Fenwick pen 84
McHugh 76, Mellor 90
by Rob McNichol
ARGYLE have returned to the number one position in the division - thanks to the Pilgrims' number 2.
Kelvin Mellor, minutes after giving away a penalty which looked to have handed a point to hosts Hartlepool, scored a last minute winner for Argyle to make this year's Christmas a wholly green-and-white affair.
Carl McHugh's classy effort looked to have given Argyle the win, in the game's latter stages, but Scott Fenwick's penalty, conceded by Mellor, gave struggling Pools a surprise lifeline.
Mellor, though, appeared in the right spot at the other end to slide home and give Argyle a victory their second half display certainly merited.
Derek Adams' sole change to the Argyle squad was the inclusion of Luke McCormick in the Pilgrims goal for the first time since November 10, following his recovery from a pair of injuries. Christian Walton switched places, taking a seat on a bench reserved for 18, 19 and 20 years olds...and Deane Smalley.
It would probably be fair to say that many a Pilgrim's eye looked to this game when the fixtures were announced - a 750+ mile round trip, days before Christmas - and saw it either as one to skip, or as an opportunity to freeze to near-death within sight of the North Sea.
As it turns out, El Niño is a Janner, and sparked an unusual airflow than saw a rare visit to Victoria Park where teeth refrained from chattering. Short sleeves were not quite the order of the day among the Green Army, but not needing four or five layers was a welcome change of pace.
The unseasonable warmth seemed to inspire a bright start to the game, as Hartlepool twice earned a corner - though each time failed to trouble Argyle at all - while at the other end Argyle forced a free-kick in a dangerous area. Rhys Oates' pull on Gregg Wylde earned the Pools man a caution, and Craig Tanner's delivery sparked distress in the home ranks, until the referee awarded a free-kick against Argyle with the ball bouncing around the six-yard area.
Another Tanner delivery, this time from the left in open play, found Kelvin Mellor attacking from the right, but the full-back's header soared just wide. Tanner then struck a direct free-kick on target, but found only the arms of goalkeeper Trevor Carson.
Kal Naismith was the first to warm the palms of McCormick, who pouched easily when the former Accrington man hit one straight at him, but the home side must surely have expected to go in front when Naismith cut the ball back to Michael Woods, about eight yards out. The Pools midfielder struck hard towards goal, but the ball was blocked. Stemming even earlier than Oates' deserved booking, Hartlepool fans seemed less than pleased with some of referee Graham Salisbury's decisions, and they turned an extra shade of red when none of the officials chose to side with Hartlepool cries for a handball as the ball was charged down. Without being unkind, the cries resembled those of a side desperate to arrest a slide in form, and hoping for a little assistance from the men in black.
If a little transference was a reason for the home fans' dissatisfaction, then one might have expected it to lift a bit as the game meandered towards the half-time interval. While never coming up with anything that overtly troubled McCormick, Hartlepool became more adept at keeping the football in the opponents' territory, though that had little more to show for it than a couple of dead-balls in good areas and a handful of long-range efforts that McCormick watched bobble by.
Argyle, for their part, looked tidy in spells, usually when the tireless Ryan Brunt was able to interact with the busy Tanner, but a spirited Hartlepool managed to quell any uprising soon enough. Mention in this respect ought to be giving to the services of Michael Woods, who more than once provided a welcome break to his colleagues as his energetic interjections broke up play.
Despite their apparent crankiness, the home fans greeted the half-time whistle with gusto, seemingly pleased with their side's contribution to that point.
After the break, a similar beginning to the first period ensued, with McCormick repelling a reasonably struck effort in the opening seconds, and Wylde shooting over the bar very shortly after. McHugh then went much closer, worrying Carson but hitting a dipping effort over the bar - this all in the opening two minutes of action.
Wylde then spent a while with the ball, wandering and wondering what to do with it. He chose to shoot - and it went plenty wide - but Argyle had renewed energy and purpose. Tanner crossed to Brunt who cannily back-headed the ball with the flight, but it sailed just wide. Tanner then hit a bouncing ball himself, and saw it fly a yard or so over the crossbar.
Hartlepool may well have had the best of the last 25 minutes or so of the first period, but Argyle had threatened more in the opening six minutes of the second than either side did in the whole of the first. Ronnie Moore sent on the in-some-ways rake-like Rakish Bingham for Oates in a like-for-like positional swap, but Argyle kept coming. The ubiquitous Woods charged down a fierce Oscar Threlkeld drive before Ryan Brunt, who scored his first Argyle goal on this ground, let fly with his left foot for a shot that did not go that far over.
If goals were ten feet by ten yards, instead of 8x8, Argyle would have been about 5-0 up. But then there is something about aunties being uncles if that had additional body parts that somewhat undercuts this argument.
Argyle were soon at it again. Stand-in right-back Scott Harrison was starting to struggling to deal with Wylde's pace and balance, and from the second one-on-one beating, the Scottish winger clipped a lovely flick to the far post, just inches away from the grasping Threlkeld.
Derek Adams sent on Tyler Harvey for Jervis with 25 minutes remaining, bringing Tanner to a position wide on the right and playing Harvey just behind Brunt. The partnership nearly paid sudden dividends as Harvey left defenders sprawling on the edge of the box with a neat touch or two. His shot was mis-hit, but Brunt was so close to getting a toe to it and turning it home.
At the other end, in a rare foray forward, Hartlepool won a corner, which Scott Fenwick headed not too far over the bar, as the home side sought to remind their visitors that this game was still in the balance.
And then Argyle scored.
It started with a corner on the left, earned via a move that began with McHugh. The Argyle number 4 conjured a pitching wedge-like clip over the top for Wylde, who cut back for Brunt. It took a body-on-the-line block from captain Matthew Bates to deflect the ball behind. Tanner's corner was flicked away, but Argyle retained the ball. First Sawyer, then Hartley had possession near the halfway line, and it was the latter who played the ball forward. Nelson, unchallenged, headed the ball square to find McHugh.
The Irishman's first touch redefined the word deft, and his finish was a sublime stroke into the corner. Argyle had the lead they deserved, and had attained it in style.
A second was sought; Tanner's effort was too hot for the nervy Carson, who spilled, but Harvey and Wylde were just unable to get a decisive touch on the ball to turn it goalwards.
Then, out of nothing, Hartlepool had their lifeline. A whipped ball in by Harrison seemed to evade all efforts to get on the end of it, but referee Mr Salisbury adjusted Mellor to have pulled back Fenwick in the area. The Pools striker picked himself, and sent McCormick the wrong way from 12 yards.
The home crowd was buoyed, and Adams moved to send on Ben Purrington for Wylde as the clocked ticked towards a conclusion.
Argyle still had a trick up their sleeve, though. Or, should we say, down their wing.
Harvey seized on a lax ball from Hartlepool, and fed Brunt, back to goal. He switched to Purrington, who managed to engineer a ball into space on the right. Arriving - nay, galloping - was Mellor, a man with one Argyle goal to his name. You would never had known it.
The full-back collected the ball and fired it past Carson before anyone had the chance to react. The reaction after the ball hit the net, though, was utter pandemonium, at least in the away end.
The win, along with defeats for Oxford and Northampton - also by margins of 2-1 - brings Argyle back to the top of Sky Bet League 2
Face facts, Bieber - there is only one Christmas number one we care about.
"Oh, what fun it is to see..."
Hartlepool United (4-3-3): 1 Trevor Carson; 5 Scott Harrison, 6 Matthew Bates (capt), 26 Adam Jackson, 3 Jake Carroll; 14 Michael Woods, 16 Nicky Featherstone, 30 Jake Gray (32 Mikael Mandron 81); 33 Kal Naismith, 17 Scott Fenwick, 15 Rhys Oates (9 Rakish Bingham 55). Substitutes (not used): 8 Brad Walker, 11 Kudus Oyenuga, 13 Adam Bartlett (gk), 19 Jordan Richards, 23 Connor Smith.
Booked: Gray 5.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 4 Carl McHugh, 26 Oscar Threlkeld; 14 Jake Jervis (15 Tyler Harvey 65), 27 Craig Tanner, 11 Gregg Wylde (16 Ben Purrington 86); 17 Ryan Brunt (18 Deane Smalley 90). Substitutes (not used): 19 Aaron Bentley, 22 Callum Hall, 31 Christian Walton (gk), 24 Louis Rooney.
Booked: Mellor 84.
Referee: Graham Salisbury.
Attendance: 3,534 (237 away).