Dagenham 1 Pompey 4: Jordan Cross' match report
Pompey had been sent to the canvas with all the force of one of Anthony Joshua's mind-scrambling uppercuts.
And it wasn’t a blow by a worthy contender. Nothing more than a game and limited fall guy. The kind championship fighters are fed to look good.
Yet, a first-half battering based on very little craft had taken its toll. The Blues had been pummelled with the truth superior ability is worthless when it’s not matched with the desire of your foe.
The appetite for the fight was missing. The bid for automatic promotion was fading meekly against a team condemned to a Football League exit.
Was a side of Paul Cook’s really going out like this? Failing their gut check with a whimper.
The 1,659 travelling fans who outnumbered their home counterparts were certainly fearing so. And voiced their contempt at what they were witnessing.
With 50-odd minutes of the game played the east London air had now turned toxic.
This really was embarrassing. And that’s exactly what Pompey’s players were told as two sides of Victoria Road decked in royal blue spat their fury.
‘We got a roasting from our fans - and quite right,’ Cook reflected at the end of another dramatic - and quite possibly seminal - passage in this increasingly dramatic narrative for the 2015-16 campaign.
In the midst of crisis, though, you learn much about yourself.
Pompey looked deep within for the character to come back from the brink. The kind of character which separates winners from the humdrum.
Step forward Michael Doyle.
After having their spirit quite legitimately questioned, it was the figurehead of Cook’s team who found the answer.
Sometimes sheer determination can make the difference. Desire can trump ability.
Hunger, drive, indomitable spirit. Call it what you like.
That’s what was seeping from every pore of Pompey’s captain as he made the kind of run which was not his business to meet Gary Roberts’ textbook delivery perfectly, and haul Pompey to their feet from a standing eight count.
And all of that, we now hear, with a broken leg.
‘Michael’s a leader of men,’ said his gaffer in the aftermath of an afternoon which threatened to evaporate hope, before telling us just a little more about the Pompey we follow today.
Then came one of the most succinct statements of Cook’s 11 months at Fratton Park. The kind which tells he’s fast learning about the club he represents.
‘He epitomises what Pompey fans like: Pure will.’
And the best thing about that statement was he may not have been talking about Doyle.
He could have been referring to Gary Roberts. Anonymous for 45 minutes before standing up when the questions were being asked of him.
He could have been on about Christian Burgess. That classy defender who’s too good for League Two, but really should be threatening more from the set pieces his side don’t make enough of.
Or try the excellent Kyle Bennett. The cherry on the icing of the tastiest of cakes when things are going well. But what about when you are in the trenches?
We came to know more about these characters on Saturday.
The man who knows them best was adamant no one should ever question the constitution of his players. Consistency, yes. But not character.
But we were. And despite Cook words to the contrary, it was fair to feel like that.
An inconsequential opening against John Still’s side had somehow become an uphill struggle.
The Daggers were direct and committed. Striker Christian Doidge was limited, but competitive.
Matty Cash in the middle of the park was busy, but there were no frills. His partner Joss Labadie likewise.
In the space of four first-half minutes it all became too much for a side who should have been stamping their authority all over proceedings.
There were three quickfire warning signs before nippy little winger Ashley Hemmings delivered his classy little intervention to put the basement dwellers in front after 34 minutes.
The quality of his overhead kick had to be admired, as much as the freedom Justin Hoyte was afforded angered moments later. His free header should have made it worse.
But Pompey saw it through to the break just a goal behind, as we all tried to fathom why they were wanting so desperately.
Cook was kind enough to offer an insight into his words at the interval after the game. It wasn’t rocket science. Just a reminder of the traits of applying robust pressure which has been the hallmark of Pompey’s recent upturn in fortunes.
Roberts had been pushed further forward to support Michael Smith by that stage - an improving striker, who, in fairness, was one of the few to turn up for 90 minutes.
But it was the desire to start winning the second balls which made the difference. That and matching the vim and honest qualities of a Dagenham side punching above their weight. Like they all seem to do against Pompey.
Seeing Enda Stevens launch long throws into the box was a first, but was an insight it the nuances of how his side are adapting their play.
It wasn’t enough to silence the chants of ‘this is embarrassing’ though, as patience finally snapped among the away following.
It was un-Pompey like from the followers of the star and crescent. But not unjustified.
So fever pitch was reached. The pressure was claustrophobic. Roberts and Doyle aren’t the type to go missing, though.
And that they showed, as they combined for Doyle to volley the kind of leveller which we are hopefully all pinpointing as a sea-change moment by the time summer arrives.
From that moment, it was never in doubt.
The brittle confidence of a side familiar with that feeling of self doubt harmonised perfectly with a superior rival, who’d remembered what they were all about.
But set-piece quality hasn’t been one of Pompey’s defining qualities this season.
So, it was heartening to see Kyle Bennett’s pinpoint delivery met by a deftness of head from Burgess in the 69th minute. Then came sub Gareth Evans applying the final touch made easier by Bennett’s precision four minutes from the end.
There was still time for the invigorated Bennett to apply the kind of margin of victory Dagenham didn’t deserve, with a typical little piece of solo quality with a couple of minutes left.
And so that familiar pain we are all too aware of was alleviated, as we dug our phones out and looked for the League Two results at Saturday tea-time.
The information we received was positive, if not as favourable as it’d looked at times throughout the course of the afternoon.
The gap remains five points to the top three, but it’s tightening up at the top ahead of that mouth-watering showdown with Plymouth which is going to be every bit as critical as it’s always threatened.
It’s Accrington Stanley and their favourable run-in which is now making them look the most dangerous of Pompey’s rivals, but expect the promotion picture to shift again as it continually does.
What matters most is Cook’s side are offering the character to give us hope. And threatening the consistency to match, after grabbing that third league win on the bounce at last.
Their rivals don’t want to see the Blues juggernaut steaming into their rear-view mirror. They aren’t disappointing them.