Portsmouth 0 City 1

THE whistles and cat calls bounced off his shoulders; the crude comments from the crowd music to his ears.

Fratton Park's dissent was proof, should any be needed, that Tony McMahon was back in the saddle.

Both sides of his game were evident as City snaffled a much-needed win with a performance that never pulled up any trees.

There was the devilment that got under Portsmouth's skin, never more apparent than when play was halted for a couple of minutes for McMahon to leisurely tie up his bootlaces.

Then there was the top quality of his set-piece delivery with the pinpoint free-kick that Matt Kilgallon buried late on to break home hearts.

Kilgallon deserved that goal to crown a man-of-the-match display at the heart of a City rearguard that withstood some heavy home pressure.

No frills away wins need defenders to stand up and be counted and nobody did that more emphatically than the centre half, who continues to enjoy a rich vein of form.

Yet he will also be the first to salute the part played by the influential figure on the right of that back four.

After scratching around to make a team against Charlton, Stuart McCall could call on a couple of his big guns again.

McMahon's presence, like that of Romain Vincelot, is pivotal in City's progress on so many levels.

The 'dark arts' do have their place. For all the bawling and swearing from the Portsmouth crowd, deep down they would love to have someone like that capable of riling opponents and putting them off their game.

Or even having a pop with his own team-mates with the contretemps involving Jake Reeves that finally saw referee Dean Whitestone run out of patience and brandish a yellow card.

But even that booking, given McCall's unconvincing denials, seemed tactical because it will knock off McMahon's one-game ban in the FA Cup next weekend.

In fairness, the McMahon sideshow was the most interesting narrative for the 1,003 travelling fans who had made the long haul to the south coast.

An eagerly-awaited contest between the division's two biggest-supported teams sadly failed to match the hype. But then, McCall had challenged his side to find a way to win and they did at least manage that.

One point in three games previously is hardly a mini-crisis but the inevitable twitches had started to reappear.

So here was the answer at a ground where McCall continues to enjoy great success as a player, coach and manager, from the moment that he scored his first league goal in City colours 34 years ago.

Ironically Alan Knight, the long-standing Portsmouth keeper who was beaten by his squirming finish that day in 1983, was in the press box to see the Bantams boss come out smiling once more.

Knight was cursing the number of chances blown by the home side – as were the Pompey audience whose frustration grew with each spurned opportunity.

McCall did not beat around the bush afterwards. City were labouring for most parts and average at best.

"We can't be that lucky again," he admitted during an honest post-match assessment criticising a generally sloppy effort from his side.

The Bantams boss sets high standards and, for the most part, City were nowhere near.

But it's a game of swings and roundabouts; much better displays against Bury and Charlton in previous weeks had earned them nothing.

You don't always get what you deserve – and on Saturday, that was a good thing. And you can't blame City if the opposition fail to locate the barn door.

Former Valley Parade loanee Kyle Bennett was the chief culprit in blue. If McMahon had trouble tying his laces, the home winger had put his shooting boots on the wrong feet.

An elusive player outside the box, a headless chicken in it. The half-time stats showing ten Portsmouth shots but only one on target pointed the finger firmly in Bennett's direction.

McCall had warned his players to brace themselves for the intensity of an old-fashioned ground that refuses to move with the times.

But maybe the local police unwittingly assisted his build-up by locating the bulk of the City following at a pub right on the bend of the main road towards the ground.

Seeing that wall of claret and amber greeting the team coach as it passed by was a timely fillip for the manager.

"I'd told the lads the place would be rocking and we might not hear our fans," said McCall. "But to see that on the outskirts gave everyone a massive lift because we saw how many had come down."

Unfortunately, there was little to cheer in a disjointed first half where City's minds still seemed to be on the coach.

Second to most things, they were wasteful on the ball and only Paul Taylor showed any kind of attacking intent.

But Bennett's wastefulness meant Colin Doyle was called into action just once to foil Jamal Lowe.

In fact, for all their shortcomings, City did have the best opportunity to break the stalemate when Vincelot headed over.

That close call did nothing to pacify McCall's mood at the break and he laid into his troops for a response after the break.

They did improve, although not by much as Portsmouth continued to look the most likely scorers – and blew an absolute sitter within four minutes.

It was that man Bennett again after Adam Thompson had sold Doyle short with a back pass. Latching on to the loose ball, Bennett rounded the keeper and then inexplicably found the side-netting from the angle as three-quarters of Fratton Park stood poised to acclaim the goal.

Thompson, in for the suspended Nathaniel Knight-Percival, blundered again when caught in possession just outside the City box.

Thankfully it was Doyle to the rescue, standing big to block Conor Chaplin and then stretching to tip over Matty Kennedy's follow-up.

But where City did hold sway was in the air, an area McCall hoped they might exploit – and did eventually.

Charlie Wyke, who had a muted afternoon, should have buried a header he put straight at keeper Luke McGee.

Then with time running out, McMahon claimed that seventh assist as Kilgallon was remarkably left free to nod home his free-kick in front of that ecstatic City end.

However unconvincing, another win on the road had been achieved thanks to a familiar route.