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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/8/01
Plymouth Argyle
By Ian Grant

During childhood, there are flavours that are simply too complex and subtle for your palette to cope with, that aren't easily filed into categories that can be understood by your tastebuds. Brussel sprouts, olives, blue cheese. That first mouthful of beer - something that you expect to be heavenly and refreshing and sweet, like every fizzy drink you've ever had multiplied by a thousand - is a moment of extreme anticlimax.

Later on, it turns out that these things are all far more delicious than seemed possible. As your palette matures, you discover that flavours can be wonderfully layered and combined, that describing something as "bitter" is no longer always a condemnation, that the most pleasurable taste isn't necessarily the sweetest. You get bored of puddings long before you tire of the endless possibilities offered by the main course.

Perhaps, then, the Worthington Cup First Round is really a test of the sophistication of the football fan's palette. Far, far away from the glamour, glitz and insubstantial hype of the Champions League and the Premiership, it serves us up with real football. As with test cricket, it might appear stupendously dull and inconsequential to the casual observer, but you wonder whether its appeal will strengthen as time passes and we start to crave something other than sickly-sweet instant gratification.

There was something greatly pleasant about last night. Just the way that nobody felt the need to feign excitement, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable, black-humoured wallowing in utter boredom. Behind me, Julian and Miles' comedy double-act was in full swing; to my left, Russ was fiddling with his mobile phone and inventing harmony parts for the chants; to my right, Matt was resting his chin on a railing and occasionally berating me for grumbling too much. It all felt so right, somehow.

The team helped, in its own way. It found the perfect balance for the evening, neither doing much that was rousing enough to force us to stand up and lose the thread of conversations more than once every fifteen minutes, nor doing anything diabolical to spoil the atmosphere. Taking a note of an off-target shot, I could look down and write at a leisurely pace, safe in the knowledge that we'd still be passing the ball around in our own half when I'd finished. No complaints, then.

In truth, we did as well as could be expected here. Still lacking penetration, we found ourselves facing a well-organised and determined Argyle side...and, well, we just kept plugging away until something eventually happened. In contrast to previous Worthy Cup nightmares, the possibility of an away victory was mostly remote, barring penalties. Similarly, there was a sense that we would score at some point, although there were doubts over whether it would be within the allotted time. Like queueing at the supermarket till, we waited in line and hoped that our turn would come before the shop closed.

As on Saturday, there were a number of fine individual performances to distract from the slightly frustrating lack of a cohesive whole. Really, Paul Robinson continues to be the revelation of the season so far. In addition to transforming himself into a box-to-box midfielder for the twenty second half minutes before injury ended his fun, he saw more possession than any other player and used it positively. On the other flank, Patrick Blondeau was in similarly dynamic mood, even if the quality of his crossing didn't quite match up to the rest of his play.

Without doubt, the popular vote goes to Nordin Wooter. Quite simply, he provides too much trickery and general fun to be left out of the team, particularly now that we have a style of play that might see him receive the ball more than occasionally and that requires more attacking invention. Personally, though, I'd single out Gifton Noel-Williams for particular praise. Very much the unsung hero here, he ran himself into the ground in attempting to be the focal point of our attacks, threading moves together as well as offering the greatest goal threat from crosses. Pleasing to see familiar faces staking a claim.

With the exception of five minute spells of Argyle pressure towards the end of either half, there was merely a fairly monotonous procession of Watford attacks, each starting with a series of pleasantly geometric manoeuvres in our own half and ending with failure nearer to the opposition box. Like trying to negotiate a tricky section in a computer game, we saw and fell at the same obstacles often enough to be thoroughly weary of the whole thing and to rejoice when the breakthrough came.

Crucially, though, we stuck at it. When we did show signs of running out of ideas, someone came forward to offer a different approach. At no point did we resort to the obvious and ill-fated tactic of clouting the ball towards the two tall strikers...and, although we needed a set piece to win the game, there was a mental resolve about the performance that was encouraging. Even when passes were going astray and the largely silent fans were starting to get edgy, we stuck at it. Far from perfect, naturally. But let's not forget just how much further from perfect we were against Cheltenham and Notts County last season.

To the action, anyway. Steadily, we set about creating chances and did so. With Plymouth sensibly not bothering to disguise their counter-attacking intentions, possession was never hard to come by...but we used it reasonably well, providing Wooter and Blondeau on the right with enough of the ball to swing in a few dangerous crosses. After Wotton had thumped the first of two free kicks into Espen Baardsen's midriff, Noel-Williams headed wide at the near post from Blondeau's left-footed centre.

From Dominic Foley's fine work on the left and Robinson's equally excellent cross, Darren Ward headed at the keeper. Then, as we began to find a rhythm, Wooter sent a shot skidding through to Larrieu. After twenty-five minutes, Robinson was unfortunate and frustrated not to be able to reach Noel-Williams' cut-back after he'd gone on a characteristically bustling and determined charge through the middle. All promising, if quietly so.

In the end, we came really close to scoring just twice. On the first occasion, it was Noel-Williams who was unfortunate not to beat the keeper with a firm header at the near post from Wooter's corner. Larrieu did well to react quickly, push the ball away, and was assisted in clearing by a defender. Then, as injury time began, Gayle's mis-kick inadvertently supplied Noel-Williams, whose lay-off was thumped just wide by the on-rushing Wooter from twenty yards.

So, until the half-hour mark, we'd barely seen Plymouth cross into our half. When they finally did so, they exposed one or two vulnerable points in our largely unoccupied defence, and things became a little more interesting as a consequence. To begin, Evans managed to out-pace Ward to reach a long ball on the left, but found no support as he arrived in the penalty area and dragged his shot harmlessly across goal. As Wills was unable to reach Evans' knockdown, it all became a bit nervy, a bit too familiar to Worthy Cup veterans. A minute later, Baardsen was tested for the first and last time, tipping Phillips' rising drive over the bar.

It didn't last, though. If anything, the second half was more one-sided than the first. It'd be an enormous overstatement to say that we murdered Plymouth...but we did slap them lightly around the cheeks, repeatedly. The pressure was pretty much relentless, but only found an outlet when we got the ball wide and delivered quality crosses behind the resilient Argyle defence. While that didn't happen often enough to dispel doubts about our lack of attacking potency, we kept prodding away until something gave.

A rather dour pattern was established, broken only by Wooter's dribbling and Robinson's adventurous forays. From a Foley cross, Noel-Williams met the ball in a crowd of defenders and headed at the keeper. The horror of extra-time crept closer. Ramon Vega climbed highest to reach a Wooter free kick but was unable to direct the ball away from Larrieu. At the other end, sporadic Argyle breaks brought the vague threat of a surprise goal for the visitors, Wills heading at Baardsen from Phillip's cross and then bouncing a shot wide from outside the box.

With Robinson's premature departure and the awareness of passing time, it all became a bit more aimless, a tad rushed. Crowds of players on the edge of the Argyle area, the ball bouncing around among them and no-one able to get a sight of goal. Passes aimed and intercepted. Crosses dealt with capably by the Argyle defence, never getting as far as the two strikers. Frustrating...but not nearly as frustrating as it might've been, as we gave no indication of disintegration or loss of confidence. We kept going...and the Rookery finally responded with a load of bashing and crashing in a vague "Somebody's Army" vein....

Then Noel-Williams was held as he tried to turn outside the area. The wall seemed to have about eight Argyle players in it, with a couple of yellow shirts attempting to break it up. Larrieu positioned himself perfectly for Marcus Gayle's shot...and still only saw the ball as it whistled over his head into the roof of the net, hit with absolutely unstoppable power and accuracy. When we signed Gayle, Matt's observation was that "he kicks the ball very hard, which must be a good thing". And he was right.

The rest was less than elegant - you suspect that "calm under pressure" isn't a phrase that'll be used to describe our defence for a little while, until it's settled into a comfortable unit. But, despite wellied clearances and nervous moments, Argyle got no closer to an equaliser than Stonebridge's skied shot from distance. Mercifully, we were to do without extra-time.

The test of our progress in the last two games will come at Wolves on Saturday. For, as already observed, the Worthington Cup First Round is a world of its own, with unique rules and customs. Long may that be so, especially if we adjust to it as we did last night. You could argue that we made hard work of this. I'd argue that it was always going to be hard work, and that we willingly got on with the job.

That'll do.