1 (Blizzard 65)
1 (Hurst 67)
By ROB McNICHOL
TWO of Sky Bet League 2’s in-form teams both added another game to their unbeaten runs as neither Argyle nor Southend could prove superiority at Home Park.
Argyle, five unbeaten and having lost only two in sixteen prior to this occasion, took the lead after 65 minutes via a deflected Dominic Blizzard shot. However, Southend, in fourth place and having only lost one in eight themselves, levelled through Kevan Hurst just two minutes later.
It turned out to be a game in two sides largely cancelled each other out due to their wariness of the other’s form, as opposed to an open game full of players displaying confidence. Neither, though, you suspect, will be entirely dissatisfied with earning a point from the other.
Pre-match, the buzz had been all about Jason Banton, rejoining Argyle on a permanent basis from Crystal Palace, having had a hand in retaining the Pilgrims’ league status last season.
An opening had appeared for Banton in the side given the departures of Tope Obadeyi and to their parent clubs since last Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Port Vale. Lavery, in fact, came off of Sheffield Wednesday’s bench and notched two goals as they demolished Leeds 6-0 at Hillsborough. You are welcome, Owls.
John Sheridan also recalled 17-year-old Ben Purrington to the starting line-up at the expense of Durrell Berry, who had held the left-back berth at Vale Park at the outset. Luke McCormick, as is the convention in the league, returned in goal in place of Jake Cole.
Southend’s line-up had some familiar faces, too. Conor Clifford and Will Atkinson, both Argyle loanees of different vintages, lined up in a side that also included Ryan Leonard, who lead out the Shrimpers at his former home.
With living Argyle legend Graham Coughlan on the Southend coaching staff, too, the intelligence about Argyle abounded, and shone through as United chose to change ends at the start, contrary to the customs in these parts. Spoilsports.
There had been much discussion about exactly where Banton would fill in, and this seemed to be answered at the outset as he joined Reuben Reid in a central role. Three minutes later, though, he had turned up on the left flank, with Lewis Alessandra shifting inside.
Five minutes in, Argyle won a free kick forty or so yards out, and from Conor Hourihane’s whipped delivery Southend keeper Daniel Bentley had to be swift to push the ball round for a corner.
The first glimpse of Banton came on nine minutes, when Curtis Nelson’s intuitive defender saw him win the ball and burst up the park Alan Hansen-style, releasing Banton and pushing on. Banton drew his man and beat him, but Alessandra was just beaten to the cross.
If Nelson was imitating Hansen – no-one better for a central defender to try to emulate – then McCormick’s choice of role model was even stranger. As Nelson’s backpass put Luke under a bit of pressure, he was closed down by Barry Corr. McCormick suddenly was Johann Cruyff, circa 1974, shifting the ball between the legs and clearing. Total football at Home Park?
At the other end, in a more sensible impression by a goalkeeper, Bentley was busy trying to be David Seaman. His scooped save to claw the ball off the line was reminiscent of an FA Cup semi final Seaman made for Arsenal. Nelson’s headed knock-down was helped on by Reid, but Bentley produced a save plenty of continental goalies would be proud of.
Ben Coker tested McCormick from a direct free-kick, but the Argyle keeper was equal to it, tipping around the post. From the corner, though, he spilled a catch, and only the strength of numbers and calmness of Neal Trotman removed the danger for Argyle.
Trotman repeated the act just prior to the half hour mark, as Kevan Hurst put a lob into orbit, but it seemed to be about to drop in. Not so, as Trotman headed away in time.
Hurst then lifted a ball into the area for an on-running Corr, who headed wide under pressure from Max Blanchard. The same player later fizzed a ball across the six-yard area which was too powerful for even his attackers to handle.
Argyle created a chance when Reid shot high into the Devonport end with his left foot after good work by Dominic Blizzard, but Argyle were mostly treating the ball like a hot potato.
In first half stoppage time, Hurst’s free-kick was well saved by McCormick, with Luke Prosser going close from the corner. Perhaps Argyle just needed some half-time words of wisdom. Keep Calm, perhaps?
Argyle began brightly after the break. A determined run by Blizzard saw him forge his way into the United area, and when he was blocked the ball fell to Reid, whose deflected shot had the goalkeeper scrambling. It fell, however, just onto the roof of the net.
Reid was at the forefront of a lot of Argyle’s intent as they tried to ratchet up the pressure on their visitors. A long, winding run saw him evade several grasping defenders, and eventually ended with him being felled, although nothing came from the resultant free-kick. Shortly afterwards, he was picked out by Gurrieri from a quickly taken corner, but the pace of the pass was a little strong.
Then came a minor spat. It little of little consequence and even less substance, but it ended up being a major contributor to a shift in proceedings. Referee Tim Robinson stopped play as attention was needed by a Southend player. When a restart was required Southend reluctantly returned the ball to their hosts, but Michael Timlin saw fit not to clip the ball back to Luke McCormick, but instead play into touch like a good fly-half might with a ball of a different variant.
Argyle skipper Conor Hourihane saw fit to take issue with Timlin, and while matters threatened to take an unsavoury turn, it was simply a mass conflict of opinion rather than action.
As it happened, within thirty seconds of taking the corner, Argyle were in front.
Another foray into Southend territory was snuffed out on the edge of the Shrimpers’ 18-yard box, but this time it fell to Blizzard, who hit a deflected shot into the back of the net. Along with the hefty deflection came a hefty slice of irony, for the ball’s deviation had come off of a grasping Timlin.
If Southend felt aggrieved, they channelled their annoyance in the correct fashion. Substitute Cauley Woodrow threaded Southend’s liveliest player, Hurst, through the middle, and he beat Purrington and McCormick in a three-way race to clip home, less than two minutes after Argyle had taken the lead.
Banton, the pre-match talking point, had shown glimpses of the talent he undoubtedly has, and his sudden burst of pace and cross-shot had Bentley scrambling and the Green Army gasping. Unfortunately for the latter, the keeper held on.
Banton gave way to Nathan Thomas shortly after, although all eyes were on Reid as he once again embarked on a mesmorising run, beating three defenders before getting the ball caught between his feet as he tried to claw the ball past Bentley.
Blizzard attempted to repeat his earlier feat with another shot from range, having been fed by Gurrieri and Thomas, but this time no body came between the ball and it’s flight into the Barn Park end.
The game, entering the final minutes, was at its most open. Southend carved open a glorious chance for Marc Laird, but he could only bobble the ball wide in front of a grateful Devonport end.
At the other end, for the second game in succession, Argyle struck a post as timed ebbed away. This time it was Nelson, upfield for a set-play, who seized upon a loose ball and hit the upright with his prodded left-foot effort. Following up, Alessandra sliced wide as the ball flew to him at pace.
Leonard looked to complete a fairytale for him with a direct free-kick in the dying seconds, but the ball flew safely wide.
To Tuesday, then, and perhaps another wonderful FA Cup memory. Why not? We’re unbeaten this year, after all...
: (4-4-2) 23 Luke McCormick; 4 Maxime Blanchard, 16 Neal Trotman, 17 Curtis Nelson, 25 Ben Purrington; 27 Andres Gurrieri, 11 Dominic Blizzard, 6 Conor Hourihane (Captain), 7 Lewis Alessandra; 9 Reuben Reid, 20 Jason Banton (19 Nathan Thomas 80).
: 1 Jake Cole, 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Guy Branston, 8 Rommy Boco, 14 Luke Young, 15 Paul Wotton.
: Blanchard 45, Trotman 90
(4-2-3-1): 17 Daniel Bentley; 18 Ryan Leonard, 5 Mark Phillips, 6 Luke Prosser, 3 Ben Coker; 8 Michael Timlin, 12 Will Atkinson; 11 Anthony Straker (4 Marc Laird 83), 16 Conor Clifford (23 Adam Thompson 56), 14 Kevan Hurst; 10 Barry Corr (7 Freddy Eastwood 74).
: 1 Paul Smith, 21 Jack Payne, 29 Bedsente Gomis, 33 Cauley Woodrow.
: Tim Robinson
: 7,088 (249 away)