Grimsby Town 1
by Charlie Hempstead
IN England’s fishing capital, Argyle narrowly failed to land the big catch that they had traveled 11,757 miles for over the course of the previous nine months.
The 1-1 draw at Grimsby Town meant that top spot, almost unbelievably, went to Portsmouth, whose thrashing of Cheltenham put them on top of the league for the very first time all season and left the Pilgrims empty-handed in terms of silverware, albeit with the consolation prize of promotion.
What a consolation prize. After six long years in League Two, including two 21st-place finishes and a very different last-day experience at Rochdale, when there was a real prospect of exiting the division via the tradesman’s entrance, all that matters is that next year the Green Army will not have to wait quite so long to see their team’s goals on Channel 5.
Such an outcome looked an awfully long way off back in August, after the opening two matches of the season had yielded no goals and no points, leaving Derek Adams’ newly-assembled squad propping up the entire division. Once the players had learned each others’ names though, things began to change. And how.
Those opening defeats were the prelude to a 14-match unbeaten run, including a club-record seven successive away wins, which in turn set the Pilgrims on the way to an unprecedented tally of 13 road victories. Not so long ago, that would have been three or four seasons’ worth.
Something else that Argyle were frankly not much good at in prior years was picking up anything from matches where the opposition scored first, once going two whole years without managing a come-from-behind win. That is emphatically not the case with the class of 2017, who had picked up four wins and five draws before Grimsby in matches where they conceded the opening goal. To do so again, when the stakes were so high and they had gone a goal down in the first minute, said everything about the team’s attitude.
On the other hand, when Argyle score first, it is game over, as proved by the 22 wins from the 25 matches in which they opened the scoring.
That in not to say that winning promotion has been as easy as being sure to score first and then getting the cigars out. After all, when a promoted team can be beaten at home by relegated Leyton Orient, doubled by Barnet and walloped 3-0 at home thrice, it does give some weight to the old truism that there are no easy games at this level – not that anyone anywhere in football has ever said actually, yes, there are some really easy games at any level.
What this season has proved beyond doubt is that getting out of a 24-team division is a hard slog, with an awful lot of twists and turns along the way, and that every success achieved is a team effort.
Stand-out moments include Pilgrim of the Year Sonny Bradley beating himself 2-1 in the game at Stevenage, as well as scoring last-minute winners in both games against Cheltenham (how they must hate him); January signings Antoni Sarcevic and Matty Kennedy making an instant impression, the former with a goal on his full debut at Cambridge, the latter scoring in each of the three subsequent fixtures; and Jake Jervis going neck-and-neck all season with Graham Carey in their own personal battle to be top scorer.
Then there were the countless occasions when Luke McCormick pulled off one of those “how on earth did he do that?” saves, not to mention Nathan Blissett twice coming off the bench to score vital goals that were worth three points on their own.
But it is not all about the goalscorers and the award-winners.
From Nauris Bulvitis being the unlikely leading scorer after five matches to Ryan Donaldson scoring the winner against Colchester that owed rather more to bizarre aerodynamics than to coached ability, contributions have come from all areas of the squad. Connor Smith achieved the unusual accolade of being promoted from the same division two years running, having been in the Wimbledon team that caused last season to end so very differently for Argyle, while Oscar Threlkeld produced the best impression of the Duracell bunny since David Norris.
When opposing defences were not being sent into a spin by the trickery of Craig Tanner, they were having the fear of God put in them by Arnie Garita’s brute strength or Jordan Slew’s blistering pace.
Equally vital to the cause was the utter determination shown by the selfless lone front men, Jimmy Spencer and Ryan Taylor; the indomitable Yann Songo’o, always ready to throw himself in the way of a rapidly moving ball if it means keeping it out of the net; the old-fashioned defender that is Jakub Sokolik; and the teak-tough Gary Miller, who came back better than ever from a horrible injury at Anfield.
And just how much value can be placed on the calmness and experience of David Fox and Gary Sawyer, especially when things could have become nervy towards the season’s end? Just one defeat in the last dozen games tells its own story. Been there, done it, no worries.
All the attributes that have served Argyle so well throughout the season were in evidence again at Blundell Park for the denouement, despite the rather inconvenient setback of conceding a goal within seconds of kick-off, when Shaun Pearson prodded in from close range following a corner.
That there were no further goals in the first half was a major surprise, as both teams attacked with gusto. Carey twice extended home 'keeper James McKeown, but Grimsby’s high tempo style meant that they remained a threat on the break and Argyle were frequently at full stretch to keep them at bay.
Indeed, the home side came close to doubling their advantage twice in quick succession just after the half-hour, first when McCormick repelled Sam Jones’ effort, then when Dyson could not quite convert Pearson’s deft cross.
If McKeown had been a thorn in Carey’s side before the interval, he became a full-blown nemesis at the start of the second, producing a magnificent save low to his right when an equaliser looked certain.
Knowing that a win was essential, Adams rolled the dice, sending on Spencer on the hour mark to join half-time substitute Blissett in a three-pronged, up-and-at-‘em final attempt to clinch the title.
The gamble took approximately 10 seconds to pay off, as Spencer sped through to score with his first touch and suddenly Argyle were rampant. Taylor fully stretched McKeown again after being superbly released by Spencer; the 'keeper produced another superlative save from Carey’s free-kick; and Sarcevic glanced a header fractionally over the bar.
Try as Argyle might though, the breakthrough would not come.
Then, in the 96th minute of the 46th match of the season, Sonny Bradley had a half-chance to inscribe his name even more indelibly into Argyle folklore, but it was perhaps fitting that his shot should end up in the hands of McKeown, who will never have to buy a drink in Portsmouth in his life.
Grimsby Town (4-3-3): 1 James McKeown; 2 Ben Davies (20 Andrew Boyce 51), 5 Shaun Pearson, 22 Danny Collins, 3 Danny Andrew; 4 Sean McAllister, 8 Craig Disley (26 Brandon Comley 90), 31 Chris Clements; 18 Tom Bolarinwa (32 Jamie Osborne 66), 29 Calum Dyson, 35 Sam Jones. Substitutes (not used): 6 Josh Gowling, 21 Scott Vernon, 23 Daniel Jones, 27 Adi Yussuf.
Bookings: Disley 54, Sam Jones 74, Dyson 90.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Gary Miller, 4 Yann Songo’o, 15 Sonny Bradley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 24 David Fox (6 Connor Smith 83), 7 Antoni Sarcevic; 8 Jordan Slew (13 Nathan Blissett, half-time), 10 Graham Carey, 16 Matty Kennedy (9 Jimmy Spencer 60); 19 Ryan Taylor. Substitutes (not used): 11 Ryan Donaldson, 18 Oscar Threlkeld, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk), 31 Jakub Sokolik.
Booking: Fox 75.
Referee: Ross Joyce.
Attendance: 6,866 (1,834 away).