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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 28/08/04, 3.00pm
Plymouth Argyle
Three-nil, twice
By Ian Grant

Ninety minutes is a long time, relatively speaking. (Relative to a shorter time, natch.) It's quite easy to forget sometimes.

I mean, we all know that football matches can drag unspeakably, sloooowwwwiiiiinnnngggg tiiiiiimmmmmmeeeee until it almost seems to stop entirely. Such occasions are usually accompanied by bitter winter cold, a large entry into the "goals against" column, or the words "Carling Cup". Oh, and at least four minutes of injury time.

More often, though, football makes ninety minutes flash past at a ridiculous rate. Compare the time spent at Vicarage Road with the same quantity of, say, a disrupted train journey, or the last moments of the working day, or the seventeen false endings at the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or a trip to the dentist, or any number of similar things. I mean, I'm not completely convinced that I didn't fall asleep while the apparently endless pointlessness of Kill Bill 2 was meandering ever onwards and am merely dreaming that my life is continuing as normal. By comparison, football is a reminder that quite a lot can happen in an hour and a half.

Like, for example, two completely different games. Each with a three-nil scoreline, if not quite equal in length. As when heavy, thunderous cloud is blown away by a stiff wind to leave pure, life-affirming sunshine that denies the very existence of what came before: you know that it was cold and wet and revolting, but it seems implausible and irrelevant nevertheless, and you don't bother to take your umbrella when you leave the house. Two different realities, separated by nothing very much, accepted immediately without question.

Of course, football does this often enough: the "game of two halves" cliché didn't just appear from nowhere. But it doesn't often do it like this, somehow. A most extraordinary match, all in all. Because while the visitors won three-nil in the first half hour (except that they didn't, quite) and the home side won three-nil in the remainder, that kind of turn-around is hardly unknown. Remarkable, sure, but not especially extraordinary.

Thing is, there's normally an identifiable cause. A pivotal change by the manager, whether a tactical re-arrangement or a dramatic substitution; a half-time team-talk that'll go down in legend; a moment of pure pig-headed inspiration by a Tommy Mooney or a Paul Robinson. Something. There has to be, otherwise there's nothing to fuel our discussions about tactics and players and changes and what to do and how to sort it out. And yet....

Not here. Not really. We scored, sure. Paul Devlin took on some opponents, lobbed in a cross, and Neal Ardley scored...and yet it's hard to think of that as the moment when everything changed. In virtually every respect, nothing changed at all: the players stayed in the same places, their jobs remained the same, and the match was, in terms of its basic, factual elements, identical to before. And, in a whole lot of other, less tangible respects, absolutely everything changed: a team that had previously looked on the verge of complete implosion against confident, organised, and ambitious opponents gradually turned the game into a perfect mirror image.

It makes no sense, except in one respect. That there's a bit of mental strength in this team, at long last. For all that we were damn lucky to reach the half-hour mark without having lost the game, and for all that most of us were just willing the time to pass until the interval provided an opportunity to sort it out, it's impressive and encouraging that we didn't actually need outside intervention to turn it around. We did it ourselves, on the pitch. We kept our shape, kept our heads, got back into it, got the reward. Lucky, yes: this is certainly a half-empty or half-full thing, depending on your natural inclination. But the ability to bounce back is such a vital quality at this level, where there's always a defeat lurking around the corner and where there's usually a chance to make amends four days afterwards. It's a good sign, I think.

In the end, this was a good victory over a good side too. In the end, because it seemed impossible for such an awfully long time. From the very start, Plymouth were right at us, snapping and biting into tackles that were won and lost, depending on your point of view, with agonising inevitability all over the pitch: they were first to everything, then full of bright ideas for what to do next, and we became more ragged and desperate with each passing minute. In the opening seconds, an impressive salvo of corners ended with Coughlan's instinctive header smacking against the bar from point blank range after Richard Lee's missed punch, and we were already in deep trouble before we'd had time to settle into our seats.

My word, Argyle looked like a fine team at this point. A touch of arrogant swagger, the inevitable and unmistakeable product of a season's worth of success. But work-rate to match, from the splendidly Shearer-ish Evans (a moaning, barging, elbowing pain in the flippin' backside, until eventually and thankfully booked for repeated fouling just before the break) right back through the rest of the side. Direct, certainly, and far from naive in defence, but refreshingly ambitious after Burnley's suffocation, and much too good for us in the opening period.

When things like this happen, you can sometimes blame opponents for failing to finish the job. For getting slack, for not taking chances: we did it ourselves enough times back in 1999/2000. Here, though, Plymouth were simply unlucky, and the reverse applies to us. On another day, that Coughlan header would've been an inch or so lower: one-nil after two minutes. Then when Norris broke into half an acre on the right and crossed for Evans to apply a fine, volleyed finish from the penalty spot, the lead would've been doubled: two-nil. And finally, Hodges' beautifully struck half-volley from twenty-five yards, beating Richard Lee all the way, would've just swerved ever so slightly to hit the post and cross the line rather than hit the post and rebound back out: three-nil.

We wouldn't have had any cause for argument, really: the visitors' domination was that complete, their control absolute. In contrast, and despite considerable and pleasing vocal support amid the understandable frustration, we could barely string two passes together. When we did eventually get the ball to Danny Webber, his sprightly turn and dink through to an offside Heidar Helguson lifted spirits immediately, but it was a rare ray of light amid the gloom, the only noteworthy attacking moment in the first thirty minutes. Everywhere else, we were losing battles, just clinging on. It was disastrous, and the only positive thought was that as long as the margin remained slim, hope remained for half-time salvation. Even that, though, appeared to be a remote possibility.

Until Paul Devlin decided to run at people, at last. His habit of cutting inside and losing the ball in a crowd of players has become increasingly frustrating, given that he's well capable of beating opponents on the wing and delivering quality crosses to the forwards. This time, he ran through rather than inside or outside...but, whatever, it worked. The lofted cross found a crowd at the far post, Neal Ardley stooping to head home and just about avoiding having his chin rearranged by Heidar Helguson's boot in the process. From absolutely nowhere, and with our very first goal attempt, one-all.

No looking back. Well, not quite: there was one further scare, as Wotton's fiercely driven free kick took two deflections on its way to goal, requiring Richard Lee to change direction at the last moment and pull off a brilliant, athletic parry. He's been a little fortunate, the youngster: both here and against QPR, he might've been punished for basic errors at vital moments and at an early, pivotal stage of his career. But it's hard to dwell on that, when everything else about his season-so-far has been so bright and sparky and energetic. Like every keeper, he'll make mistakes...but with Richard Lee, it won't be because of hesitation or indecision, and I like that. I like that very much.

For the remainder, we concentrated on basic things. We began to win tackles, to keep the ball for longer than ten seconds, to make it stick in the final third. Small advances, but crucial for what was to follow. The midfield began to establish itself at this point, and it was to dominate spectacularly after the break; the defence started to look more secure, and it dealt firmly with everything in the second half; the attack began to show its teeth, and those teeth were to savage Plymouth later on.

Even then, as we were building slowly, Heidar Helguson headed wide at the far post after Gavin Mahon had flicked on Paul Mayo's cross. And McCormick, coming out of his goal to clear from the wing and then finding his kick charged down by a rampaging Icelander, was fortunate to escape a red card as he pulled Helguson back to prevent him from advancing into the penalty area towards an unguarded net. A tight angle, a couple of defenders in attendance, a ready-made excuse for the referee to fudge the decision, a talking point made irrelevant by what followed....

This is the impressive bit, for me. It's a familiar sequence: slovenly start, early goal against, gradual disintegration, unexpected equaliser, complacency reinforced. A familiar sequence, broken. Rather than encouraging complacency by letting them off the hook, Neal Ardley's goal seemed only to increase the determination to capitalise on the earlier good fortune. We came out of the dressing room, and smashed Plymouth up...and we did it just as efficiently and confidently as they'd done previously, by controlling the game in every part of the pitch and permitting no dissent. Comprehensive, in essence.

They helped just a bit, by maintaining the high defensive line that had also done for QPR. Last season, you could've got away with that against us; now, with a certain striker rapidly fulfilling his potential, it's just asking for trouble. It took barely a minute for Heidar Helguson to lob a ball into the space on the right wing, and Danny Webber took it from there, controlling and gliding forward with too much pace for the trailing defenders, before sliding a perfect finish into the bottom corner as McCormick advanced. Too quick, too precise, too classy.

Suddenly, we looked around and realised that it had all clicked together. The disorganised rabble of barely thirty minutes earlier was a well-oiled, cohesive unit, full of strength and purpose. It seemed impossible - and I dare say that the same view was shared by the away end, with different resulting emotions - but it was there, right before us. Heidar Helguson - in need of a goal, but an effective, impressive force as the team began to supply him with proper service - dipped a drive just over, and we were just flying. Nothing changed, everything different.

Then Neal Ardley's curved pass down the left invited Danny Webber to chase again, and he comfortably beat an ill-advised rush into no man's land by the keeper. Having done so, he still had plenty to do, with a couple of defenders positioning themselves as obstacles in the penalty area...and the finish was just berloody sensational, stuffed into the top corner from the edge of the box while his opponents readied themselves for a last-ditch tackle. If you ever need to win an argument about the role that confidence plays in football, you only need to compare these goals with the brace against QPR: similar situations, but the nerves have gone and the finishes are now clinical, precise, lethal. Now, he'll just score; then, he just might and just did.

The rest was no less inspiring, even if most of the incident had passed. Aside from a couple of wild efforts into the Vic Road end, Plymouth were denied any way back into the game, the defensive transformation typified by Sean Dyche's implausibly pacey back-tracking to shove Makel out of the way as he made for goal. Just once, we were lucky again, as Norris' inspired run on the left wing was brought to a premature end when he stood on the ball at the vital moment. Otherwise, though, it was rock solid: mighty in midfield, dominant at the back. And all this from exactly the same team as before.

Four would've been hard on Plymouth, but we weren't far away. Paul Devlin, transformed as much as anyone and back to the mischievous bundle of ideas that we signed last season, hammered an angled drive after inter-play on the right wing, denied only by a diversion from McCormick's fingertips. Even in injury time, we were over-joyed to see Devlin skipping around the outside of his opponents and hurling in a superb cross, from which Heidar Helguson really should've scored with an unopposed header. Still, it'll do. It'll really do, I think.

It's a vital win. Achieved by unconventional methods, but vital nonetheless. Ray Lewington's right to be annoyed about the postponement of Tuesday night's trip to Leeds: in every respect, it would've been a great time to get that one out of the way. But that only increases the importance of these points, in ensuring that we can continue to look at this as A Good Start With Further Work Required during the two week holiday.

As many have noted, you measure these things after ten games or so, but that doesn't change the fact that five games have already put a very useful number of points on the board. The targets for the season remain the same, to my mind. But that's no reason why they can't be achieved quickly, leaving some time left to have a bit of fun....