Smalley pen 90
by Rick Cowdery
AFTER the champagne, the hangover.
Looking to build a platform from which a Sky Bet League 2 promotion bid can be launched following Saturday’s party over neighbours Exeter City, the Pilgrims pretty well failed to turn up for the aftershow.
However, an amazing finale, when Argyle substitute Deane Smalley converted a penalty with the last meaningful kick of the game in the eighth minute of injury-time, saw them rescue a point which only the most green-eyed optimist would say was deserved.
Smalley stepped up in front of the Devonport end after his own header back across the Stevenage goal from Kelvin Mellor's Hail Mary free-kick was almost inexplicably handled by Bira Demeble.
Gone was the fresh, slick attacking display that saw off the Grecians as Argyle were dragged into an ugly scrap which favoured their strong and direct opponents, for who substitute Connor Calcutt scored a 54th-minute opener in the first ever meeting between the two sides.
In virtually his entire 20-month tenure, Pilgrims’ manager John Sheridan has bemoaned his side’s lack of consistency, and this season has seen that trait continue within games (Cambridge, Leyton Orient) and now between them (Exeter, Stevenage).
The Pilgrims’ starting 11 showed one change from that which had paved the way for the previous Saturday’s 3-0 trouncing of Exeter with Lee Cox, who had missed the Devon Expressway Derby with a thigh strain, recalled in place of Ollie Norburn.
The former Bristol Rovers midfielder was not even on an Argyle bench which, in the absence also of winger Nathan Thomas, comprised only six substitutes.
Stevenage, captained by former Pilgrim Simon Walton, were in even worse shape, numerically, being able to name only four potential replacements, one of who was veteran goalkeeper Chris Day.
It took a wee while for the game to settle down, a situation not helped by a long injury-break in the first five minutes after Anthony O’Connor and Stevenage striker Darius Charles clashed heads and required the administration of a doctor, two physios and plenty of ice.
Argyle had life breathed into them by their wide men after quarter of an hour. Jason Banton, hugging the left touchline, made strides before supplying Reuben Reid at the near post for a shot on the slide that was snuffed out by a defensive lunge.
After Banton then cut inside before letting fly with an off-target attempt, Lewis Alessandra then supplied Derby hero Tyler Harvey from the opposite flank for a shot that met with similar fate.
Stevenage were an altogether different challenge than Exeter, and the silky moves that had so delighted in the all-Westcountry clash largely played second fiddle to some necessary steel in the face of more physical opponents.
Alessandra had to leave the field for stitches in a head wound after being clonked by Bira Dembele, although referee Kevin Johnson did not deem the challenge worthy of even a free-kick.
Not that the Hertfordshire side lacked some finesse and, as the first half grew longer, so did their confidence, which meant that Argyle were on the back foot for period. One block by Curtis Nelson, of Andy Bond’s goalbound shot, was particularly valuable.
First-half injury-time extended into an eighth minute after another head injury, this time to Kelvin Mellor and this time inflicted by a team-mate after the Pilgrims’ defender slipped at the feet of Charles as the Argyle back line successfully redeemed a faux pas by O’Connor.
Whether it was the physicality of the opposition or some perceived injustices handed out by the official, Argyle appeared to be at odds with life and it was little surprise when they conceded nine minutes after the break.
Chris Whelpdale showed determination to beat Carl McHugh to the bye-line and loft over a cross to which only Calcutt was properly alive, and the striker had time to pick his spot and head the ball past an exposed Luke McCormick.
Sheridan’s dissatisfaction with what he had seen was evidenced on the hour, when he made a triple substitution, bringing off Reid, Cox and Harvey in favour of Marvin Morgan, River Allen and Smalley, the latter for his Pilgrims’ Home Park bow.
With Smalley and Morgan paired up front, Argyle’s shape was not far off 4-2-4, and although both front men showed some urgency and no little desire, a breakthrough still seemed a way off.
Allen tried his luck with a shot from range which caused Boro goalkeeper Sam Beasant few worries, although a similar effort from Banton had the son of the former Wimbledon and Chelsea stopper scrambling across his goal to keep the ball out.
Allen showed the other side of his game when he chased back and made an expertly-timed tackle, inside the penalty area, to deprive Charlie Lee of what, for most of the Stevenage player’s long, clean, run on goal, looked a certain second.
The visitors’ spoiling tactics extended to enough time-wasting for the referee to find an extra six minutes at the end of the 90.
It turned out to be nine, in the eighth of which Dembele's arm went up in the penalty area after Mellor’s free-kick had been headed on by Smalley, leaving the home debutant to coolly convert for - who knows? - what might be a priceless point come early May.
Argyle (4-5-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 29 Peter Hartley, 16 Carl McHugh; 7 Lewis Alessandra, 28 Anthony O’Connor, 14 Tyler Harvey (22 Deane Smalley 60), 4 Lee Cox (24 River Allen 60), 8 Jason Banton; 9 Reuben Reid (10 Marvin Morgan 60). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 3 Ben Purrington, 11 Dominic Blizzard.
Booked: Mellor 45.
Stevenage: 1 Sam Beasant; 5 Jon Ashton, 19 Dean Wells, 3 Bira Dembele, 23 Jerome Okimo; 7 Chris Whelpdale (11 Tom Pett 81), 8 Simon Walton, 6 Andy Bond, 34 Roarie Deacon; 22 Charlie Lee (27 Ryan Johnson 90), 9 Darius Charles (15 Connor Calcutt half-time). Substitutes (not used): 16 Chris Day (gk).
Booked: Bond 51, Walton 76.
Referee: Kevin Johnson.
Attendance: 6,240 (126 away).