AFTER a turbulent week off the pitch following the takeover collapse, Ronnie Moore was keen for his Hartlepool United players to continue their recent improvement on it.
Playing a 4-3-3 formation, Pools had managed to secure back-to-back home wins and a point at Tranmere Rovers to claw the gap to safety back to seven points.
Against Portsmouth though, Moore opted for 3-5-2 formation in order to accommodate loan signings David Mirfin and Marvin Morgan.
The aim was to match Andy Awford’s home side and contain and frustrate them in front of their vocal home support, while hitting them on the break.
But Pools effectively ended up playing a back five, with Michael Duckworth and Neil Austin unable to get forward much as Pompey penned Pools in.
Defensively Pools did well, winning their headers and making several blocks to ensure Scott Flinders had few saves to make.
But Moore’s side were sloppy in possession and attacking wise they were poor, with Plymouth Argyle striker Morgan and strike partner Scott Fenwick failing to hold the ball up long enough to bring the midfielders and wing backs into play.
As a result, Pools failed to manage a single shot on target and when Pompey’s constant pressure eventually resulted in Matt Tubbs scoring the 60th minute winner, there was to be no way back.
It was frustrating given Pompey had been restricted to few clear cut chances yet the first one they got they took.
You couldn’t fault the effort or commitment of the Pools players – which should always be a given – but they lacked quality when they had the ball.
In the build-up, the Portsmouth fans had promised a wall of noise as they looked to reverse their current slump in form which had seen them go nine games without a win and heaped pressure on Awford.
And so it proved, with just under 15,000 supporters chanting their way through the opening stages of the game.
Pompey started strongly and almost had the lead within a minute, Jed Wallace’s free-kick found Joe Devera six yards out but his poked effort went just wide.
Wallace then saw a fierce 25-yard free-kick palmed over by Flinders as Awford’s side looked to stamp their authority on the game against a Pools side dealt an early blow with the departure of Matthew Bates.
Bates suffered a dead leg following a crunching block tackle with Nicky Featherstone coming on in his place.
There was some frantic and last-ditch defending at times led by the impressive Mirfin who was vocal throughout – always encouraging his young defensive partners, Scott Harrison and Dan Jones.
Pools had successfully managed to hold back Pompey and began to grow in confidence as the half wore on, yet they were still unable to test Paul Jones in goal.
Morgan looked keen to impress early on, tracking back and helping in his defensive duties but lacking match fitness he looked off the pace as the game wore on and didn’t threaten their goal.
At the break, Moore will have been relatively happy with how the game plan was working out.
The home fans were becoming increasingly restless and the game continued along a similar pattern in the early stages of the second half.
The Fratton Park faithful thought they’d taken the lead seven minutes in.
Mirfin did well to clear in the six-yard box only to see the ball loop up and Wallace should have hit the target with his follow-up header.
Another let off but the winner came on the 60 minute mark.
Within a minute of Marlon Harewood coming on for Morgan, Tubbs had scored the winner. Ryan Taylor was given too much space by Harrison to cross from the left flank towards Tubbs – the smallest player on the pitch – who beat Jones at the near post to power home a header from six-yards.
They deserved it, no question.
A total of 183 Pools supporters made the 12-hour round trip to the south coast and they finally saw their team have a shot in the 69th minute.
Sadly it wasn’t on target.
Duckworth seeing his effort fly wide after the away side’s best spell of possession.
Fenwick then appealed strongly for a handball inside the are but the referee wasn’t interested with further clear cut chances minimal for either side.
Danny Hollands’ dipped effort just over Flinders’ crossbar was the nearest anyone came.
Jones up the other end didn’t have a single save to make all afternoon and if you don’t have a shot on target then you won’t win a game.
Pools were desperate going forward, the front two failing to hold the ball up and the wing backs never really got chance to get into the game.
Austin is a defender by trade and didn’t look comfortable in the wing back role while it took Duckworth until they scored to get forward with any purpose.
Moore has plenty to ponder over the next 24-hours before naming his side and formation for the visit of Northampton Town tomorrow night.
The back-to-back home games against Northampton and then Stevenage on Saturday were big before but now they are massive.
And it would be no surprise if Moore reverts back to the more attacking 4-3-3 formation on home soil.
Moore made the point afterwards that, while it would have been nice to pick up seven to nine points this week, for a team used to losing, that was never going to be easy.
But with 17 matches of the season left and a nine-point gap still to bridge, time is running out.
This coming week will go a long way to determining which league Pools are playing in next season.