How on earth do you respond to a 5-1 home defeat? That was the task for Mark Bonner last week, to lift the lads and re-instil a bit of that confidence in them that had seen us beat Bolton and Burton. Did he manage it? Does Barry Fry shit in the woods?
This was one of the biggest tests of Bonners short managerial career, to come back after your heaviest defeat and immediately have to travel to one of the most fancied clubs in the league, with over 15,000 Portsmouth fans backing their team to absolutely batter you. Oh, and he’d have to do it all without the talismanic Wes Hoolahan.
As expected United went one up front, Big Joe Ironside leading the line as always. Bonner packed the midfield, reverting to Tracey and Brophy on the wings, whilst Adam May added some more legs to the centre of the pitch. The defence was unchanged from that which struggled against Lincoln.
We’ve seen it a few times in this league now where the U’s are happy to try and control the game whilst out of possession, frustrating the opposition and pinning them deep, stopping them from having any meaningful chances. So far, it’s worked well for us, the Bolton game being a prime example as we saw just 26% of the ball. We had a bit more possession on Saturday, a practically balmy 37%, and made similar use of the ball, equalling Portsmouths eight attempts at goal.
United’s tactics paid off on 38 minutes, Shilow Tracey playing a neat back heel pass to George Williams, who whipped in a pinpoint cross onto the head of Big Joe to nod in his fifth goal of the season. Ironside’s goals were overshadowed a bit last season by those of Paul Mu££in, but it’s Joe who’s having the last laugh as he’s scoring in League One at Fratton Park, whereas Paul is hitting and hoping efforts against the likes of Dagenham and Redbridge. Still, at least the money’s good and Wrexham have been acting in a financially prudent way that will ensure their long-term survival when Ryan Reynolds gets bored, eh?
We doubled our lead twenty five minutes after half time, a corner was cleared only as far as the edge of the box, and we’ve all seen it haven’t we? Yep, Liam O’Neil was waiting to fire in an absolute unstoppable shot with his left foot, and he took off to celebrate right in front of the home fans. We’ve spoke before about Liam, and he’s certainly a player that divides opinion amongst the fans, but you can never doubt his strength of feeling for United (and his dislike of Portsmouth, by the looks of it).
Portsmouth pulled one back late in the game, setting up a nervy last twenty minutes (plus an even nervier seven minutes of injury time), but Bonner’s lads followed their instructions to a man, and saw out a famous win – our first ever at Fratton Park, and first against Portsmouth since 1978.
So, when everything went wrong last week, we did everything right this week. What was the difference? The obvious place to start is with our tactics, Bonner set the team up to control the game and I think we’re going to see a lot more of that this season. It’s not going to be sexy football, but if it keeps bringing us points at the likes of Portsmouth and against Bolton then who cares? Bonner gets a lot of credit for the result, but it’s also down to the players to show their discipline to carry out his instructions. Our centre backs were superb yesterday, Williams and Iredale too put the disappointing game against Lincoln behind them quickly, Adam May was superb alongside Digby and O’Neil in the middle, and Brophy and Tracey didn’t forget their defensive duties. Tracey especially (despite his lapse against Lincoln) is starting to really show what a great player he is when he tracks back, we all know how good he is going forward, but if he keeps up the defensive side of his game then he’ll continue to be one of the first names on the team sheet.
It’s also worth noting that no-one in this league is unbeatable. There’s big clubs down here for sure, but it’s almost October and we’re ahead of Ipswich, Portsmouth and Charlton in the table. We said it about Bolton last season, but teams are in League One for a reason, and we shouldn’t fear them. We mentioned in the podcast previously that these games against these ‘bigger’ clubs can pretty much be seen as ‘bonus’ points, in that no-one is expecting us to win there. It’s the games against Fleetwood, Morecambe, Shrewsbury etc where we need to be picking up points. But if we can continue to get these ‘bonus’ points, then maybe the season will pan out better than we all thought it might?
Man of the Match: From no-one deserving it last week to being impossible to pick this week. Literally any one of them could rightfully earn the coveted UTAS award this week, but we’ll go with George Williams – from having such a ‘mare against Lincoln to a performance like Saturday shows the measure of the man. Not only was his cross for our opening goal absolutely perfect, he was also there when Portsmouth scored, encouraging Tracey and Masterson, getting them back on their feet and focussed enough to see out the remainder of the game. Shoutouts also go to everyone else, but Adam May in particular.
Soundtrack of the Match: Anita Ward – Ring My Bell
United: Mitov, Williams, Jones, Masterson, Iredale, Digby, May, O’Neil, Tracey (Dunk), Brophy, Ironside (Smith)
Julian, Jack and Tom review a brilliant away day in the latest UTAS Podcast, as well as catching up with the one and only Greg Taylor. Listen now.