Portsmouth v Leeds United: Electric super sub powers up Whites

HMS Ark Royal breathed her last in Portsmouth on Saturday, decommissioned after 25 years. The city's electrical grid then proceeded to do the same, casting intermittent darkness over Fratton Park.

Portsmouth Football Club are prone to negative coverage at the best of times and three separate power cuts caused angst on two fronts by threatening to render inconsequential their league game against Leeds United and inviting jokes about the lights going out on Pompey.

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Reports of that nature were literally true on Saturday, even if financial strife – the cause of most negativity in Portsmouth – has failed to short their fragile circuit.

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The Championship fixture limped over the finishing line at 5.07pm after two separate delays, a further failure of Fratton Park's floodlights and lingering doubt about whether Anthony Taylor, the match referee, would be able to draw the chaos to an acceptable conclusion.

Steve Cotterill, Portsmouth's resilient manager, had cobbled together a squad of 16 players beforehand, his choices restricted by everything from suspensions to contractual idiosyncrasies. It has been this way all season on the south coast and he did not see the funny side.

"I know what the headlines will be," he said, "but the lights are still burning here. That could have happened at any ground in the country and if we'd been playing away from home, no-one would have heard about it."

Leeds United's supporters, as sympathetic as ever, did the work of the headline writers with mocking taunts of "pay up Pompey" and "you forgot to pay your bills" after the floodlights dimmed in the 52nd minute.

Portsmouth were at pains to point out that neither that nor subsequent failures midway through the second half and two minutes from the end were the fault of the club, blaming a localised power cut instead. "I've never been involved in anything like it," said Simon Grayson, United's boss.

He and Cotterill were almost agreed that the repeated loss of illumination, and the unavoidable stoppages, exerted no influence over the final scoreline. Grayson claimed that the power had dropped off in a half when his players were "in the ascendancy" but he was as willing to admit that Leeds had done a good job of losing the game before the supply of electricity became an issue. A 2-2 draw struck him as fair and agreeable, all things considered.

Cotterill has had many hard days in his job but Grayson met complications of his own last week, waylaid by a schedule that told for 45 minutes in Portsmouth.

The decision to fly United's squad to the south of England on Friday avoided an arduous coach trip but it provided no answer to the mental fatigue caused by Wednesday night's FA Cup replay with Arsenal at Elland Road.

Scrutiny of Leeds' physical condition was convenient but misplaced; a dearth of imagination did more to ruin their first half. The absence of their typical sharpness compounded Portsmouth's energetic mood, embodied on the half-hour by Max Gradel's failure to anticipate an inviting through-ball from Luciano Becchio.

Grayson conceded that, with half of the match gone, his squad were fortunate to have a result within their grasp, trailing by a solitary goal.

But when their switch flicked at the start of the second half, Becchio scored his 14th of the season and a battleline was drawn. "As the game went on, I could only see one team winning it," said Grayson, evidently meaning his.

Becchio's appearance at Fratton Park was the result of a successful examination on his back injury on Friday morning, but Andy O'Brien's hamstring strain had made him a non-starter from the moment he relieved himself from Arsenal's visit to Leeds.

Without the experienced centre-back, attention drifted towards a revised defence including Leigh Bromby, and the initial portents gave rise to concern. John Utaka failed by inches to convert Kanu's near-post cross in the second minute, the start of a half which descended downhill.

Before Joel Ward tucked Liam Lawrence's lay-off into the corner of Kasper Schmeichel's net, Greg Halford nodded a header against the Dane's crossbar and two chances to beat Ward to the punch eluded David Nugent. Portsmouth's decision to attack Leeds directly struck a nerve, with the taller figure of Neill Collins consigned to Grayson's bench.

Ward's finish in the 26th minute was still the result of deft skill, carefully placed to the right of Schmeichel from 20 yards. Lawrence had taken advantage of an absent Paul Connolly on the left wing by attacking Bromby and persuading the defender to hold back from a risky tackle inside his own penalty area.

Schmeichel averted a second concession two minutes later with typically dramatic reactions, meeting Utaka's shot with a firm hand, and Grayson immediately set about rearranging his team by pairing Gradel with Becchio up front and moving Sanchez Watt to one side of a four-man midfield. The effect of the reshuffle was not felt at Portsmouth's end of the field but it immediately offered Schmeichel some overdue protection.

Gradel's early volley – parried by Jamie Ashdown – was the only suggestion of a goal from Leeds, though Jonathan Howson curled the ball wide of the keeper's left-hand post from a position on the edge of the box where his shooting is often proficient. "A second goal for us in the first half would have killed the game," said Cotterill afterwards.

United's victory at Burnley on December 11 said otherwise but those listening took his point. Portsmouth were never so dominant again.

Seventy nine seconds was all the time Leeds required after the interval to force their first equaliser of the game.

Carl Dickinson, Portsmouth's left-back, incurred a free-kick and the goal it yielded by handling the ball in view of a linesman who felt the edge of Cotterill's tongue. "It was a poxy decision," said Portsmouth's boss. Robert Snodgrass' delivery of the set-piece reached the far post where Howson's delicate touch presented Becchio with a gift of a chance.

The contest suddenly showed no end of promise but trouble was afoot.

In the 52nd minute the floodlights around Fratton Park flicked off for the first time, compensated only by enough natural light for Taylor to wave play on. He and the players around him suspected that the sporadic supply of electricity would trouble them again but two further goals

materialised before a source of merriment became a pressing concern.

Utaka re-established Portsmouth's lead with 61 minutes played when Connolly and Alex Bruce left Ashdown's long clearance to each other, eight yards in front of Schmeichel, but Grayson's haste in calling Davide Somma from the bench immediately was vindicated when the striker scored with his first meaningful touch, just as he had against Scunthorpe last weekend.

His left-footed shot followed a swift exchange of passes between several players and beat Ashdown hands down, bringing up his ninth goal of the season. The greatest irony in United's squad is that a forward with an average one goal from every two appearances should have started only a single competitive game since the end of October.

Ten minutes later, Fratton Park was consumed by gloom again and Taylor had no option but to suspend the fixture.

Both sets of players remained on the field for the time it took to restore power.

At the resumption, Ibrahima Sonko's concentration failed him when he headed Halford's corner wide but Ashdown's held as he beat a Howson volley around his goal.

Unanimous annoyance spread throughout the ground when the lights fell for a third time in what most observers calculated was the 88th minute. The stadium announcer stated that a further three would be played, and Taylor sensibly called a halt at the earliest opportunity. It seemed possible before the final whistle that the game might continue all night.

In the circumstances, Grayson understandably placed high value on United's point. It was significant also that Leeds should retain fifth position in the Championship on an afternoon when so many of the club around them fared better.

Further satisfaction was offered by a throwaway remark from Cotterill, stating that his 18th-placed side "aint got many more losses in us if we want to make the play-offs". Members of the chasing pack are beginning to feel the pace.

Portsmouth: Ashdown, De Laet (Rocha 54), Halford, Sonko, Dickinson, Lawrence, Ward, Mullins, Utaka, Nugent, Kanu. Subs not used: Flahavan, Hreidarsson, Ciftci, Kilbey.

Leeds: Schmeichel, Connolly, Bromby, Bruce, McCartney, Snodgrass, Howson, Watt (Somma 62), Johnson, Gradel, Becchio. Subs not used: Higgs, Collins, McCormack, Paynter, Parker, Sam.

Referee: Anthony Taylor (Greater Manchester).Attendance: 20,040.

Liam Cooper. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

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