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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 10/12/05, 3.00pm
Plymouth Argyle
<cough>Bruce Dyer</cough>
By Ian Grant

You know, as ever, it's the hype that I can't stand. The suggestion, implicit within so much of the footballing world so much of the time, that I'm too bloody stupid to notice or to understand what's in front of my nose and, therefore, that I might be persuaded by blatant tomfoolery. That I'm incapable of producing thought more sophisticated than the steady stream of inane text messages that punctuate "6-0-6" for no apparent reason: Terry from Cheltenham says, "Well done to Aidy and the boys for their fantastic start to the season! Great stuff! Keep it up!" and so forth. That I'm shallow enough to be happy just because we win and miserable just because we don't, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of my circumstances. That I'm an idiot.

I'm not an idiot. At least, I don't think so, and my mum agrees.

So, please, can we forget the nonsense? Can we put that to one side and talk honestly? Because I don't particularly want to look up the post-match comments from the manager and be told that "we were professional today", as if everything were fine and pleasant and trundling along according to plan. Because I'm rather grateful that I won't have to stand through the trailer for the half-season DVD on the big screen again, complete with Adrian Boothroyd's steely, feisty and somewhat out-dated pronouncements about playing "expansive attacking football", before watching a side containing more central defenders than seems legally permissible stumbling around cluelessly in search of a goal. Because I'll make allowances for you, if you make allowances for me. It seems fair.

Right, then. This was an utter fiasco, yes? Yes? There are, of course, some perfectly valid reasons for it: back in the summer, we chose to spend significant money on individual players during the grand reconstruction of the squad, with the aim of gradually increasing its quality by not worrying so much about quantity. That's not something that I agreed with, but it's a brave reinterpretation of the budget and it's undeniably worked very well thus far: even when they're wandering around in a mid-career wilderness, you don't get players like Marlon King for nuffink, and that he continues to add fresh revelations week upon week is simply astonishing in the circumstances. Darius Henderson, meanwhile, has done enough to suggest that his return to fitness will improve our fortunes considerably. Helpfully, Ashley Young's hitherto hidden talents as a slightly-deeper striker have come to flower at just the right moment, providing us with another option and a whole load of goals.

It's worked very well. You could argue - indeed, I probably would - that it's a major factor in our league position, for the cream of our squad is highly impressive for a club of our limited means. Much as certain aspects of the new regime - opportunities for youth, opportunities for players previously deemed too inconsistent for the starting eleven - have been trumpeted, it's the central spine of the side, most of it signed over the summer, that's really made the difference on the pitch. You can't argue with the progress, and no-one would want to: to be in the playoff positions at Christmas is simply amazing, and it's worth taking a moment to savour it properly.

Savour it, because it'll help to wash away the bitter, cheap taste left by the football itself. No excuses: if you take the praise for the plan's success, then you must also take the blame for its failure. It may well be that everything'll be perfectly fine in a couple of weeks, and we'll be chuckling about the time that Jay Demerit played up front and, through no fault of his own, was entirely useless. For now, we have three injuries - just three - and yet we don't actually have enough players of the right types to put out a proper football team. You know, a goalkeeper, four defenders, four midfielders, two strikers, that sort of thing. It's a long-term plan, we knew that all along. But, lord above, spare us this tripe in the meantime, will you?

And, yes, you have to question some of the manager's decisions here. You just have to. Is Joel Grant really so hopeless that it's preferable to keep him on the bench for the entire game, so that one, two, all of your central defenders can have a try at being strikers instead? Is there really no better option than Jay Demerit, whose substitute appearance against Brighton gave no hint of versatility and whose laborious ninety minutes here emphatically confirmed that impression? We had Lloyd Doyley back from injury; was there no reshuffle (James Chambers or Jordan Stewart in a wide position, perhaps, with Paul Devlin or even Anthony McNamee sitting behind Marlon King) that could've produced something a bit more clever, something to outwit Pulis' ferociously dull tactics?

Good f***ing grief, is this it until Ashley or Darius return? Is this what we're going to be paying our money to see? "Coming to Burnley?" says Matt during the first half, with a chuckle. Heavens, isn't this bad enough?

There's still quality, thankfully. It came terribly late, long past the stage where you'd given up all hope, but we scored a fantastic goal to rescue a point, and that was something to wander home with. Without that quality, particularly from Marlon King, we'd be sinking so fast that our stomachs would be left behind. Even so, there's something rather incongruous about the quiet, personal celebrations that greet the announcement of Leeds' defeat as we all trudge out; it's almost dishonest to have crept up to third on the back of this wretched performance...and, before you mention it, the whole "mark of a good side" cliché doesn't stretch this far. Not nearly this far.

Around half an hour into the first period, Miles commented that it was "okay so far". From someone who's quick enough with a strong opinion, this was a statement so spectacularly radical that it required a serious double-take. Such generosity can only be explained by the festive spirit, or having spent most of the time playing computer games instead of watching properly. Because the first half, while considerably more competent than its counterpart seven days ago, offered the most dour, relentlessly unrewarding football seen at Vicarage Road since the last time that I wrote a sentence like this. It was "okay" only in the sense that nobody died.

Even allowing for the opposition - heaven knows, football will rejoice if Pulis ever stops - and even allowing for our increasingly horrible pitch, this was atrocious. True, we didn't allow the visitors to dominate as last week's had, but our relative improvement merely left a gaping hole where the fun ought to be. Because - and this may become tiresome, if it hasn't already - we didn't have enough strikers to make up an effective attacking force, and therefore came to a stuttering, stuffy halt long before anything interesting happened. You felt for Marlon King up there, dropping deep and carving out another cross-field ball before bursting into the penalty area to meet a cross that never came; all the while, Jay Demerit lumbered around like, well, a very large central defender in the wrong half of the pitch. It was dreadful, forty-five minutes of pure impotence.

Just once, we threatened to score. Inevitably, it was from a set piece: unless Marlon produced some magic, we weren't going to score in open play, full stop. After twenty-seven minutes, Anthony McNamee tossed in a free kick from the left, flicked on at the near post by King and half-cleared by a defender; it fell to Gavin Mahon, who thumped in a shot with colossal force and was foiled by a fine, sprawling save from Larrieu. Lengthy treatment to the keeper suggested that he might've stopped the shot with his chin; Matthew Spring's feeble corner when play resumed suggested that we didn't have our brains plugged in.

That was it, essentially. The rest was mesmerising only in its sheer, squalid mundanity; the kind of pointlessly full-blooded football that you might stop and watch for half an hour in a local park, on a pleasant Sunday morning. For their part, Plymouth at least offered alternative sources of entertainment: it's easy to find room in your heart for Micky Evans, a perfect anti-hero whose career has essentially been a kind of on-going, rolling foul with accompanying dissent. Here, his typically bad-tempered contest with Malky Mackay was the only semblance of anything remotely interesting, and ended roughly even when Evans left for a pie and a pint towards the end. Defensively, we were all right: while we never looked entirely secure, the only major alarm came in the third minute, when Jarett's run from midfield left Matthew Spring trailing and Norris' drive took a wicked deflection to spin a foot wide.

The feeling that Adrian Boothroyd might well be some kind of wizard, albeit a rather gobby wizard in a smart suit, was enhanced by an amusing announcement over the PA at the very end of first half injury time. Last week, the wrath of the Rookery was drawn by Marlon King's late goal, and the same would happen again at the final whistle. Here, a moment of good humour distracted everyone, reminding us that life might not be quite so bad after all and occupying the space in which the boos would surely ring out. And yet, one senses that a bit of outright criticism might do no harm from time to time; somewhere between the league position and the truly wretched performances, there's an awful lot left unsaid.

The substitutes warmed up at half-time, and then sat back down again. Ho hum. More of the same, then...except that Plymouth promptly complicated matters by taking advantage of our distinctly pedestrian opening and scoring the first goal. That wasn't part of the plan, assuming that there was a plan. An almost stereotypically Pulisish goal too, and not altogether dissimilar to the one that we conceded to Brighton seven days ago: Wotton's far post knockdown at a corner, then Chadwick swivelling inside the six yard to fire past Ben Foster. Momentarily, an incredibly petty referee muddled matters by appearing to indicate a free kick...and then, as he unmuddled matters, the desperate situation dawned on us. One-nil down, with one striker on the pitch. Jesus.

The remainder was precisely as appalling as you imagine, assuming that your imagination stretches to really quite appalling. You can, if you wish, draw comfort from the way that we kept battling on until the very end and even beyond, eventually rescuing a draw from a game that appeared entirely lost. You can, but I'd be grateful if you did it somewhere else. Spirit aside, this was hopeless. If you're going to try to recover a point when your opponents are clinging onto it for dear life, you need more guile and more intelligence than this. You need more options than merely throwing another central defender into the attack and lobbing even more aimless punts upfield. Whatever, you certainly can't afford to refuse options, leaving your second striker on the bench for the duration; Joel Grant might not have made any difference, of course, but it was damn hard to see how he could've made things any worse.

During our best spell of the match - really, don't get carried away - we created occasional half-chances. Very occasional, but still...Clarke Carlisle showed some nifty footwork in sauntering into the box from the right, then gave away his day job by shooting rather weakly at Larrieu. Shortly afterwards, Paul Devlin's rare cross was just flicked away from Gavin Mahon's head, and Matthew Spring drove comfortably wide from twenty yards. Another little while, and Barness made a hash of intercepting Spring's through-ball to Marlon King, leaving the striker clear; not an easy chance, but the ball sat up nicely and we've become used to seeing King finish with clinical precision rather than wellying it out for a throw.

We needed to score during that period. Instead, the little momentum that we'd built up gradually dissipated, and Plymouth looked increasingly comfortable as the game neared its conclusion. Our response? To swap James Chambers for Jordan Stewart and chuck Clarke Carlisle into the forward line. A couple of minutes later, movement on the subs' bench suggested Grant's arrival - "Not before time" - until it transpired that we were going to bring on Al Bangura instead. No, me neither. Elliott Ward, absolutely excellent in the Plymouth defence, cleared a Malky Mackay header from a corner, but the visitors were more typically in charge, in control, watching the clock tick down towards a hard-fought, deserved victory.

We could've had no complaints. Indeed, we should've been put out of our considerable misery: a late break against a defence that seemed to comprise only Lloyd Doyley and James Chambers left Capaldi in yards of space, just Ben Foster to beat. And he beat Ben Foster comprehensively; fortunately, his over-enthusiastic finish beat the crossbar equally comprehensively, whistling into the visiting fans to the relief of everyone in yellow. Well, some relief: it merely appeared as if we'd been spared the humiliation of a two-goal defeat, for there seemed no prospect of any improvement upon the existing scoreline.

Because - yes, I know that I'm labouring the point, but not half as much as we laboured it during these drawn-out ninety minutes - we still didn't have two strikers. We had lots of players in the final third, but that's really not the same thing. As if to demonstrate, Gavin Mahon picked up possession from Lloyd Doyley and stood thirty yards from goal, Jay Demerit and Clarke Carlisle in front of him on the edge of the box. And stood, waiting for somebody to make a run. And stood, while they both looked at him. And stood, before playing a pass into the area in the vain hope that one of them would move for it. They didn't, and it ran harmlessly through to the keeper. In all honesty, they were marking their markers, much more likely to follow their natural instincts and move towards Mahon with their arms raised in appeal to the linesman. Being in the opposition half doesn't make you a striker, any more than sitting at a typewriter makes you a novelist. Hopeless.

Hopeless, and yet saved. Saved, by an absolutely inspired goal, entirely out of keeping with everything else. Anthony McNamee's delivery had been pretty woeful all afternoon...and then, he did it, whipping the ball past two defenders with a joyful whirl of the feet that drew gasps and guffaws even from this jaded, grouchy crowd. Finally, he came up with a decent cross, into Malky Mackay at the near post, flicking the ball with deceptive grace back to Marlon King. A side-step past a defender, followed by an evil finish, bent with pace into the bottom corner and followed by the delighted eyes of the Rookery. If ever we needed magic, it was yesterday.

Even that couldn't quite stifle the grumbling at the final whistle, but it drew most of the fire. For how long, I wonder? Home draws against struggling opponents won't win us promotion, but we've done so well that we can easily afford these. Easily. But we can't afford much more: it's not easy to marry inflated expectations with an extremely limited squad, and our current attempts aren't at all convincing. The league position's fantastic, of course. Of course. But, bloody hell, the football....

Somewhere, at some point, something is going to give.