Sixteenth in the Third Division, the scorers of only one goal in seven League games and almost unable to raise a team, nevertheless Scunthorpe United yesterday did their supporters proud against nervous, worried Portsmouth at Fratton Park.
If ever Portsmouth needed a lift to raise their hopes in the more important matter of Premiership survival it was now. A return to the financially uninviting First Division looks increasingly likely. Harry Redknapp's now injury-withered squad was already transparently insufficient, and the Cup has further stretched their resources. But it also offered the chance of confidence building which they took, only hesitantly.
Scunthorpe had got this far in spite of their own severe injury and suspension problems. They badly needed yesterday's proceeds. So much so that even the player who got them there, Jamie McCombe, a 20-year-old, 6ft 5in defender, whose 20-yard goal ensured victory over Barnsley in the last round, is being offered to the highest bidder. Yesterday he, too, was among the injured absentees. Embarking with a five-man midfield and allowing Patrik Berger to join the recently lone striker Teddy Sheringham, Ports-mouth had by far the greater early possession but profited little. Sheringham won a lot in the air but more often than not he was subdued on the ground. Only a low, long free-kick from Sheringham penetrated the Scunthorpe defence during the first half an hour. And even then their goalkeeper, Tom Evans, clutched the ball with impressive assurance.
Scunthorpe were short of central defenders, so were disturbed that Wayne Graves had to leave the field in the 30th minute, to be replaced by Lee Ridley, normally a left-sided full-back. Either way by constantly switching position defensively and concentrating hard, Scunthorpe held out until the 35th minute. Then Alexei Smertin teased them on the run and crossed the ball to Eyal Berkovic, whose shot was capably blocked by Evans, only for Matthew Taylor to rap in the rebound.
Seemingly Portsmouth now had the game in the pipeline to victory, but Scunthorpe were nothing if not resolute. Yet their ability to set up strikers, Paul Hayes and Steve Torpey (once a young colleague of Sheringham's at Millwall) lacked guile. When Torpey did get occasional possession he clearly bothered Linvoy Primus with his strength.
The experienced Scunthorpe player-coach, Peter Beagrie, probed and cajoled in midfield and kept his team in with a chance. Indeed, when after a short free-kick he played an accurate through ball to Hayes it required Shaka Hislop to secure the shot with a pouncing save to prevent an equaliser.
If anything Portsmouth were losing their initiative by now and not getting Sheringham sufficiently involved. Perhaps he thought so, too, because, in the 66th minute, his typical flick of a pass led on to Taylor whose cracking 15-yard shot comfortably eluded the blameless Evans.
The goal was the logical outcome of Portsmouth's overall superiority, but it was hardly the product of any particularly impressive football. However, that was not the aim of their day. Simply getting a win was more important. But Scunthorpe could justifiably claim their defiance ensured they could depart claiming to have stretched a Premiership side.
To add embellishment and thoughts of what might have been, five minutes from the end following a throw-in on the right, substitute Andy Parton, seven yards out, volleyed in an excellent goal that had 2,000 Scunthorpe fans screaming with hope and they urged on their still hugely energetic team into three minutes of added time.
As Scunthorpe's manager, Brian Laws, said: "I know which manager finished the more anxious." To which Redknapp added: "Anything could have happened. Can't anyone give me a striker for nothing?"
Taylor 35, 66
Scunthorpe United 1
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 17,508Reuse content