MICKY Adams admitted football can be “a strange old game” on the eve of his team’s outing at Fratton Park.
There was nothing weird about the result as Portsmouth, who, after a troubled start, are now one of the Championship’s most formidable propositions, extended their winning sequence to six courtesy of Hermann Hreidarsson’s early strike.
But the Sheffield United manager and his players were at a loss to explain how their industrious if not inventive display failed to conjure the victory required to reinvigorate a season which seems increasingly likely to end in relegation.
While Adams, still searching for his first victory since taking charge of the South Yorkshire club over two months ago, recounted a familiar tale of missed opportunities and woeful marking, Stephen Quinn mounted the case for the defence.
An irrepressible presence in midfield, the flame-haired Irishman insisted United retain both the tenacity and the talent to avoid the drop.
But only, he insisted, if they sharpen up at both ends of the pitch.
“When we went over to the fans at the final whistle they didn’t boo us,” said Quinn. “Because they could see that we’re giving absolutely everything.
“The same goes for the gaffer in the dressing room afterwards. He knows that the effort is there.
“Pompey are being tipped for promotion but, after the break especially, I thought we made it look like they are the ones down towards the bottom of the table.
“We all know what the problems are. We’re just so vulnerable at set-pieces it’s untrue and that’s got to stop.
“At the same time we’re not scoring enough goals. It sounds like we’re miles away but if you analyse the performances then I honestly don’t think that’s the case.
“We had them under the cosh and we should have come away with something. Fact is, though, that we didn’t and that must change.”
Adams acknowledges that free-kicks and corners are United’s “Achilles heel”. On this occasion the latter was their undoing with Hreidarsson prodding home from close range after United, who remain six points adrift of safety in 23rd, failed to deal with David Cotterill’s centre.
It was another reminder of just how much Chris Morgan’s leadership is missed.
Despite nursing torn knee ligaments, United’s captain travelled south in a show of solidarity with his embattled colleagues. But, confined to the stands until August at the earliest, he could only watch as they slipped to a fourth successive defeat.
“We had a meeting in the hotel the night before and everyone is sticking by each other,” said Quinn.
“Morgs even came down to have his say and that proves just how committed we all are. We still believe in ourselves and we’re right behind the gaffer.
“There are 11 games left now and six of those are at home. I reckon we’ve got to look at trying to win five of those. It sounds a lot but we’re still in a positive frame of mind. We’ve got to be.”
While United, who entertain Nottingham Forest tomorrow, counted the cost of Morgan’s absence, Portsmouth were inspired by a talisman of their own.
Steve Cotterill, Adams’ managerial rival, admitted afterwards that Hreidarsson’s contribution at both ends of the pitch had helped swing the contest in his side’s favour.
Having punished United’s indecision midway through the first period, the Icelandic veteran also proved instrumental in ensuring the hosts claimed a record sixth consecutive clean sheet.
Richard Cresswell and Neill Collins both tested Jamie Ashdown after Hreidarsson had prodded home from close range. But, for all their possession, United failed to create enough noteworthy openings to ever seriously threaten Portsmouth’s chances of going 10 hours without conceding a goal.
Hreidarsson also headed Dave Kitson’s pass wide moments before the interval while the former Reading centre-forward drew a fingertip save
from Steve Simonsen soon after the re-start.
That was United’s cue to seize control but only Quinn - dragging wide from an acute angle - and Collins - climbing high to meet Bjorn Helge Riise’s cross - went close.
“The only problem with Hermann is that he’s 36,” Cotterill said. “I asked my lads afterwards ‘how is it that someone of his age can always beat you to the ball in both boxes?’
“I’d have loved to have worked with him when he was 26, that’s for sure.
“United looked fresher than us and they showed they are ready to fight for their lives.
“But Hermann is the type of character you want in situations like that.
“You know that, come what may, he’s going to stick his head in where it hurts.”
A point? I think that would have been the very least we deserved. There were long periods where we pushed them back but we conceded from a corner. Again. That’s been the story of our season. Giving away soft goals.