Andrew Bennett reporting from yesterday's 'events':
Saturday was a day of celebration for football. How so, you might inquire? Why, did you not notice? It was Non-League Day! All over the country, tiny pub teams with sheds for stands were polishing their tin pots, brushing down their anoraks and dusting down those old pennants from the Seventies when Spurs sent their youth team to thrash them out of sight in a pre-season friendly. It did not get a mention at the Abbey, but it was a little tempting to just utter a hushed prayer of thanks that United do not have to rub shoulders with the likes of Farsley Celtic, Hyde, Droylsden, Stafford Rangers, Hayes & Yeading, Alfreton Town, Grays Athletic, Histon, Nuneaton Town, Salisbury City, Northwich Victoria, Stevenage, Weymouth, Braintree Town, Eastbourne Borough, Bath City, Canvey Island and myriad other vanity projects and impoverished hopefuls any more. Apart from Stevenage.
Instead, the Football League found a new way to celebrate NLD: it sent us a non-League referee and linesmen. Newmarket Road has witnessed some dismal displays of ineptitude from some officials over the years (and the occasional good one), but Sebastien Stockbridge today took the proverbial cake, the iced buns, the eclairs, the doughnuts, the pastries, the baklava and every other item you’ve ever seen on the Great British Bake Off and wheeled them back to his pit for the mother of all feasts.
United have never fared very well against Portsmouth, but after a good start to the season, a sliver of hope was in the air after their last two home games resulted in a defeat to Exeter and a goalless draw with Yeovil. They did, however, have Matt Tubbs in their team, a player who had scored 9 goals in his last 5 league games against the U’s for Salisbury (2009-10) Crawley (2010-11), AFC Wimbledon and Portsmouth, both last season, including a hat-trick in THAT 6-2 embarrassment at the Abbey.
United line-up: Beasant; Omozusi, Legge, Roberts, Demetriou; Donaldson, Berry, J.Hughes, Dunk; Simpson, Corr
On the bench: L.Hughes, Taft, Taylor, Morrissey, Newton, Akintunde, Gaffney
Richard Money made three changes to the team which drew 2-2 at York last week, dropping Greg Taylor, George Taft and Liam Hughes and changing the formation to 4-4-2 with the introduction of Elliot Omozusi, Luke Berry and Robbie Simpson.
United have made slow starts to matches all too many times recently, but today they tore into Pompey from the start with pace and vigour, and they were rewarded in bizarre style within five minutes of kick-off. Simpson, playing off the shoulder of the last defender, was sent through by a pass from Berry and looked fairly clearly offside (yours truly was standing almost in line with him), but as the visitors hesitated, having seen the linesman’s flag go up, Robbie played to the whistle, raced through and tucked it past keeper Aaron McCarey, by which time the flag had been put down again. 1-0.
Cue bedlam amongst the Portsmouth players, who swarmed around the lino like wasps around treacle, but after consulting with him, the ref still awarded a goal, causing bad feeling amongst the visiting players and bench which would explode into controversy at the end of the half.
It was all United for the first 20 minutes, with Harrison Dunk an outstanding will-o’-the-wisp down the left flank, Simpson grafting tirelessly up front supported by Barry Corr, and Jeff Hughes finally showing why Money signed him by coolly marshalling the traffic in the midfield holding role. Corr was booked early on for a challenge by the Main Stand touchline, and the only thing the hosts’ play lacked in their period of dominance was a final ball that could find its man in the middle.
Pompey gradually played their way into the game with some neat passing to show why they have been in the promotion places for much of the season. Leon Legge headed wide for the U’s on 16, then Matthew Clarke’s nod from a free-kick drew a comfortable save from Sam Beasant, while a dangerous cross from Ben Davies on 22 cannoned off Omozusi’s shin and past the near post for a corner.
The visitors were mainly restricted to long shots on goal, Gary Roberts blasting over then Adam Barton giving Beasant another safe clutch, and although their build-up play was nice and tidy, the United defence stood firm without too much difficulty. United’s main attacking outlet was down the left where Dunk combined well with Mickey Demetriou, and on 39 the latter’s very deep free-kick was headed back into the six-yard box by Legge almost on the byline, but it was scrambled away. That infernal bell finally began to make itself heard from the away end, alongside the visitors’ only song. You know the one.
Gareth Evans summed up Portsmouth’s finishing with a wild shank at goal on 44 which almost went out for a throw-in, and the half ended with United having dominated then conceded ground to the visitors, but worthy holders of a one-goal lead which they looked determined would not be wrested from their grasp.
Then it all started to go horribly wrong. The ref was accosted by several Pompey players after he blew the half-time whistle in an aggressive, mildly threatening way, as if that would somehow make him change his mind and disallow the United goal 40 minutes late, and they were joined by assistant manager Leam Richardson, who had ran all the way across from the dugout to in front of the Habbin to get involved.
Mark Roberts then unwisely joined in and was pushed in the chest by Richardson, reacting angrily, then McCarey also came across and barged Roberts in the back with his arms around him; the United captain reacted by turning around and barging him back, to which the keeper reacted by falling to the ground as if hit by a steamroller, a shameful piece of playacting designed to get Roberts in trouble with the ref.
At first it seemed as if Stockbridge had reacted calmly to all this blowing off steam and everyone proceeded to the tunnel; but it transpired that once off the pitch, the pusillanimous man in black, now out of sight of the crowd, had shown red cards to both Roberts and Richardson, while McCarey got off scot-free. It was all so unnecessary, and as captain Roberts should have known better than to get involved in the first place, especially against professional wind-up merchants.
The first most people knew of it was when United lined up for the second half one man short, then sacrificed Simpson, who had enjoyed an exceptional first half, to bring George Taft into the back line. Richardson’s conduct was even more extraordinary than the referee’s, marching across the pitch to climb up to the camera gantry right in front of the United supporters to a predictably hostile welcome. After a few minutes he was called down and escorted to the main stand by two policemen, quite unfathomably preposterous conduct and a total embarrassment to his club, although one suspects his equally mouthy mate, manager Paul Cook, didn’t bat an eyelid. But then what can you expect from someone who can’t even spell ‘Liam’?
United lined up in a 4-4-1 formation and created the first scoring chance when Ryan Donaldson won the ball just outside his own box and embarked on a vintage mazy run right into the Pompey penalty area before seeing his low shot saved by McCarey. After that it was predictably all a bit backs to the wall, with Corr not proving to be a particularly mobile outlet, clearly not entirely match fit as yet.
Kyle Bennett headed wide on 49 but the U’s contained the visitors pretty well for a time, and the longer the match went on, the more hopes grew that they could hold back the tide for 90 minutes. Beasant made a good diving save from Bennett’s drive from the D on 61, then the visitors replaced Clarke with Adam Webster. Still United defended calmly, only for disaster to strike on 67 when Evans crossed from the right and Legge, under pressure from Tubbs, sliced it past Beasant and it curled agonisingly into the top corner. 1-1.
The never-reliable media seems to be calling it a Tubbs goal, but it was clear from the players’ reactions that it was an own goal; Legge looked mortified and was comforted by team-mates, while Tubbs wheeled away without much individual celebration. Two minutes later, however, the hit man did have his goal. Donaldson lost possession upfield, leaving a yawning gap behind him which was exploited by Gary Roberts, and his forward run culminated in a pinpoint diagonal pass for Tubbs to tuck past Beasant from close range. 2-1.
Defender Christian Burgess, an argumentative chap with a ridiculous topknot, had been pressed into service as a makeshift forward, but now withdrew back to defence as Portsmouth seemed inclined to sit back on their lead, even time-wasting whenever they could get away with it. United replaced a tiring Donaldson with Conor Newton and instructed Berry to push further forward in support of Corr, while Pompey replaced Bennett with Kai Naismith.
Bookings followed for Hughes and Davies, a little surprisingly because the ref had shown little appetite for giving much at all for fouls, particularly where United were concerned in his eagerness to make it up to the visitors for awarding Simpson’s goal as he heeded the endless ranting from Cook on the Portsmouth bench.
Corr had made very little impression in the second half as a lone front man and his obvious replacement was the in-form impact sub of the moment, Rory Gaffney; but Money’s mind seems to be wired differently to everybody else’s, so with seven minutes to go he hauled off United’s outstanding player, Dunk, and introduced another midfielder, Gearoid Morrissey, who is a very promising player but not what was needed at this juncture as United strove to chase the game against a team who were content to hold on to what they had.
United duly paid the price three minutes from time. Slipshod Stockbridge had been free and easy about where free-kicks were taken from all afternoon when he bothered to award them, and when he gave one halfway into the U’s half no-one on the home side seemed sure whether Portsmouth had taken it or not. It was slipped to Naismith, his shot cannoned off Omozusi’s back, looped into the air over the helpless Beasant, hit the bar, and who else but Tubbs was lurking to head an easy clincher. What a fluke: 3-1.
That was the cue for many part-time supporters to head for the exit; game over. Adam Barton was replaced by Nigel Atangana for the visitors, and as the match petered out in an atmosphere of bitterness and regret, the final act was another red card, and one that was thoroughly deserved, as Evans lost control of the ball and sent Omozusi flying into the air with a reckless studs-up lunge. Goodbye and good riddance.
It had been a thoroughly strange afternoon, from which United could take encouragement as far as the first half was concerned, but Portsmouth’s nasty, cynical gamesmanship left a bad taste in the mouth, while the bumbling, incompetent “referee” had got all of the major calls utterly wrong apart from Evans’ dismissal and might as well as have been a sock puppet with Cook’s hand up his fundament from half-time onwards. Were officials ever this bad in non-League? Hopefully Stockbridge will find out when he is relegated to the Slug and Lettuce 4th IV next week…
Mark Roberts is the third United player to be sent off this season. Last term the U’s did not reach three dismissals until 7th February when Cameron McGeehan saw red against Wycombe Wanderers.
The last time United reached three dismissals earlier than this season was in 2006-07, when they had Danny Carey-Bertram and Tommy Jaszczun sent off in August, Ritchie Hanlon sent off twice in September, and Trevor Robinson on 7th October. In all they had 9 men red-carded that season, equalling the club record of 2002-03. The other four were Andy Duncan, Paul Crichton (twice) and Christian Smith.
If Matt Tubbs is credited with a hat-trick today, even though he did not score one, he will be the second player to score thrice against the U’s this season after Jabo Ibehre for Carlisle. The last season in which United fell victim to more than one hat-trick was 2001-02, when there were three: Bobby Zamora for Brighton, Andy Liddell for Wigan and Lee Jones, who score five times for Wrexham. The highest number of hat-tricks United have conceded in one season in the Football League is four, during 1985-86.
United’s overall record against Portsmouth is dreadful. At Fratton Park they have never won, drawn once and lost six times in all competitions, while at the Abbey they have won just once, drawn twice and lost five times. That one win came in the Division Three promotion season of 1977-78, when they won 1-0 with a late Steve Fallon goal in front of a crowd of 5,896. The United team that day was: Malcolm Webster, Trevor Howard, Ian Buckley, Dave Stringer, Steve Fallon, “Willie” Watson, Gordon Sweetzer, Steve Spriggs, Floyd Streete, Alan Biley and Sammy Morgan (sub: Jamie Murray).
Today’s attendance of 6,607 is the second largest ever at the Abbey for a game against Pompey. The best was 9,492 in Division Two on 17th April 1992, when Steve Claridge and Richard Wilkins gave the U’s a two-goal lead, only for Martin Kuhl and Warren Aspinall to pull it back to 2-2. Teams:
United: Vaughan, Heathcote, Kimble, Dennis, Chapple, O’Shea, Raynor, Wilkins, Dublin, Claridge, Cheetham (Philpott) (Leadbitter)
Pompey: Knight, Awford, Daniel, McLoughlin, Symons, Burns (Powell), Neill, Kuhl, Butters (Wigley), Aspinall, Anderton
Beasant 6. Did OK and couldn’t be blamed for any of the goals, two of which were flukes.
Omozusi 6. One gets the impression that the best is yet to come from Elliot.
Legge 7. Unlucky with the own goal (I’m sure he won’t claim it) and otherwise sound as ever.
Roberts 7. Enjoyed a decent first half until he got involved in something he shouldn’t have, after which he fell victim to Portsmouth’s gamesmanship and the referee’s incompetence.
Demetriou 8. The boy is a class act.
Donaldson 7. Showed some good flashes in spells and hopefully his old form isn’t too far away now.
Berry 7. Always involved in the game and gradually getting back towards his best.
J.Hughes 7. A very tidy game with some good intercepting and cool, accurate passing.
Dunk 9. Absolutely outstanding.
Simpson 8. Magnificent, tireless first half and perhaps he shouldn’t have been the one who was sacrificed at half-time.
Corr 7. Always a menace by his sheer presence, although he was clearly not fully match fit.
Taft 7. Solid effort.
Newton 6. Busy but not influential.
Morrissey 6. Came on too late to really get into the game.
After a magnificent start United’s poor record against Pompey continued thanks to some poor decision making, wretched refereeing, cynical gamesmanship from the opposition and a healthy dollop of bad luck. Just another Saturday at the Abbey, then…
Man of the Match
Harrison Dunk. In the space of a year, Harrison has jumped from a weak link in the team to its best player, and today he was majestic at times, torturing the opposition with pace, skill and determination.
Stockbridge 1. From the offside non-decision for United’s goal to cowardly and unnecessary off-field red cards to his complete failure to exert any sort of control on the game, this nincompoop did not get a thing right all afternoon, except for the dismissal right at the end, and everyone from Portsmouth should buy him a drink for everything he did for them from the whistle at the end of the first half onward. The blithering buffoon gets one instead of zero just for sending off Evans.
Soundtrack of the Day
The Monochrome Set “Spaces Everywhere”
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