by Rob McNichol
A SOLITARY goal from Josh Coulson gave Cambridge United a winning start on their return to Sky Bet League 2 - and extended Argyle's opening day losing streak into a third year.
After defeats against Aldershot and Southend in recent years, Argyle emerged pointless from the season's opening fixture thanks to a goal just after the hour from the newly-promoted side's central defender.
It was always going to be a tough task coming to a team buoyed by their recent promotion, and it looked to be a tougher one when the home side were awarded a penalty after ten minutes. Luke McCormick saved Argyle then, and the Pilgrims would have their chances in an entertaining game, but it was the hosts who enjoyed the party far more than their guests.
John Sheridan named a team that could reasonably have been predicted ahead of the game - but one that differed greatly to the side that concluded the previous season. Only four of today's starters - Lewis Alessandra, Jason Banton, Reuben Reid and Curtis Nelson - were in the Pilgrims' starting line-up at Portsmouth in May. A fifth - Luke McCormick - was injured and unable to participate that day.
The remaining six were all summer arrivals, contributing to a vastly different feel to the side. Lee Cox was making a second Pilgrims debut, having played on loan two seasons earlier, while five others were making their competitive bow; namely Kelvin Mellor, Peter Hartley, Carl McHugh, Ollie Norburn and Deane Smalley.
The last named was perhaps the most surprising addition to the team, having faced a troubled pre-season because of injury. He was passed fit for this curtain-raiser, though, as was the equally afflicted Dominic Blizzard, who took a place on the bench. He was joined by another newcomer, James Bittner, and Aaron Bentley, featuring on the bench for the first time as a professional. Nathan Thomas, Tyler Harvey, Ben Purrington and Marvin Morgan completed the Argyle contingent.
In turn, the squad of 18 were backed by a green-and-white phalanx totalling well over a thousand, all here to try to spur on their new team of heroes to a memorable season.
Their counterparts, though, were in fine voice themselves, this being United's first game back in the Football League in nine years. The home side included the dangerous Kwesi Appiah, who had looked a serious threat when playing - and scoring - at Home Park in April for Wimbledon.
The Greens started notably well, looking composed on the ball and earning plenty of territorial advantage. Nothing came of four corners from the Argyle right that came in quick succession, but their very existence proved Argyle's threat.
At the other end, a brief flurry from Cambridge saw Adam Cunnington earn a half-chance twelve yards out, but the close attention of Nelson put paid to any threat he might have posed.
On ten minutes, though, United, from only their second real foray into Argyle territory, were awarded a penalty. Appiah had spun into a channel, marshalled by Nelson, and his cross seemed destined to be collected by McHugh, at left-back. The ball fell awkwardly for the Irishman, though, and as he stooped to chest the ball down, connected with his arm. Referee Graham Scott showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Cunnington, therefore, had another chance from twelve yards, this time without the close attention of Nelson. However, his shot, directed low and to the bottom right of the goal, was placed in the exact spot that McCormick chose to dive. The Argyle keeper not only saved, but held the shot.
They may not have taken the lead, but the penalty had seemingly given United some hope. There followed a spell where home voices grew with belief and their team began to press on. A free-kick by Ryan Donaldson struck the wall, then Nelson had to be on his game to head clear when surrounded by three amber shirts looking to prey on a delicious returned cross.
Argyle, though, began to get the ball to Banton a little more, and it was from a sweeping run and cross by the former Palace man that Alessandra sent a header towards goal. He could not, however, find the target.
A few minutes later he did find Smalley on the edge of the box, having made his own progress down the left side. Smalley shot from a dangerous spot on the edge of the area, but was closed down quickly and the ball rebounded away.
Argyle kept coming. Smalley got beyond his full-back, despite being impeded, and set the ball back where it found Norburn, lurking. His powerful drive looked on target, but found the face of a brave United defender before it had a chance to test home goalkeeper Chris Dunn. Shortly after, McHugh flicked on a Cox cross, but it looped over the bar.
At the other end, McCormick had to be a little more alert than his opposite number was asked to be, as he fingertipped a Cunnington cross over his crossbar. From the corner, Tom Bonner headed into the deck and over the bar, causing more than a flurry of panic in green hearts.
Next to go close was Appiah, who spun Nelson from a throw-in and bent a twenty-yarder inches wide, while Argyle answered with Alessandra giving the United defence the slip, but personifying the action when losing his footing as he sliced well wide.
In the first minute of first-half stoppage time, he kept his footing but could not muster the necessary elevation on the ball, chipping tamely into the hands of Dunn after latching onto Cox's fantastic through-ball. Seconds later Reid stung Dunn's hands after cutting in from the left and firing on target, as Argyle finished a topsy-turvy half on top.
Cambridge brought on Robbie Simpson at half-time to replace Cunnington up front, but it was nearly an unlikely source that broke the deadlock. A superb burst by Donaldson concluded with him putting right-back Richard Tait through, but McCormick saved well at his near post. Shortly afterwards, Harrison Dunk dinked a cross that Appiah headed just over.
Argyle hit back with a pair of good chances. Sustained possession and pressure led to first Smalley's header down being turned goalwards by Reid, only to see the volley blocked, before Norburn fired low into the keeper's body after being toed the ball by Alessandra on the edge of the box.
Just after the hour, though, Cambridge had their lead. Appiah had caused a corner after being played in behind Hartley and forcing McCormick to rush out and push wide, but from the resultant flag-kick the ball fell kindly to Coulson, who prodded home from eight yards.
With twenty minutes remaining, Sheridan sent on Morgan for Banton, closely followed by Blizzard for Norburn. Seconds later, Reid found a rare half-yard and shot well from the edge of the area, but Dunn saved, then regained the ball at the second attempt with vultures circling.
A Nelson header down from a McHugh free-kick could not find Morgan, as Argyle sought to push bodies forward at every opportunity. Cambridge came close to doubling their lead, though, when left-back Greg Taylor dispossessed Alessandra, skipped into the box and trickled a shot wide.
Essentially playing with four up front, Sheridan shuffled the deck a final time in introducing Thomas for Alessandra, but Argyle could not find a spark to earn an opening day point.
Cambridge: 1 Chris Dunn; 2 Richard Tait, 4 Josh Coulson, 5 Tom Bonner, 3 Greg Taylor; 7 Ryan Donaldson, 8 Tom Champion (capt), 20 Issa Diallo (22 Luke Chadwick 84), 11 Harrison Dunk; 21 Kwesi Appiah (19 Delano Sam-Yorke 76), 9 Adam Cunnington (15 Robbie Simpson HT). Substitutes (not used): 13 Will Norris, 14 Johnny Hunt, 16 Mitchell Austin, 25 Harry Lennon.
Argyle: 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 29 Peter Hartley, 16 Carl McHugh; 22 Deane Smalley, 4 Lee Cox, 6 Ollie Norburn (11 Dominic Blizzard 74), 8 Jason Banton (10 Marvin Morgan 70); 7 Lewis Alessandra (19 Nathan Thomas 82), 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 3 Ben Purrington, 14 Tyler Harvey, 25 Aaron Bentley.
Booked: Thomas 90
Referee: Graham Scott