By Marcus Chippindale
Portsmouth got off to a stuttering start to their League Two campaign as the pre-season favourites were held to a 1-1 draw by 10-man Carlisle United at Fratton Park.
Paul Cook’s energetic side had an extra man for more than an hour, but despite all their attacking prowess, could not find the winner their supporters expected.
As far as the club and fans are concerned, after three fruitless seasons in League Two, this really has to be the one that ends in promotion for Pompey. The bookies have installed them as favourites to win the league, but that was case last season.
Then, Cook’s team ended up losing their play-off semi-final against Plymouth, an injury time Peter Hartley goal condemning an exhausted Pompey to their fourth season on the lowest rung of the Football League ladder.
It was a season of fine margins: too many late goals conceded, too many chances that should have been taken gone begging.
Cook has been well backed by the board in the summer and recruited wisely for his second season at Fratton Park.
There are 11 new faces, including strikers Noel Hunt and Michael Smith, midfielder Danny Rose, who won the league with Northampton last season, and the versatile Drew Talbot. Goalkeeper David Forde has also been recruited on loan from Millwall, a position that has been a headache for the club.
The end result of the 2015/16 was disappointing, but forgivable for most of the Fratton faithful. They might not be so understanding if this one doesn’t end in promotion.
There were six new signings in the starting line-up against Carlisle and while they might take time to settle in, there was plenty of promise, particularly the attacking flair of new boys Carl Baker and Milan Lalkovic, who were the stand-out performers.
It wasn’t, however, an easy day out for the hosts.
A long ball over the top in the 14th minute was knocked down into the path of new Carlisle signing Reggie Lambe, who burst into the box and fired low past Forde to give the visitors a surprise lead.
Just as a few murmurs of discontent started to emerge from the 17,000-strong home crowd, Jamie Devitt was sent off for a second yellow card after just 28 minutes.
Under 10 minutes later, Pompey were level through a neatly-worked goal. Good work from Lalkovic on the right side of the box allowed him to slide the ball into Gary Roberts’ path. He pulled it back to Baker, who struck the ball low into the net through Mark Gillespie’s legs.
Baker should have had a second moments after the break, but fluffed his lines from eight yards out.
Reduced to 10 men, Carlisle struggled to create any openings and instead had to soak up the pressure, with three Baker efforts failing to find the net. With time ticking away Rose hit the post and substitute Kyle Bennett, Baker and captain Michael Doyle were all denied by Gillespie.
Cook’s side showed their potential, albeit against 10 men, but in the end it was a similar story to many games last season, with Portsmouth failing to get a winner in a match they controlled.
Their fans will hope this campaign is not marred by the same features that dashed their hopes last time out.