviously more than a tad pleased at that added time equaliser. My son disagreed and thought we had indeed improved.

Portsmouth had been the better team but not by much. They’d picked up most of the loose balls and when we’d got possession we weren’t able to put many passes together. When we did move it about a bit this was done quite slowly. Efforts we sent goalwards were from distance and with such little power that they troubled Alex Bass no more than a back pass would.

A key factor though was that our shape remained solid throughout. That’s the foundation from which football matches are won. The same could be said about the way Portsmouth were playing too. This told us, as if we didn’t already know, that it was going to go to the wire. Neither team looked like Championship material but that was to be expected and irrelevant at this stage of the strangest of seasons.

The visitors had brought in Ryan Williams and he can give full-backs a hard time. With him on the right and Ronan Curtis, who had troubled Sam Long three days earlier, on the left they were set up to really get at us. This time though Curtis was little threat and the way Long conducted himself throughout makes him in my mind a strong contender for man of the match. Williams was way more dangerous but as I’ve more than once thought about him, he tends to fade and the end product of a really top player might not be there. That though may be down to the finishing of those who get on the end of his delivery, not the delivery itself.  Sometimes it’s just a good save that denies a goal and Eastwood did superbly to block an Ellis Harrison shot when he got onto a dangerous Williams ball played into the box.

Portsmouth’s goal was proof that a goal can come from nowhere in a second or two and that the long ball can be played effectively. If memory serves we’d attacked quite well but unsurprisingly the ball had ended up in Bass’s arms. One quick long kick later it was in the back of our net. With no Oxford player getting into a position to jump and challenge for the ball, Harrison got the flick on and Marcus Harness took it on his knee then turned and shot low from the edge of the box taking us all a bit by surprise.  Of course we could have done better in our efforts to keep it out but I wouldn’t be too critical and prefer to give Portsmouth credit.

For the first time in this battle it looked like one side would go into one of the many official breaks with an advantage. Knowing that there was nothing whatsoever to separate the yellows and the blues the footballing gods decreed that this could not be allowed to happen. In the third of the additional minutes James Henry bent a corner from the left almost into the goal but it was such that the keeper without impediment should have been able to collect it quite comfortably. I was expecting Mackie to smack into him and give away a free-kick. As it turned out the only player to jump with Bass was his team mate Harrison who glanced it behind the man in green. Oxford arms went up. At home we couldn’t tell what was going on. Had it been given? Hadn’t it been given? Thanks to goal-line technology it had. It wasn’t over the line by much but it doesn’t have to be. The commentators informed us that some people at the football club had taken 7 hours to get that technology installed. Without it I doubt we would have been awarded the goal. So very well done people.

In the second period we got better and at last looked to be the superior side but as per the script only very marginally so. It was however Portsmouth who came closest to scoring again when Marquis, just after he’d been brought on, headed a teasing Curtis cross against the post. Phew!

The use of substitutes has become an increasingly important ingredient in modern football and here KR used all six available. Yes SIX. How times have changed. Remember those old black and white cup finals when an injured player had to hop on to the bitter end even if their leg fell off?

With just over an hour gone Taylor came on for Mackie and got much more involved than he had done in the first game. I thought we now looked likelier to score a goal. It was also noticeable that Matty has something of the Mackie about him. Whether that was already in him or he’s learned it from the old master I don’t know. Probably more of the former than the latter as Taylor is 30 years old. Mackie is only four and a half years his senior.

One needs to be very careful playing that way and there is quite an argument that Taylor could have been shown a red card instead of yellow for a nasty tackle. The same could be said about Alex Gorrin too. And while we’re at it a Pompey player got away with a blatant elbow in the face and didn’t get a card of any colour. Then there was the most obvious of shirt pulls you’ll ever see on Dan Agyei in the penalty area with a few minutes of normal time left.

So did Darren England and his associates have good games? If you look at the game as a whole and how he controlled it I’d say yes. If you look at these incidents I’d have to say no. I wouldn’t have wanted a 9 v 10 game so I’ll move on.

Agyei had only come on in the 86th minute as a replacement for Browne and at the same time Sykes was swapped for Jamie Hanson. Seeing what these two brought to the party told us that we may well have more strength in depth than we realise.

Portsmouth had kept Browne as quiet as we had Curtis. Star men are not going to be allowed to showcase that star quality every game. Bearing that in mind Browne really impressed me. He’s not flash and puts in work in the same way as those that are in the team more for the basics than the gloss, if that makes sense.

Agyei is one of those players that leave you wondering. Wondering if he is going to do anything. Wondering if he is to do something what it will be. He has the potential to be a cult hero. And I guess the potential not to show the potential I think he has. Mrs FV thought he didn’t know what his legs were doing. I give him much more credit than that even if there is a more than a touch of the George Lawrence about him. He looked big and strong and wasn’t going to part with the ball unnecessarily running at tiring defenders. For a moment it looked like he might be able to seal it in normal time. I also thought his hold up play was very good and was something that none of our other players can produce. For all that though he was much less noticeable as extra time wore on than when he first appeared. A real enigma but an enigma I like.

Hanson slotted in seamlessly.

Extra time went quickly. Ten minutes in we made another substitution, Anthony Forde replacing James Henry. Strength in depth again being proven. Again this was seamless. Our management team will have known the energy levels. Henry may be a top penalty taker but tired players don’t make for the greatest of spot kickers. Not saying that Henry was knackered but that must have come into the equation. That and also the fact that if it did go to spot kicks Pompey would have been expecting him to take one.

With just a minute of the 120 to go our final two changes were made and this was 100% with those penalties in mind. John Mousinho for Alex Gorrin and Ben Woodburn for Sam Long. Mous got a kick of the ball before the referee blew, Woodburn didn’t. This could have been the opposite of being too knackered to take one. Not properly attuned at all.

I didn’t want Pompey to take the first penalty. They score and the pressure is firmly on us.

I didn’t want us to take the first penalty. Miss that and we hand the advantage to them.

Clearly I am not cut out for this.

Marquis keeps the ball low and having sent Eastwood the wrong way was in no danger of missing.

Woodburn went high, Bass went low. 1-1. Tremendous respect. To come on and do that with his first kick whilst no doubt carrying big disappointment at not having been part of it all up until then was incredible.

Looking back I should have consoled myself in the knowledge that Pompey fans will have felt exactly the same as we did. I didn’t, I just felt totally beyond help.

Gareth Evans had also been brought on in the 119th minute to take a pen. He like Woodburn showed no nerves, he like Marquis sent Easty the wrong way. It was never in any doubt.

Forde next. Not the longest of run ups and Bass went the right way but it was low and hard enough. The closest to one being kept out yet. 2-2.

Who would blink first?

Lee Brown hit his kick with real venom. Even if our keeper had gone the right way it is unlikely he would have kept it out.

After each conversion the screw tightens that bit more.

Taylor hands on hips, Bass doing a little jig. Taylor matches Brown’s power. 3-3.

The commentator comments, “This is a master-class in penalty taking”. I’m glad he said it at this juncture.

Cameron McGeehan, head down. He struck the ball well enough but the placement was the worst yet. Not close to the inside of a post at the “good height for a keeper”. They still take some saving though. Eastwood went the right way and sprung onto the ball.

Advantage was ours but no way was it a formality. It almost certainly doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny but I’ve long had a theory which says the team which takes the lead in a shoot-out goes on to lose. And just think back to those penalties against Exeter and the position we got ourselves into then only to throw it away.

Bang from Mous. The commentator, “perfect penalty”. Can’t argue with that. 3-4.

Two match points but as Oliver Hawkins put his away with assurance it was all down to the first of our penalty takers who had started the game.

How tired was Cameron Brannagan mentally and physically? The run up was long. I worry about short run ups. I worry about long run ups. More likely to whack it over the bar? Okay at this point in the drama I was worrying about anything and everything.

Cam’s strides seemed a little too long. Would his feet be in the right place when they got there? Would he snatch at the connection? Bass made a valiant effort but unlike McGeehan’s attempt this one was placed near enough to the upright to beat him.

And that was it. We’d made it. Pompey had come so close but the spoils of another game next Monday were ours. I think at this point I ended up sprinting around the living room but can’t really remember. Pretty sure another beer was immediately drunk.

I now need to stock up the fridge again ready for the final instalment.

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