CHRIS HARGREAVES’ Torquay United turned their new drama, ‘Sleepless In Southsea’, into a notable triumph, beating League Two relegation rivals Portsmouth on merit in front of more than 15,000 stunned fans at Fratton Park on Saturday.
Up at 2am, after a flood-related alarm, and eventually transferred to a new hotel just before dawn, the Gulls made light of a night to forget to produce a performance to remember.
They did all the important damage in a first-half display that took the wind, which was in their faces for that first 45 minutes, out of Pompey’s sails.
United were rewarded by Billy Bodin’s opportunist 27th-minute goal, but Portsmouth could have had few complaints if Hargreaves’ men had gone in at half-time at least another goal to the good.
Then, in the second half, United knuckled down to resist the pressure that they knew would come and Pompey duly delivered.
Hargreaves made several big calls, before the match and during it. He started by leaving out Aaron Downes in defence, captain Lee Mansell in midfield and Karl Hawley in attack. The Gulls’ boss shifted Anthony O’Connor to centre-back, recalling Dale Tonge at right-back, and introduced Bodin and young Brighton loanee Shamir Goodwin on the wings, Goodwin for his full League debut.
The selection of Bodin and Goodwin also meant an attacking 4-4-2 formation, with the midfield entrusted to Damon Lathrope and Joss Labadie, who was made captain in Mansell’s absence.
The system matched Portsmouth’s plan and, from the first whistle, there was no ‘let’s keep things tight and see how it goes’. On a muddy pitch, sprinkled with sawdust, United went right at their hosts.
Kevin Nicholson was barely a foot off target with a 25-yard free-kick, and in the 19th minute Jayden Stockley, supplied by Bodin down the left, forced Trevor Carson to parry and Elliot Benyon was inches away from converting the rebound.
The breakthrough came in the 27th minute. Labadie drove past two opponents to the right byline and crossed. A deflection foiled Stockley’s attempt to finish, but Bodin was at the far post to volley in with his right foot from eight yards out. It was Bodin’s first goal of the season.
Five minutes later O’Connor, who had another outstanding match alongside the equally resolute Krystian Pearce, went in where it was guaranteed to hurt to stop Romain Padovani from heading home Marcos Painter’s left-wing cross.
Tonge got a challenge on Jed Wallace wrong, to concede a dangerous free-kick, but seconds later he made up for that slip by coming up with an important block to keep out Ricky Holmes’ goalbound shot.
Yet United also had more chances before the interval – Labadie’s shot from a Tonge cross deflected wide off Ben Chorley and Pearce went close with a shot from Bodin’s corner.
Even with the wind behind them, United must have known what the second half held in store. They were not disappointed.
Playing towards Fratton’s ‘home’ West End, Pompey cranked up the pressure.
O’Connor just beat Jake Jervis to make a key clearance. Holmes fired not far wide from 25 yards. But so well did United maintain their discipline, and so hard did they work to keep Pompey at bay that they allowed few, if any, clear-cut chances.
Michael Poke, whose handling was immaculate in testing conditions, did not have a serious save to make.
By the time Poke got right behind a Wes Fogden 20-yard effort five minutes from time – it was never going to beat him – both managers had made a series of substitutions, and once again Hargreaves came up with the goods.
He bolstered his midfield, sending on Mansell and Tom Cruise out wide for Goodwin and Bodin, and introduced new loan signing Aiden O’Brien for centre-forward Stockley, who was one of many who put in a real shift.
It meant that Pompey still had to break down the old ‘two banks of four’.
Their pressure nearly did it. Referee Dean Whitehouse turned down ‘handball’ appeals when Patrick Agyemang slammed the ball against Nicholson’s arm, which was protecting his face, from point-blank range.
Chorley and Fogden did blaze good chances over as the match moved into stoppage-time, but, if there was any fortune flying about, United had more than deserved it.
It was the first time they had avoided defeat in five visits to Fratton Park, and Bodin’s goal was the first they had ever scored there.