Football League Play-Offs: Portsmouth denied by Thompson

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The Independent Online
Portsmouth. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Leicester City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

(Leicester City win 3-2 on aggregate)

LEICESTER CITY are back at Wembley in search of the Premier League place denied them by Blackburn Rovers a year ago. Brian Little's team made light of Portsmouth's 12-point advantage in the First Division on a night of Fratton Park passion and drama and eventual tears.

Their return ticket to a second successive play-off final on May 31 where they will face Swindon Town was achieved last night via a smothering operation that denied Pompey room, frustrated them and ultimately created enough space to hit them with two goals on the counter-attack.

So for the second year running Jim Smith's men have been denied on Wembley's doorstep, the disappointment this time far greater than when they lost an FA Cup final place by virtue of Liverpool's superiority in the decisive penalty shoot-out.

Amid his satisfaction the Leicester manager, Brian Little, whose brother Alan has also made it to Wembley with York City, found sympathy for Portsmouth saying: 'I genuinely feel sorry for Portsmouth. It's a tough way to go out both because of tonight and because they finished third in the table by such a margin. We are delighted but there's no champagne in our dressing-room. We still have a job to do and my first thought is that the arena will suit Swindon.'

A capacity crowd, expecting a Pompey victory, and a durable Leicester rearguard numbering five with the addition of Steve Walsh and reinforced when needed by their midfield trio, put the onus all on Smith's side.

He was inconsolable afterwards as he had every right to be. Twice a play- off loser before with Newcastle United and Middlesbrough he believed he had avoided this torture before West Ham United edged them out on the last day of the season by the margin of just two goals.

With Guy Whittingham playing a solo striker's role last night, his team struggled for 50 minutes to escape Leicester's clutches before Ray Daniel's left-wing centre found George Lawrence's head for Alan McLoughlin to drive home.

Their celebrations lasted just two minutes as Leicester found an immediate reply. When the ball spilled out of the penalty-box David Oldfield turned it back in and Ian Ormondroyd stuck out his long left leg to guide it into the net. This time the blow was too much for Pompey to overcome.

With no choice but to pour forward Portsmouth left spaces which were exploited handsomely by Steve Thompson in the 69th minute as he advanced to arrow a 25-yard right-foot shot beyond Alan Knight. Bjorn Kristensen's reply three minutes later gave the home side unexpected hope which they could not sustain.

Bravely, the defeated managed a lap of honour. Whittingham has scored 47 goals in a memorable season but, crucially, none last night. It could be his Fratton farewell, with his Premier League ambitions likely now to be realised elsewhere.

Portsmouth: Knight; Awford, Butters, McLoughlin, Symons, Daniel, Neill (Powell, 79), Price (Hall, h/t), Lawrence, Whittingham, Kristensen.

Leicester City: Poole; Mills, Whitlow, Smith, Walsh, Hill, Oldfield, Thompson, Joachim, Ormondroyd, Agnew (Gibson, 79). Substitute not used: Philpott.

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).

----------------------------------------------------------------- WEMBLEY PLAY-OFF SCHEDULE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Saturday 29 May: Third Division final (3.0): Crewe Alexandra v York City. Sunday 30 May: Second Division final (3.0): Port Vale v West Bromwich Albion. Monday 31 May: First Division final (3.0): Leicester City v Swindon Town. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)