Mansfield 1 Pompey 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Marc McNulty looks dejected as Mansfield celebrate their opener Picture: Joe Pepler
Marc McNulty looks dejected as Mansfield celebrate their opener Picture: Joe Pepler

The crowd had long since departed when Paul Cook settled into the home dugout.

A moment of quiet reflection, his thoughts punctured only by the drone of the Field Mill lawnmower during its rattling laps.

The necessity to recover his composure before publicly deconstructing Pompey’s latest choking performance prompted their manager to seek his own company.

Of his 47-game tenure so far, never had Cook outwardly appeared so demoralised.

Moments earlier, he emerged from the dressing room with bottle of water in hand to sooth his fractured voice after tearing into his below-par side.

Still visibly seething, Cook calmly asked the waiting media for a ‘couple of minutes’ before heading across the Mansfield pitch.

Never entirely comfortable in his post-match address where feelings are often so dangerously raw, on this occasion he sought out time to catch his breath.

The fury needed to subside, the equilibrium restored. Yet the temptation to rip off the mask must have been almost overpowering.

A sluggish draw at Mansfield during a period when victories are essential has left the Blues dropping a little further behind in pursuit of automatic promotion.

Bristol Rovers marched to a fifth successive triumph, while Accrington made it seven points out of nine since a comprehensive defeat to Pompey.

In contrast, Cook’s side have now picked up one point from their last two fixtures, occasions in which their performances have been bafflingly poor.

The erratic nature of the Blues’ season has long concerned, particularly the on-going failure to string together more than two league victories.

They may have collected the most wins in a campaign since 2007-8, yet 15 draws have anchored the team into a League Two role of also-rans during this promotion chase.

On Saturday, rarely could there have been a more undeserved point during Cook’s regime, such was the alarming inadequacy of his side.

Indeed, it took a fortuitus own goal from Ryan Tafazolli shortly before half-time to intervene, ironically during the Stags’ best spell of the match.

We had awaited a response to that dismal Newport County defeat, a sign in the skies to suggest a bright finale to the season lay in store.

What unfolded was a lacklustre reaction to raise more doubts over promotion credibility.

The Blues have slammed the gear into reverse since that notable Crown Ground victory, the encouraging build-up of momentum evaporated.

Clean sheets have deserted them, creating chances has become a struggle while, as the last two games testify, form has completely disintegrated.

At a time when several of their rivals are emerging strongly from the chasing pack to take advantage of Plymouth self-combusting, Pompey are locked in their own crisis of confidence.

It is reasonable to highlight that a gap of five points off third spot with nine games remaining ensures hope still exists.

Or as Cook labelled it to Radio Solent: ‘We might as well be five points off the moon at the minute’.

Cue his ire at his underachieving players inside that Field Mill changing room, before seeking sedation in a seat his opposite number occupied earlier.

Only the sight of Mark Catlin in the directors’ box stationed in the facing stand broke the spell of lengthy deliberation.

Pompey’s boss waved at the chief executive before returning across the pitch to make his company, where chairman Iain McInnes also waited.

Then it was finally onto carrying out his press duties, although firstly instructing Michael Smith and Christian Burgess not to fulfil their organised interviews.

‘The players aren’t speaking, we do too much talking in my opinion,’ was his reasoning.

It is the first time since arriving at Fratton Park Cook has taken such a stance, yet certainly there are many of the Fratton faithful who would agree.

At a time which Pompey’s players are required to show their worth, too many are shrinking away.

No amount of positive words and chest-beating speeches can rectify glaring inadequacies on the pitch which threaten to keep the club in League Two for a fourth season.

Even if the play-offs should arrive, the Blues’ inconsistencies still retain the potential to wreck.

And the manager’s patience has shown increasing signs of snapping during the past week.

For the trip to 11th-placed Mansfield, Cook recalled Michael Smith and Kal Naismith to his starting line-up.

With Gary Roberts sidelined by a one-match suspension following his sending off against Newport, Smith returned to lead the line.

Gareth Evans, who had recovered from the ankle injury which forced his off at half-time last weekend, dropped to the bench.

In came Naismith to occupy the right flank for his sixth start for the club as he continues trying to make inroads into Cook’s plans.

Meanwhile, Ben Tollitt came onto the bench, although once again there was no place for Ben Close following his sustained run in the side at the turn of the year.

Cook must have thought his team was getting off to the ideal start when they won a penalty after 21 minutes.

Enda Stevens slipped the ball inside to McNulty who wriggled past Daniel Alfei only to be brought down by the ex-Pompey loanee.

With regular penalty taker Roberts sat in the dug out courtesy of his suspension, top-scorer McNulty took on the duties.

Yet he was thwarted by Scott Shearer brilliantly flinging himself to his left to keep out the striker’s right-footed effort.

To add to the agony, within five minutes the Stags broke the deadlock through their leading scorer.

Debutant Manny Dieseruvwe, a midweek loan signing from Chesterfield, helped the ball on and Matt Green did the rest with an angled finish for his 12th of the campaign.

The hosts then seized the initiative forced Pompey in their own half as the strongly push for a second.

Yet on 43 minutes Ben Davies’ right-wing corner struck Tafazolli at the far post and entered the net, without a Blues body nearby.

The visitors did improve after the break, yet their creativity continued to frustratingly elude and a point it was, albeit in disappointing circumstances.

And certainly plenty for Cook to think about.