by CHRIS PARSONS
FORMER Argyle defender Adam Barrett’s 89th minute goal denied the Pilgrims all three points at home to top of the league Gillingham.
Barrett, who played 64 times in an 18 month stay at Home Park between 1999-2000, was on hand to head home after the Argyle had twice gone in front.
After a slow start in which neither team could fashion a chance, it was Curtis Nelson who put Argyle in front, reacting first to a deflected shot to put his side in front from an acute angle.
The lead was to last just five minutes, however, as striker Ben Strevens made the most of a bodged Chris Whelpdale effort to level proceedings.
Luke Young then looked to have won it for Argyle ten minutes from time but it was Barrett’s goal in the dying embers of the game that ensured his side travelled back to Kent with a share of the points.
With just Paul Wotton and Robbie Williams left in the treatment room, Argyle manager Carl Fletcher was able to make five changes for the visit of the league leaders.
The first major change came in goal where Rene Gilmartin, 17 games into the season, replaced Jake Cole for his league debut in green.
There was a change in the heart of defence, too, and with Maxime Blanchard not fully able to recover from an injury suffered against Burton Albion, captain Darren Purse returned for his first start since October 23.
Conor Hourihane had missed the visit of Burton through suspension, but returned to the centre of midfield against Gillingham, pushing Luke Young out to the left to replace Joe Lennox.
On the right, newly-appointed top goalscorer Paris Cowan-Hall was preferred to Alex MacDonald whilst in attack, Rhys Griffiths stepped in for Guy Madjo.
After a quiet opening 15 minutes where both sides enjoyed possession in the opposition half, the first real chance of the match fell to the visitors when a Tom Flanagan free-kick was headed goalwards by Chris Whelpdale. Gilmartin, until now redundant, made a good save low to his left to palm Whelpdale’s effort around the post.
But Argyle were making in-roads of their own and threatened from distance when first, Lowry let rip from 30 yards, before Griffiths directed his header into the grateful arms of Stuart Nelson.
Then, as the half-hour a approached, Griffiths was gifted another opportunity when a flowing passing move, reminiscent of the play seen previously at Home Park this season, ended with the Welshman heading over from the edge of the area.
The best chance of the half came just minutes later and when Durrell Berry’s 35 yard drive was fumbled by Nelson, the whole of the FES Devonport End was on its feet as both Griffiths and Warren Feeney closed in. But they were back in their seats again just moments later as the Gills goalkeeper recovered to make an impressive diving save to again deny Griffiths.
Argyle were now looking like the better side and so it came as no surprise when they deservedly took the lead after 33 minutes when Curtis Nelson fired past his namesake for his second goal of the season.
The Pilgrims defender was in just the right place at the right home to swipe home Feeney’s deflected shot from a well-worked Jamie Lowry corner.
Sadly, though, the home side’s lead lasted just five minutes and soon Gillingham were back in the game when Strevens reacted first to Whelpdale’s miss-hit shot to fired past the already committed Gilmartin.
The Gills’ goal reduced the tempo of the game which in turn quietened the noise of the crowd.
After the break, Gillingham introduced Myles Weston and set straight about firing passes down his lefthand side thus limiting the Pilgrims opportunities to attack.
With half an hour remaining, Fletcher opted for a change, bringing on Andres Gurrieri for Feeney and the Argentinean immediately set about making a difference, slotting in on the left of midfield to push Young to the right and Cowan-Hall up front.
But it was when he cut inside that he was most dangerous, finding space in the midfield to allow both of the Pilgrims’ full-backs to advance.
On one occasion, he created enough space to play a delightful ball into Berry whose low cross somehow evaded everybody in a packed penalty area and was eventually cleared.
There were to plenty more dangerous crosses, plenty more blocked shots and snuffed out through balls, until the 80th minute when the Pilgrims finally re-took the lead when Young latched onto a flick on from substitute Chadwick to rocket a shot past Nelson and into the roof of the net.
Some of the older members of the Green Army will know just how stressful it can be watching the Pilgrims hold onto a one goal lead with only single figure minutes to play but here, Argyle looked comfortable and could even have gone further in front had Onismor Bhasera not miss-cued his effort from just inside the area.
But, just one minute from time, Barrett was on hand to break Argyle hearts, heading in from close range after Weston had headed a Jack Payne cross back across the goal.
Every point is a prisoner, and this one is safely behind bars.
20 Rene Gilmartin; 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Darren Purse (capt), 17 Curtis Nelson, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 16 Jamie Lowry, 6 Conor Hourihane, 8 Luke Young; 11 Warren Feeney (27 Andres Gurrieri 60), 10 Rhys Griffiths (9 Nick Chadwick 68). Substitutes (not used):
1 Jake Cole (gk), 4 Maxime Blanchard, 18 Guy Madjo, 19 Joe Lennox, 33 Scott Griffiths.
1 Stuart Nelson; 2 Matt Fish, 6 Tom Flanagan, 26 Adam Barrett (capt), 11 Danny Jackman; 7 Chris Whelpdale (9 Danny Kedwell 69), 4 Jack Payne, 30 Romain Vincelot, 8 Charlie Lee (24 Myles Weston h-t); 20 Deon Burton (17 Adam Birchall 86), 10 Ben Strevens. Substitutes (not used):
12 Andrew Frampton, 15 Callum Davies, 16 Lewis Montrose, 21 Tommy Forecast (gk).
6,369 (377 away)