Like a first attempt at intimacy after infidelity, the first night out after the death of a close family member, the first football since March was always going to feel different. We had to try it, a tentative step back towards normality, but what would that moment feel like? Nobody knew.
For most of the week, I didn’t feel anything, I was briefly swamped by a wave of ennui, tired of the world we currently live in. The constant rumble of catastrophe just beyond the horizon, and for many, in plain sight. The football seemed both pointless and distant. As the wave washed through, I held my breath and swam, I got on with it, until I resurfaced, because that’s what you do; that or drown, I suppose.
Football has always been a constant; while life oscillates – and it oscillates more wildly than ever now, the prospect of a game has always soothed the volatility, calmed the waters. It’s just there, something to aim for each Saturday, a rock to cling to. Then it wasn’t there and we drifted on a great swell of grim statistics, predictions and opinions about death and money and human rights. Now it’s back. Would crowdless, inaccessible football have the same effect? Would it provide that soothing balm? I kind of needed it to; but wasn’t sure it would.
I chose not to force it, I would lean into it, see what happened. As we edged towards the game, there was a stirring, a sense that something was happening. Even if it wasn’t going to be the same, it was going to mean something. By the time we got to Friday it was difficult to ignore; and, thankfully, it was genuine. For me, the Premier League is wallpaper, an entertainment medium, its return broke up endless re-runs of Come Dine With Me and Taskmaster. It was fine, but it didn’t help me in understanding how I would feel when it meant something more.
Of course, it was weird. Necessarily weird, but the fact the club were there meant something. A welcome old friend, one which is stoic and strong and dependable, a brief moment of hope. Frankly, there have been times when someone returning from Asda with a carload of shopping has made me feel like this, but it was no less welcome.
Tactically, strategically, operationally; there are no reference points as to how you handle this. The play-offs are notoriously hard to predict anyway, the science is poor. But with the fitness, the lack of crowds, the drinks breaks, increases in substitutions and the proximity of the games, how do you play it? Had the stands been full at Fratton Park, you’d expect to bed in, defend for your life, perhaps try to snatch a goal. But with two games effectively on neutral territory; do you stick to the script or go toe-to-toe?
At first it felt like we were trying to play the tie like a 120-minute game. Ease in, don’t blow up too early let the quality come, but it was too slow; James Henry couldn’t quite get his feet to do what his brain wanted them to do, passes were under hit, then over hit, players who would normally be making runs didn’t seem to be there. What looked like a controlled start, evolved into a stodginess. What looked like absorbing pressure, became desperate defending.
But then, is football always like this? Scrappy and disjointed? Does a crowd create the illusion of fluidity? Were we doing OK? More in control than it appeared? After about quarter of an hour the ball finally made it out to Marcus Browne. Where Henry is a master of trigonometry, Browne is a master of cartography. Give him the ball and he’ll find the quickest route from A to B; he surged down the wing, stretching the Portsmouth defence and opening us up to move the ball around, suddenly we looked more comfortable.
But there was little doubt that Portsmouth had adapted better; later Wycombe would sweep aside Fleetwood in the other semi-final, the most physical and straight forward team in the league, just getting on with it. This is no time for complexity. The Portsmouth goal was a product of a simpler plan; drive forward, find gaps, when they appear, test the keeper; Simon Eastwood looked rusty at first, so any shot was worth it. After half an hour, having already been saved by the post, they scored.
But you can’t sustain that directness for a whole 90 minutes, if we could weather the storm, there’d be chances. The euphoria of the breakthrough seemed to release the rush of adrenaline that fuelled their intensity. Almost immediately we looked more comfortable, they looked like they needed a breather, but we were just getting going, we moved the ball around, and it started to feel normal again.
This might offer some clues as to how to play these games – before the Premier League season resumed Pep Guardiola said his team were ready for their first game, it was after that they weren’t ready for. A physical, direct style is easier to prepare for, harder to sustain, unlocking the riddle of a high paced passing game needs game time to get right. As the games progress over the next week, the physical may naturally ebb away as tiredness creeps in, the influence of technique and tactics may grow as the muscle memory twitches, remembering what it has spent years learning.
This should grow the influence of James Henry and Matty Taylor. That would play to our advantage; the second leg and a potential final against Wycombe looks, on paper, to be a physical test, but by the time we face them, will Portsmouth and Wycombe have the legs to last the distance? Perhaps you need to look at the longer game – if you can survive the physical battle, will technique make the difference? Wembley is a big pitch, it might suit us.
Browne always looked most likely to make the difference, quick feet and an uncluttered mind, he found a path through their midfield and terrifying their defence. His quality is in the clarity of his thinking, while others try to play politics with each other, he sees the gap, the obvious answer, and goes for it. 1-1.
I yelped and scared the cat; it meant something. Thank goodness.
Portsmouth claimed numerous penalties; but none were as clear cut as they later claimed. VAR would have given them, claimed Paul Warne in the studio. Yes, the endlessly maligned fussy mood killer would have given them. But is that what you want? A game decided by precision technology and a fastidious addiction to the rules? We’re trying to raise people’s spirits here, give them hope.
While we have to be happy with a draw, home advantage won’t make much difference, so the outcome is still up in the air. But, in a sense, that’s fine, I’m happy that there’s a story here as much as anything. Had we won, we might have been swept up in the joy of the win, creating an illusion of everything being fine. Had we lost heavily, I’d have been lost in the futility of getting to this point in the first place. We stirred, it meant something, it was fine, we will survive; the spirit lives on. There’s something worth fighting for, it’s going to be OK.
For a few more days, at least.