Football: Ashcroft keeps Albion out of trouble: West Brom find relief at Portsmouth

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The Independent Online
Portsmouth. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

West Bromwich Albion. . . . . . . . . . .1

IT WAS a desperately close-run thing, but then it was always liable to be so, Albion's First Division existence threatened right up to the last kick of a fraught afternoon at Fratton Park where one feared the worst had results gone against them.

Marvellously supportive though an estimated 10,000 Baggies followers were, there was enough of an unruly element in their midst and among Pompey's fans to have lit the blue touchpaper in the event of their relegation. As it was there was fighting shortly before the game - largely due to poor segregation in the North Stand - and afterwards as supporters of both sides in the 17,629 crowd flooded the pitch in a frightening picture of confrontation. It may yet lead to punishment for Portsmouth from the FA.

Once under way, after a five- minute delay, salvation came within 39 minutes in the shape of a Lee Ashcroft header though Albion could not afford to relax for a single moment. Quite apart from the endeavours of Birmingham and Oxford there were those of Pompey to fret about. Jim Smith, their manager, had apologised beforehand to Barry Fry, his St Andrews counterpart, for having to field seven reserves because of injury and suspension. He need not have bothered. Pompey provided genuine opposition.

It was off the back of four defeats in five matches that Albion arrived at their judgement day. The run showed no signs of improving as the ageless Alan Knight stuck out a hand to deny Bob Taylor and a foot to dispossess Andy Hunt.

Allied to news of Birmingham's first-half goal at Tranmere and the nerves were beginning to fray when in the nick of time Ian Hamilton delivered a perfect cross to the far post where Ashcroft shrugged aside the challenge of Mark Stimson to head home.

But the turning point, as far as their manager Keith Burkinshaw was concerned, was two saves by the reserve Tony Lange early in the second half - the first a double save from Deon Burton and Paul Wood, the second an athletic finger-tip job from Hall after a thrilling cross-field run by the young winger from Torquay.

The final whistle could not come a moment too soon for the visitors though Birmingham might be interested to hear why David Elleray's first-half whistle came five minutes early.

Portsmouth (4-4-2): Knight; Gittens, Kristensen, Dobson (Butters, 64), Stimson; Pethick, Doling (Burton, h-t) Powell, Chamberlain; Hall, Wood. Subtitute not used: Flahaven (gk).

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Lange; Parsely, Raven, Strodder, Darton; Ashcroft (Mellow, 87), McInally, Donovan, Hamilton; Taylor, Hunt. Substitutes not used: Mardon, Cutler (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).

Photograph, page 35