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SWINDON TOWN: Ritchie's happy homecoming
ONCE upon a time Matt Ritchie must have dreamt of finding the bottom corner in front of the Fratton End.
Those dreams came true for the 23-year-old last night on the south coast, but for a former Portsmouth trainee who also supports the troubled Fratton Park club, hardly as he would have envisaged as a wide-eyed teenager.
Instead of firing his boyhood team to three points, Ritchie paved the way for Swindon Town to claim victory from their first visit to Pompey since the year 2000 and get their season back on track after three games without a win.
Ritchie scored a minute before the break after Mikkel Andersen in the home goal had kept his team in the game with a string of brilliant saves in the first half, while Andy Williams banished his personal demons by opening his account for the Robins 10 minutes after the interval to double Swindon’s advantage and effectively put the game beyond their hosts.
For 85 minutes Town dominated, passing their way around Pompey for fun and outclassing their opponents.
Portsmouth hit back late on with a final burst of passionate retort, spurred on by the sensational support of their fans, and Lubomir Michalik headed home in added time after Darel Russell nodded against the crossbar and Lee Williamson struck a post, to spark last-minute panic in the Swindon defence.
But their rally was much too little, far too late and Ritchie and Swindon go marching on. The match started at a frantic pace, with Swindon showing plenty of intent in the opening moments.
Williams nodded just over from Gary Robert’s cross after the winger’s mazy run down the left had bewitched several Pompey defenders, before Ritchie’s fizzing drive from 20 yards drew a decent save out of Andersen and neither the former Portsmouth man nor Williams could follow up on the rebound.
Jay McEveley almost produced a goal of the season contender when his 35-yard, dipping volley was beaten to safety by Andersen while, at the other end, Brian Howard appeared to have released Izale McLeod only for Wes Foderingham to sprint off his line to clear.
Williams thought he had broken his duck in a red shirt when he headed neatly home from Roberts’ left-wing cross, but the linesman had other ideas and raised his flag for offside.
Alan Navarro, returning to the Robins’ starting line-up after missing the Carlisle clash with a knee injury, saw his shot blocked in the 13th minute and when the ricochet fell to James Collins, the striker should have done better than allow Andersen to make a decent save low to his left.
Portsmouth withstood the early barrage well, however, and steadily began to make inroads of their own.
Howard and Jordan Obita saw shots blocked before McLeod volleyed over from Obita’s through-ball.
Foderingham had to be alert in the 20th minute to deny McLeod from 12 yards and only a brilliant block by McEveley prevented Williamson from ramming home the rebound.
Suddenly, Swindon slipped seamlessly into top gear.
Williams turned Michalik with ridiculous ease inside the area, spinning to bear down on Andersen’s goal only to see the on-loan Reading stopper get a left to his side-footed effort to somehow force the ball over the bar.
From the resulting corner, Collins rose majestically to head goalwards but, from point-blank range, Andersen’s reflexes took hold and the Pompey keeper clawed the ball away from his net, jumping to his feet to prevent Navarro from drilling home from a narrow angle.
Ritchie’s cross-cum-shot would have handed a tap-in to Williams but for Gabor Gyepes clearing slide tackle and, from the corner that followed, Gyepes produced a sensational headed clearance off the goalline to deny Roberts.
While using the word miraculous to describe the game’s goalless scoreline after 40 minutes would be dealing in hyperbole, Portsmouth had lived something of a charmed life in the opening period.
After their brief flirtation with the Town goal midway through the half, the hosts managed just a single attempt of any note in the remainder of the period, with Foderingham getting down well low to his right to paw McLeod’s drive out for a corner.
Despite Swindon at times playing scintillating football, Di Canio was evidently unimpressed with his team’s failure to find the back of the net and hauled off Collins with seven minutes of first 45 remaining.
Though the change did not directly affect a reversal in Town’s fortunes, the Italian could at least celebrate his side taking the lead in the seconds before the interval.
As if it were scripted, Ritchie popped up on the right hand side of the area to drill low inside Andersen’s near post.
The boy from Gosport, just a long ball from Fratton Park, refused to celebrate as he was mobbed by his teammates but it was perhaps the most crucial goal of the Robins’ campaign to date.
It sent Swindon back to the dressing room at the break with a buffer that they had yet to relinquish this term – the four previous times Town had taken the lead in 2012/13 they had gone on to win.
Williams wanted a penalty in the 49th minute when he fell in the area under the challenge of Michalik. It looked a good shout but referee Steve Rushton was having none of it.
After seeing his effort chalked off in the opening period, Williams could have been forgiven for letting his frustration get the better of him.
But instead the striker channelled although his pent-up energy, created by nine goalless games, into a moment of brilliance that doubled Town’s advantage.
Showing the turn of pace that has troubled the majority of his opponents so far this term, the 26-year-old darted down the left, turned Mustapha Dumbaya and Gyepes inside out, cut inside onto his right foot and picked his spot beyond Andersen.
And all that chatter about barren runs and confidence could quickly be consigned to history.
Though the game calmed somewhat for the middle part of the second period, it quickly became evident that Town were holding plenty in reserve.
In an explosion of pace, Williams left Jon Harley for dead down the right and his centre picked out Roberts who teed up Ritchie only for the winger to fire over.
Pompey staged a late rally, with Foderingham called into action to make a superb save from Howard after the Swindon defence dozed off and allowed McLeod to slide his captain in, while Russell headed against the crossbar from the resulting corner.
Foderingham almost caused himself embarrassment when he cleared against a Portsmouth attacker only to launch himself at the rebound, while Williamson somehow managed to hit the post from six yards.
With 60 seconds of four additional minutes played, Pompey gave themselves a ray of hope when Michalik was given the freedom of the Swindon area to head home from a corner. But it proved only a consolation.