Portsmouth (Umotong, Wilson, Clark) 3-1 Queens Park Rangers (Rudman, pen)
And so it goes down to the final Sunday. Portsmouth shrugged off the handicap of playing nearly an hour of their crucial penultimate Premier League game against Queens Park Rangers with only 10 players to seal a hard-earned win that takes them to within a point of the championship.
In a match where the emphasis was more on the result than how it was achieved, Perry Northeast’s side finally overcame the challenge of a resilient QPR – and did it without their first-choice goalkeeper, Sadie Blakely, for the last 54 minutes after she saw red – and then two yellows.
Or rather, one red, after the referee sent her off for dissent for disputing the penalty awarded against her for a foul on Natalie Adams – but failed to indicate that it was for two bookable offences.
The decision enraged the Portsmouth camp, who felt that had the official – one Harry Redman – shown Blakely a yellow card straight away, the goalkeeper would not have reacted so angrily and earned herself the second yellow that brought her her marching orders.
Northeast told Sent Her Forward: “I think the whole ground would have reacted differently. [Queens Park Rangers] would accept it was a yellow. There would be no eruption.”
Blakely – and the club – now face an agonising wait to hear when her punishment takes effect, with the title decider against West Ham United just a week away and a potential play-off for a Super League place due to be played a couple of weeks later.
But for all the fuss over the referee’s actions, the fact is that Pompey shot themselves in the foot.
They had just scored a second to calm a few nerves after struggling to convert their early pressure into goals. A lack of concentration immediately left them exposed from the restart, and while Blakely feels she got the ball after being left one-on-one with the on-rushing Adams, she could easily have seen a straight red after Redman awarded a penalty.
The vehemence of Blakely’s reaction gave the official little option but to do what he might have done originally and send the goalkeeper off, jeopardising her side’s chances of taking the three points they needed to stay ahead of Brighton in the title race.
After Gemma Rudman sent her superb spot-kick past the dive of substitute goalkeeper Courtney Trodd to narrow the gap to 2-1, her action could have proved costly.
Instead, Pompey weathered the storm – something that pleased Northeast – and played some of their best football of the match, making light of being a player down.
Now Portsmouth need only a draw from their final match, at home to West Ham next Sunday, to pip Brighton to the championship after James Marrs’ team stayed in contention with a 5-1 victory at Keynsham Town.
Pompey started off on the right foot, striking woodwork within four minutes of the kick-off. Charley Wilson capitalised on an error by Rudman to squeeze in a shot that hit the far post and rebounded beyond the approaching Ini Umotong’s reach.
A few minutes later, they strung together a neat move after Umotong won the ball in midfield and played it to Wilson, who nodded the ball back into her strike partner’s path, but the Nigerian international was crowded out.
However, the passing sequence was proving a rarity in a patchy opening, where the tricky pitch, soaked by morning rainstorms, caused problems for both sides.
The long ball was the preferred method of attack, with defenders finding it difficult to turn on the greasy surface, and from one such foray, it took a brilliant tackle by Michaela Lopes to deny Umotong as she latched on to an astute ball that cleared the Rangers back line.
After winning three early corners without any tangible reward, the home side managed a couple of shots on goal in quick succession. On 14 minutes, Wilson fired over from eight yards after Ellie Bloomfield had done well to win possession.
Three minutes later, the Pompey captain again got into a shooting position, 20 yards out, but her on-target effort was brilliantly held at full stretch by Jo Ayre.
The visitors were restricted to only occasional incursions into Pompey territory, and much of ther positive play came from Sophie Fogarty, who won her fair share of tackles in midfield and patrolled the flank energetically.
But Wilson was proving a real threat for QPR, pulling defenders all over the field but failing to find her range with a succession of shots.
In the 24th minute, Pompey again went close when Molly Clark curled a free-kick from just outside the area narrowly wide.
Within a minute, their pressure paid off, though, with Umotong the poacher, grabbing the 30th goal of a prolific first season with the Hampshire club.
Sarah Kempson delivered a superb ball into the QPR box. It just eluded Wilson and reared up off the surface, hitting Umotong in the face. Ayre parried the ricochet, but Umotong reacted fastest and scrambled the ball home.
It was a fair reflection of the opening quarter, yet a minute later it could have been all square, Portsmouth failing to recover their concentration after their goal, leaving Fogarty free in the Portsmouth box. She controlled a high ball brilliantly and shot low to Blakely’s right, but the goalkeeper got down well to make a crucial save and preserve her side’s lead.
Portsmouth responded immediately, Nadine Bazan racing forward from her left-back berth , but she was foiled by a superb tackle by the immaculate Vanessa Nicholson.
Still Portsmouth flooded forward, and Wilson again threatened with a great turn and cross, but Ayre punched it to safety.
Then Gemma Hillier, who temporarily had swapped roles with Bazan, demonstrated her eye for a pass with an astute ball into the path of Umotong, but the goalscorer screwed her shot from a narrow angle well wide.
From yet another corner, Kempson fired wastefully over. And then, after great play by the same player, she sent a cross to the far post where Hillier, showing excellent technique, volleyed just over the bar.
On 34 minutes Wilson set up Bloomfield, but the youngster’s first-time shot on a bobbly pitch flew wide.
With Brighton winning their game at Keynsham comfortably, Portsmouth needed a second goal to reflect their superiority and enable the players to settle.
And it duly came on 35 minutes when Umotong shrugged off Lopes’ challenge and flighted a delightful cross from the right, which Wilson expertly headed beyond the reach of Ayre to make it 2-0.
It was just the tonic Pompey needed, having shown only occasional glimpses of their passing game.
But 60 seconds later their fine work was undone. Still distracted by their second goal, Pompey failed to track Adams’ run, and as she chased another long ball, she and Blakely collided. The referee awarded a penalty, and after several minutes’ delay as the goalkeeper made her feelings known, Redman showed her the red.
Shannon Sievwright was the unlucky sacrifice, enabling third-choice goalkeeper Trodd to don the gloves. Her first task was to face Rudman‘s penalty, and although she dived the right way, the centre-back’s kick was perfectly placed, and Rangers were back in the match.
The goal stung Pompey back into action, and on 42 minutes, Umotong turned smartly but fired over. Then, as the game moved into time added on, Kempson squared the ball for Bloomfield, but again her effort went wide.
Kempson again delivered superbly, from a free-kick, but the ball just eluded both Umotong and Rutherford.
And as the referee prepared to bring the eventful first half to an end, Nicholson again saved Rangers, her last-ditch intervention denying Umotong a shot on goal.
Half-time: Portsmouth 2-1 QPR
It was a very different Rangers who shot out of the blocks after half-time as the visitors attempted to take advantage of their extra player.
Almost straight from the kick-off, Bazan slipped trying to cut out Rudman’s long pass, letting Adams in with only Trodd to beat. But she, too, slipped, and the gilt-edged chance went begging.
Then Fogarty made progress down the left, but with Jess Frampton pressurising her, the number 11 was forced to shoot early and the ball sailed wide.
With Rangers sensing an equaliser, Lauren May, who had played in a withdrawn role in the first half, was pushed up to centre-forward, but for all their enterprise, they failed to carve out clear-cut chances or to test Portsmouth’s stand-in ‘keeper.
In the 57th minute, however, Fogarty dispossessed Frampton and sent Adams away, but once again there was no end-product.
Approaching the hour mark, Pompey finally responded, Frampton hitting a left-foot shot wide from 20 yards.
In the 62nd minute, a defensive mix-up earned Portsmouth a cheap corner – their first of the half. Clark’s brilliant inswinger looked to be going in, but Ayre, caught out of position, managed to palm it away, but only into the path of Wilson, whose volley from four yards was wayward.
Both sides made substitutions in quick succession, Rangers replacing Lopes with Kasha Petit on 65 minutes and then Lucy Quinn coming on for Umotong, who had started brightly on the right of a three-player attack but had begun to fade.
Almost immediately, Quinn was robbed and Rangers broke, and as Trodd raced out to challenge May, the two collided. But this time Redman saw nothing wrong with the challenge.
Quinn atoned for her mistake in the 70th minute with a great run down the right and a cross that Ayre chose to punch to safety.
The substitute was making the impact Northeast had hoped for, posing Rangers’ defence problems with her pace and ability to use both feet.
But it was from the other side of the pitch that Pompey engineered their third in the 74th minute to finally kill off QPR’s resistance, with the best goal of the game.
Hillier for once failed to control the ball, but it was cleared only as far as Clark, 25 yards from goal, and she hit a screamer that arrowed into the bottom corner, with Ayre unable to get across.
Martino Chevannes complained afterwards that a Portsmouth player in an offside position was obscuring his goalkeeper’s view, but the goal stood.
The home side were in the ascendancy and in no mood to surrender a valuable lead.
Kempson shot wide after more good work by Quinn, who then fired a fierce drive from the right that was not too far over.
Kempson again tried her luck from distance after a demoralised Rangers defence failed to close her down, but she shot wide.
But suddenly, out of nowhere, the visitors almost pulled one back.
With just a minute of normal time left, May fired an effort that hit Frampton’s leg and looped over Trodd and on to the roof of the net.
The final action of the game was the substitution of Hillier deep into stoppage time to appreciative applause from the Pompey fans for another wholehearted performance.
It wasn’t pretty, but even with a player light, Portsmouth were too powerful for a QPR side comfortably ensconced in mid-table following their promotion last summer.
They struggled to settle in the first half an hour, despite taking the lead, and the penalty incident threw them out of their stride just as they were beginning to play with confidence.
Rangers looked to make use of their extra player after half-time, but after Portsmouth weathered the storm – which in all honesty was more a heavy squall – they settled into a more familiar game, combining passing and pace to stretch their opponents.
His side may have had a player sent off, but Northeast felt he still had 11 players out there – attributing the team’s revival after the sending-off to the club’s enthusiastic, partisan crowd.
He told Sent Her Forward: “The crowd have got a massive part to play in that. Atmospheres at ladies’ games are often a bit different to [at] men’s. But this is no different [from crowds at men’s games]. Not in terms of nastiness and horrible chants; more that you hear the chants and that helped them.
“It really did. You hear ‘Play Up Pompey’ or ‘Blue Army’ and it makes you quicker, it makes you stronger; it makes you taller; it makes you more focused.
“As soon as the crowd lifted, [the players] lifted. I think there’s a correlation there between the two. It was like we got [a player] back – Pompey’s 12th man.”
Northeast now has to decide how best to approach next Sunday’s final game, at home to West Ham, who have taken points off all Pompey’s promotion rivals in recent weeks, aware that a draw would be enough to lift the title, with Portsmouth three points clear of Brighton, who have a superior goal difference.
He said: “We won’t approach the game any differently. We’re the home side. Whether it’s the first game of the season or the last game of the season, you have to treat the game in a similar way.
“We do know West Ham pose a great threat. They’re a good team, and they will pose a threat, no doubt about it. But we’ll train. We might put together something slightly different this week, so perhaps we’ll have a little shuffle, both shape-wise and personnel-wise. But that’s part of the fun.”
Chevannes was proud of his under-strength side’s efforts, but conceded Portsmouth deserved their victory – if not all their goals.
He told Sent Her Forward: “I think from the outset we could have won the game. I think today the 3-1 scoreline didn’t reflect the game, and to be honest I’m a bit disappointed with their third goal.
“That killed it for us, and you’ve got a player standing in front of the goalkeeper, clearly in an offside position. The assistant said she was standing on her shoulder, but it has clearly impaired her vision and she’s been unable to go for the shot.”
He added: “I take nothing away from Portsmouth. They went down to 10 players and they continued to fight and battle. But we gave a good account of ourselves and ran them close.
“We’re a bit disappointed that we didn’t capitalise on the opportunities that came our way.”
Chevannes is happy that they achieved his aim of survival and consolidation in their first season back in the Premier League. But he added: “Moving forward, we want to be looking up rather than thinking about surviving each season.”
But he acknowledged that the team needed strengthening. “We have got a very small squad. Today we had five of our reserves playing. They’ve given their all today and put in a creditable performance.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Vanessa Nicholson (QPR)
So hard not to award it to the workaholic Gemma Hillier, whose smart brain and ability to deliver astute passes helped undo Rangers. But given the pressure the visitors had to absorb from the likes of Hillier, Wilson, Umotong and then Quinn, Nicholson’s performance at the back deserves recognition.
She refused to be bullied in the air by Umotong, and made some vital tackles and interceptions to stop marauding Pompey attackers in their stride.
Alongside her, Gemma Rudman also battled hard as Wilson and co pulled the Rangers defence around, while Fogarty was excellent, both creating and breaking up attacks.
For Portsmouth, Wilson, Quinn and Umotong also caused problems, and Molly Clark took her goal extremely well. And if it hadn’t been for Blakely‘s smart save from Fogarty, just after Pompey had taken the lead, who knows what might have happened?
Sent Her Forward match rating: 6/10 Not sure whether it was the rain-affected pitch and its inconsistent bounce or the nerves of being so near glory, but the match was no great spectacle. Then again, at this stage of the season, that’s hardly top priority.