Ansah 86, Banton 89
Wycombe Wanderers 3
Hayes 10, Holloway 22, Craig 52
by Rick Cowdery
THE Westcountry bluewash continued unchecked as Wycombe Wanderers spoilt the Greens’ party and left their hopes of reaching Wembley – and winning promotion – dependent upon a two-goal swing in Wanderers’ Buckinghamshire heartland on Thursday.
It looked a far, far worse prospect with five minutes to go, but sublime late goals from substitutes Zak Ansah and Jason Banton means that the Pilgrims can travel to Adams Park knowing that a repeat of their 2-0 win there in February will win the tie.
One goal, one mistake, one piece of skill can turn a season. Or one refereeing mistake. In this case, Wycombe had a huge slice of luck when referee Peter Bankes and his assistants missed an obvious handball in the build-up to the goal, by Aaron Holloway, which gave their visitors a crucial cushion to go into the second leg.
The Chairboys already led at that point – halfway through the first half – by another Paul Hayes goal, his second successive opener against Argyle in games at Home Park, and the injustice clearly got to the Plymouth players.
Not to the opposition though, who went further ahead early in the second half when Steven Craig, the perpetrator of the blatant illegality in the build-up to the second goal, added a third.
While there is life, there is hope, however, and beautiful individual strikes from Ansah and Banton put a completely different complex on a contest that looked all done and dusted by the 52nd minute.
Even though that remained unchanged until the 85th minute, Argyle never gave up, and despite a second-half showing which was below par and not to the standard of the first 45 minutes, they hung in there and gutsed something out of nothing.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had made three changes to his Argyle starting 11 that had ended the league season seven days previously with a stunning 2-0 win at Shrewsbury Town.
As expected, the 33-goal strike-force of Reuben Reid and Lewi Alessandra, who had been rested against the Shrews, were recalled at the expense of understudies Ansah and Ryan Brunt.
Dominic Blizzard, who had been a bit under the weather during the week, also dropped to the bench, with Everton loanee Gethin Jones being promoted into central midfield following his eye-catching cameo role in that department when subbed on at Greenhous Meadow.
Otherwise, most of the Green Army in a vibrant 14,000-plus crowd could have picked the initial line-up: goalkeeper Luke McCormick; wing-backs Kelvin Mellor and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; playmaker Bobby Reid; playbreaker Anthony O’Connor; and the back-three, Curtis Nelson on the right, Peter Harley on the left, and – stuck in the middle – Carl McHugh.
Wycombe, captained by one-time Pilgrim Hayes, were without stalwart goalkeeper Matt Ingram for the first time in 115 matches. His place went to 20-year-old Alex Lynch whose only experience of senior football had been when he replaced Ingram late on during the Chairboys’ 3-2 win at Northampton seven days previously.
Hayes, who had scored the only goal when the two sides met at Home Park during the league campaign, took less than ten minutes to repeat the dose and there were striking similarities between the striker’s goals on each occasion.
Now, as then, it came from a corner on the Wycombe right, conceded by McHugh as Wycombe’s three-up-front shape caused problems for the Argyle defence. Joe Jacobson took it, Alfie Mawson met it with a full-blooded header which McCormick saved well, but Hayes was lurking on the goal-line to poke the loose ball home.
Argyle responded positively and nearly leveled from a corner of their own when Nelson flicked on Bobby Reid’s delivery and the ball found O’Connor in space on the far side, but the Irishman blazed the ball over the crossbar.
Wycombe went further ahead midway through the half thanks to a helping hand from referee Bankes, who failed to spot what the thousands inside Home Park and tens of thousands watching on Sky saw quite clearly – Craig handling Jacobson’s free-kick to tee up Holloway.
Holloway took advantage of Bankes’ error to fire a fine low shot past McCormick, but his post-goal grins were not all about his pleasure in putting the Chairboys two up – he knew they had got away with a big one. Even Bankes must have had an inkling that he had made a mistake by the vehemence of the Pilgrims’ protests, which saw Hartley booked a full minute after the goal.
Given that the Pilgrims had not previously come from behind to win a game for more than two years, it suddenly looked like being a long night; week, even. Or a memorable one.
Wycombe were, of course, content to sit on their good fortune and frustrate Argyle, which they did as comfortably as you would expect from a side with the best away record in League 2 during the season. Their discipline and gamesmanship was an object lesson in self-preservation.
Hayes went off at half-time, apparently suffering from concussion, and Sheridan was readying Ansah and Banton when Wycombe went further ahead. This time the only complaint the Pilgrims could have was with their own inattentiveness as Saunders’ quick free-kick released the unmarked Craig to fire the ball past McCormick.
Argyle had no option but to chase something to give them a foothold in the tie, and that meant taking risks that Wycombe were more than capable of exploiting, as Holloway nearly did with a shot that Hartley ultimately blocked.
Then Ansah struck from nowhere, bringing hope and a rather pretty mobile ’phone display from the Green Army, whose theme of the night – Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds: ‘Don’t worry about a thing, every little thing’s going to be alright’ – was given extra resonance in the final minute when Banton surprised the Chairboy’s rookie ’keeper.
When Argyle needed it most, their home form let them down: only twice in the previous 68 league matches at Home Park had Argyle conceded three goals – to, coincidentally, Wycombe in September 2013 and to York (when they were reduced to 10 men early on) in February last year.
Two games after that York defeat, at Fleetwood, we won 4-0.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 16 Carl McHugh (27 Zak Ansah, 29 Peter Hartley; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 17 Bobby Reid, 19 Anthony O’Connor, 20 Gethin Jones (8 Jason Banton), 13 Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; 7 Lewis Alessandra, 9 Reuben Reid (28 Ryan Brunt 65). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 3 Ben Purrington, 11 Dominic Blizzard, 14 Tyler Harvey.
Booked: Hartley 23, McHugh 28, O’Connor 58, Alessandra 72.
Wycombe Wanderers (4-3-3): 21 Alex Lynch; 8 Marcus Bean, 26 Alfie Mawson, 6 Aaron Pierre, 3 Joe Jacobson; 11 Sam Wood, 7 Steve Saunders, 4 Nico Yennaris; 9 Paul Hayes (capt, 10 Matt Bloomfield half-time), 25 Aaron Holloway (15 Peter Murphy ), 12 Steven Craig (23 Fred Onyedinma 71). Substitutes (not used): 16 Tommy Fletcher, 22 Max Kretzschmar, 31 Hogan Ephraim.
Booked: Saunders 45
Referee: Peter Bankes.
Attendance: 14,174 (813 away).