Both teams will have expected more this season but can put it right in play-offs

icon league2b12 May ~ With five minutes to go at home to Plymouth in mid-April, Portsmouth were looking comfortable at 1-0 and set to record a fourth-straight win and set themselves up for a late push on League Two’s automatic promotion spots. What happened next, though, typified their season.

Two avoidable goals in the space of a minute sent the Fratton Park crowd from serenity to resignation and allowed Plymouth to take an important psychological advantage into tonight’s play-off first leg (the second leg is played on Sunday evening).

It’s been a frustrating season for both clubs. Plymouth led the division through most of late 2015 and were five points clear at the top in November. But only six wins in 15 games from the start of January to the end of March saw them drift out of the automatic spots as Bristol Rovers and Accrington Stanley both went on good runs.

Portsmouth lost just three times before the turn of the year, but couldn’t string consecutive wins together often enough to sustain an automatic promotion push. Paul Cook’s side have drawn 15 times this season, ten of which came in their first 20 games. There have been late points dropped away and leads casually given away at home.

Both teams were classically inconsistent this season. The Pilgrims beat eventual champions Northampton away in August, but lost at home to Dagenham & Redbridge – who went down in 23rd place – a couple of weeks ago.

Pompey defeated Northampton, Accrington, Bristol Rovers, Plymouth and Wimbledon – so, three of the six other teams that either went up automatically or are in the play-offs (they got a draw at Oxford) – away from home over the course of the year. But they were beaten 3-1 at York (relegated with 34 points), 1-0 at Barnet and were held 0-0 at Crawley, who finished with the third worst goal difference in the league.

Whereas some clubs seem to be in the play-offs every other year, neither side in tonight’s game has much experience of this kind of thing. Before Plymouth’s semi-final defeat to Wycombe last year, their previous appearance came in 1996, when they beat Darlington 1-0 at Wembley to gain promotion from what was then Division Three. Portsmouth, though, have less recent memories. They lost 3-2 on aggregate to Leicester City in the 1993 Division One semi-finals after missing out on promotion to the Premier League on goal difference.

That the nerves, tension and unpredictability of the play-offs are relatively unknown to both clubs, coupled with the sense that both their league campaigns should’ve achieved more, makes the tie too close to call. It’s time for Portsmouth and Plymouth to find the nerve that’s eluded them for so much of the regular season or face another year in the basement. James de Mellow

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