Oxford United 1
by RICK COWDERY
THEIR faithful legion of fans have been proclaiming it, with increasing confidence, for months, and now - certainly, irrevocably, beautifully - it is true: the Greens ARE staying up.
Argyle's 125th anniversary campaign will go down in history for another reason: it will forever be known as the Season the Pilgrims Dodged Two Bullets.
Let us not forget - as if we could - that as recently as September, a patchwork squad, worn down by months without pay, had threatened to go on strike.
Those of us at the training-ground that day saw anxiety and heard conversations with families and agents that did not bode well (to put it mildly) for Argyle's future. That is 'future existence', rather than 'future wellbeing'.
Thankfully, professionalism took precedence over desperation and the subsequent defeat at Burton Albion was, perversely, a massive triumph.
It left the Pilgrims four points adrift at the foot of the npower League 2 table.
By the time, three games later, the club parted company with manager Peter Reid, they were five points off safety, and apparently heading out of the Football League.
The replacement of Reid by Carl Fletcher - by acting chairman Peter Ridsdale - was not a universally popular decision, but the statistics would suggest that it was indubitably the correct one (and, anyway, when has being seen as Mr Popular every bothered Peter Ridsdale?)
Since Fletch took over, the Pilgrims have shown the sort of form that, replicated over an entire season, would have them comfortably mid-table.
The manager's apparently thankless task was considerably bolstered by the club's true saviour, James Brent, who took the Pilgrims out of administration in November. Bullet no. 1 dodged.
Despite their improved form, Argyle remained four points off safety and went into December having been bottom of the entire Football League for 15 of 18 weeks of the season.
Slowly, methodically, the combined belief and effort in the boardroom, bootroom, dressing-room, offices and on the terrace turned the juggernaut around.
Since January 7, Argyle have suffered just four defeats in last 19 - six wins, nine draws - and taken 27 points from 57, form which ranks eighth in npower League 2 over that period.
Nevertheless, so wounded were the Pilgrims by their first nine winless games, it took until mid-February to finally rise out of the bottom two relegation places, and then only for four matches.
Timing is everything, though, and, to use another cliché, it is not where you start, it is where you finish.
It is easy to see how the Pilgrims have ended strongly: they have conceded just eight goals in the last 15 games, winning three of the last five home matches 1-0 and drawing the other two 1-1; since seeing in the new year with a 2-1 home defeat by Torquay, Argyle have suffered one defeat in 11 at Home Park.
With that form to draw upon, Fletcher made two changes to his starting 11 against Oxford.
Captain Simon Walton, a midfielder whose career-resurrection has mirrored Argyle's own climb out of the pit, injured himself in training the previous day, while Alex MacDonald was benched.
Conor Hourihane replaced the injured skipper, and Steve Fletcher was called in for his fukll debut alongside Warren Feeney. The pair last played together - for Bournemouth - in April 2004.
The Pilgrims were given a dream start when Robbie Williams fired home a free-kick to top off the game's first attack.
However, the visitors withstood further pressure from the home side, grew into the game, and responded with an excellent equaliser nine minutes before half-time from Asa Hall.
That was as far as the scoring went, and that - thanks to Hereford and Macclesfield being able to better the result - was enough.
The final strains of the National Anthem, vocalised on the Pilgrims' fourth annual Armed Services Day by the Military Wives Choir, had barely floated off on the wind that greeted kick-off when Argyle found a nerve-settler.
The increasingly dangerous Luke Young panicked Liam Davis into a free-kick 25 yards from goal and Williams, who had been getting closer and closer from dead-ball situations in recent weeks, stepped up.
He enjoyed the luck that had evaded him previously and, for the second home game in a row, the Pilgrims took the lead with a deflected goal that bamboozled the visiting goalkeeper. Less than a minute and a half was on the clock.
In next to no time, it was nearly two, Young latching on to a cross from the left to sweetly volley the ball goalwards from ten yards. Wayne Brown, the hitherto unlucky custodian, brilliantly saved.
Young was at it again a little later from more or less the same position, with Feeney this time the provider from the same flank. The lower shot was powerful, but straight at Brown.
Oxford showed little threat so it was somewhat of a surprise that they equalised in the 36th minute, becoming the first side to breach the Pilgrims' back four for three Home Park matches.
Hall found room 30 yards from goal and pinged off a shot that swerved away from Jake Cole and gave him no chance of stopping.
The strike from nothing rocked Argyle and nearly silenced an already nervous home crowd, and the pendulum of momentum swung towards the visitors.
It had stopped moving by the time the interval came round. With the games at Hereford and Bradford also deadlocked, the Pilgrims were, at that point, in a position of safety.
The start of the second was not dissimilar to the beginning of the first.
Young, who had been moved into a more central role, won a free-kick by driving into the hear of the Oxford defence, which was was in Paul Wotton territory.
Again, the set-piece took a deflection. Again, Brown was left flat-footed. This time, the ball - which had hit an Argyle player - bobbled wide.
The Pilgrims immediately came under pressure from Oxford, who nearly went ahead when Adam Chapman's free-kick from the left was allowed passage across the goal to hit a post and rebound to safety.
MacDonald came on for Feeney and Oxford replaced Scott Rendell with James Constable as both sides replenished their attacking stock.
MacDonald tested Brown from range, and Fletcher went close with a header from Young's cross as the game opened up, Oxford needing the points as much as Argyle.
Constable was less effective, lasting ten minutes before going off injured.
It did not blunt Oxford, and Durrell Berry, a defensive lynchpin in the last few weeks, was coolness personified in dealing with Andrew Whing's teasing cross.
Nick Chadwick came on for Fletcher in the dying moments - the game's, not the veteran Fletcher's.
Williams nearly ended the match as he had begun it, with a goal from a free-kick, but Brown got everything behind this one at the foot of his post.
Mike Devlin, a member of the Home Park Box Office staff, is fond of tweeting, when Argyle have had a good day: "This is what we went through administration for" - eight words that mask a whole lot of pain and tears.
Winston Churchill put it another way. "When you're going through hell," he growled, "keep going."
Argyle 1 Oxford 1 - bullet no. 2 dodged.
This is what we kept going through the hell of administration for.
Argyle (4-4-2): 23 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Darren Purse, 22 Maxime Blanchard, 3 Robbie Williams; 15 Luke Young, 20 Conor Hourihane, 19 Paul Wotton (capt), 14 Onismor Bhasera; 10 Steve Fletcher (29 Nick Chadwick 87), 11 Warren Feeney (32 Alex MacDonald 60). Substitutes (not used): 1 Romain Larrieu (gk), 13 Ladjie Soukouna, 31 Ashley Hemmings.
Booked: Feeney 51, Wotton 53.
Oxford United (4-3-3): 21 Wayne Brown; 16 Andrew Whing, 5 Michael Duberry, 6 Jake Wright (capt), 26 Liam Davis; 7 Adam Chapman, 20 Peter Leven, 14 Asa Hall; 18 Dean Morgan, 23 Scott Rendell (9 James Constable 62, 8 Simon Heslop 75), 27 Cristian Montano (19 Oli Johnson 67). Substitutes (not used): 17 Tony Capaldi, 34 Max Crocombe (gk).
Booked: Morgan 78.
Referee: Gary Sutton.
Attedndance: 8,668 (827 away).