by CHARLIE HEMPSTEAD
ARGYLE dropped back to the foot of the Football League following defeat at table-topping Gillingham in front of a record crowd of more than 10,000 on a chilly Kent afternoon.
Antonio German, the Gills’ loan signing from Bradford, opened the scoring towards the end of the first half, and team-mate Chris Whelpdale doubled the leaders’ lead with a breakaway second after the interval.
Jason Banton netted his fourth goal in seven appearances since signing for the Pilgrims on loan from Crystal Palace in the final quarter to give Argyle some hope, but they were unable to add to his strike.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had acknowledged, ahead of the match, that not many people were expecting Argyle to get anything out of the game, but he remained upbeat about his team’s chances and showed his confidence by making no changes to either the starting 11 or the substitutes.
Gills manager Martin Allen was equally optimistic about the home side’s prospects, making it clear that he expected his team to put on a show for the fans. In search of a winning formula that has been more elusive at home than away this year, he promoted Bradley Dack and German from the bench in place of Charlie Lee and Deon Burton, with Danny East, newly signed on loan from Hull City, being named among the substitutes in place of Ryan Williams.
Referee Craig Pawson was another noteworthy name on the team-sheet, as every one of the four Argyle matches that he had previously refereed had ended in defeat, and the last of them – against Port Vale at Home Park last season – saw him dismiss Ladjie Soukouna.
In a remarkably end-to-end opening which was to set the tone for the whole of the first half, Argyle were first to threaten, when Andres Gurrieri found space in the centre circle and released Ronan Murray in a surprising amount of space on the right, but his shot was charged down by Joe Martin.
Within a minute, Argyle caused alarms in the Gillingham defence following a corner, but the home side broke extremely quickly down the right, with Dack’s cross finding Whelpdale completely unmarked on the six-yard line. The midfielder’s header sailed wastefully over the bar, leaving him holding his head in anguish.
Argyle’s second corner was not long in coming, but, again, the threat was quickly cleared, following which Dack tried his luck for Gillingham with a curler from the left, but failed to keep it down.
At the other end, Murray almost got on the end of Jake Cole’s long kick, but, within seconds, the hosts were breaking clear on the left, and it took an excellent clearance by Guy Branston to avert the danger.
German, who was to prove a persistent thorn in the Pilgrims’ side, then let fly with a thunderous left-foot shot which Jake Cole was mightily relieved to see pass by his right post. All this in the first quarter of an hour.
Breathless stuff, indeed.
Although Argyle were looking after the ball in the way that the manager has been preaching since his arrival, largely thanks to Gurrieri’s ability to make himself available to the man in possession at all times, there was little threat to Stuart Nelson’s goal.
Banton , in particular, was finding it hard to get a foothold in the game; in fact, he was finding it hard to get a foothold at all, given the appalling condition of the pitch on the left touchline.
However, it was his trickery that led to a free-kick in a promising position, but the opportunity was wasted by taking it short, leading to a quick counter-attack that ended with Anton Robinson firing a shot into the side netting.
Shortly afterwards, German clearly and quite deliberately punched a pass to Whelpdale, for which the free-kick was duly awarded, but, inexplicably, no card was shown to the forward.
Reprieved, he almost immediately scored the goal that gave the home side the lead. A free-kick from the left was headed back into the box, where the lanky striker swivelled and fired the ball past Jake Cole from eight yards.
Gillingham’s ability to break quickly was leaving the Argyle rearguard frequently stretched, and it took an excellent catch by Cole to thwart the hosts when Matt Fish delivered a wicked cross from the right.
As half-time approached, the hosts came perilously close to a second goal, when Joe Martin’s cross from the left was met by a flying header from Robinson, which mercifully arrowed straight into Cole’s midriff.
The second half was much more of a slow burn, with little of note happening until Fish was allowed too much space on the right, but his delivery into the box was neither cross nor shot, and cleared the angle of post and bar.
Argyle almost made the most of their escape, as Banton finally found some room and loosed off a shot which took a looping deflection, forcing Nelson into his first meaningful action.
With Ugwu on for Murray, Argyle switched to a 4-4-2 formation, and the new arrival was soon looking hopefully at the referee as he went down under a challenge in the Gillingham box.
However, whistle came there none, and, from the ensuing break, the hosts doubled their lead. Whelpdale timed his pass to perfection to release German one-on-one and was alert enough to continue his run and be on hand to fire home as the striker’s shot came back off the post.
Argyle were immediately forced into a second change, with Anthony Charles appearing to have pulled his groin. Paris Cowan-Hall took his place in a reshuffle that saw Lee Cox slot in at right-back and Maxime Blanchard move inside to partner Guy Branston.
For a while, it felt like an international rugby match, as substitutions took place at the rate of one a minute, with East and Michael Richardson making debuts for the home side and Luke Young replacing Conor Hourihane.
Any resemblance between Twickenham and the Priestfield ended there, however.
With a two-goal cushion, the hosts seemed to have the game well under control, and they were not far from a third, when Adam Barrett – the scorer of a late equalizer in the fixture at Home Park earlier in the season – almost profited from a weak punch from Cole following a corner.
Luke Young almost announced his arrival in dramatic fashion, going for goal from a 35-yard free kick, but Nelson turned the shot around the post. From the resulting corner, the ball fell to Banton, who tricked his man before firing a fine low shot into the far corner.
Suddenly, there seemed a prospect that the Pilgrims might salvage an unlikely point. Twice more Banton created shooting opportunities, the first of which was sliced wildly, but the second, struck sweetly, riffled the side netting.
That, sadly, was as close as a goal came.
1 Jake Cole; 4 Maxime Blanchard, 26 Anthony Charles (7 Paris Cowan-Hall 63), 5 Guy Branston, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 10 Lee Cox, 27 Andres Gurrieri, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 8 Luke Young 73); 19 Jason Banton, 24 Reuben Reid, 28 Ronan Murray (18 Gozie Ugwu 56). Substitutes (not used):
9 Nick Chadwick, 13 Ollie Chenoweth (gk), 15 Paul Wotton, 23 Jamie Richards.
Hourihane 36, Branston 80.
1 Stuart Nelson; 2 Matt Fish, 6 Leon Legge, 26 Adam Barrett (capt), 3 Joe Martin; 18 Bradley Dack (5 Danny East 73), 10 Anton Robinson, 28 Steven Gregory, 7 Chris Whelpdale (25 Michael Richardson 68); 9 Danny Kedwell, 19 Antonio German (20 Deon Burton 63). Substitutes (not used):
8 Charlie Lee, 15 Callum Davies, 17 Adam Birchall, 21 Tommy Forecast (gk).
10,260 (404 away).