A NEW generation of Argyle fans saw the Pilgrims return to old winning ways and maintain their lead of Sky Bet League 2 thanks to a dominant first-half display against Teddy Sheringham's visitors.
Around 2,000 lads and dads from the Nash & Co. Devon Junior & Minor League were guests at Home Park to witness an exciting match which should guarantee that plenty of first-time visitors will come again. After the dour scrappiness of Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat by Northampton, this was more like the Beautiful Game. Beautiful result, anyway.
Carl McHugh opened the scoring in the third minute and Argyle, despite being briefly and quickly pegged back by Charlie Lee’s fifth-minute leveller, led 3-1 by the interval thanks to further goals from Gregg Wylde, midway through the half, and Craig Tanner, five minutes from the break.
Half-time proved to be an unwelcome distraction for the Pilgrims, though. It allowed Stevenage to regroup and the men from Hertfordshire showed heart came straight back into the game with Lee’s second five minutes into the second period. It seemed unlikely then that would be the final goal of the match, but so it proved.
Argyle manager Derek Adams has made plenty of astute and, some would say, brave calls this season, and his team selection for the Pilgrims' second home match in four days added to his impressive reputation in the tactical field.
Adams had reverted to his go-to 4-2-3-1 formation after a winning dalliance with 5-4-1 away to Carlisle at the beginning of the year and an ultimately unsuccessful switch to 4-3-3 against Northampton at Home Park in midweek.
With pivotal forward Reuben Reid fit again, Ryan Brunt was demoted to the substitutes’ bench despite having scored four of the Pilgrims' last six goals and assisted the other two. Tanner came in, as did midweek goalscorer Wylde, with Oscar Threlkeld taking the Scottish winger’s place on the bench.
There remained a Caledonian presence among the substitutes, however, in the imposing shape of Hibernian defender Jordon Forster, who had moved to Home Park on loan earlier in the week after the opening of the midwinter transfer window.
Stevenage, who included ex-Pilgrim Dean Parrett on their bench, had been rather busier in the loan market, losing seven players back to their parent clubs, re-signing another – Connor Ogilvie, from Spurs – and borrowing another two: forward Aaron O’Connor, from Forest Green, and Cambridge United midfielder Keith Keane. Jamille Matt, Rohdell Gordon and Kyle McFadzean were all missing from their team that lined up for a 2-1 defeat at Mansfield a week previously.
Argyle were out of the blocks before some at Home Park had settled into their seats. Jake Jervis’s corner from the Lyndhurst side of the Barn Park end where the youngsters were seated was met on the full by McHugh’s head and guided home. If you had put an egg on to boil when the game kicked off, it still would still have been runny by the time Stevenage re-started proceedings.
The visitors were not behind for long, though, with the second corner of the game – their first – producing the leveller, Lee tapping in at the far post after Argyle failed to deal with Tom Conlon’s flag-kick.
Back came the Pilgrims, who seemed happy to play their visitors at an expansive game. Josh Simpson and Kelvin Mellor helped create the slightest of openings on the right for Jervis, who widened the gap considerably by nutmegging Ogilivie.
Having been on the goalscoring end of some peachy Wylde crosses earlier in the season, it was somehow appropriate that Jervis now repaid the favour with a sharp, flat, cross that was perfect for Wylde’s run to the near post. To mash up two clichés, if Jervis’s run and cross displayed deft skills for a big man, then Wylde is not half bad in the air for a wee man.
The players and the party-mood crowd sensed there was more for the Pilgrims against a side that appeared keener on trading blows, rather than soaking up punches.
Stevenage goalkeeper Chris Day made a flying save from Reid’s right-foot shot before the Argyle number nine turned up on the opposite, right, flank and sent in a driven cross that Boro captain Ronnie Henry deflected on to team-mate Fraser Franks, with the canon sending the ball crashing on to Day’s crossbar.
A third goal looked on the cards long before some fairly prolonged probing around the Stevenage penalty area came to a pleasant and inevitable conclusion when McHugh offloaded for Tanner to curl the ball past the increasingly dizzy Day.
The goal came five minutes before half-time and Tanner could have claimed the match-ball before the orange-quarters. He curled a shot just wide after being teed up being by Wylde and was then denied by Day, who was more or less the only thing standing between his team and a hiding.
Stevenage needed to change things, and brought on Parrett and Afolabi Akinyemi at the interval. Immediately, Parrett, who had a short and not so sweet spell at Home Park on loan from Tottenham in 2010, sent in a free-kick from which Lee obliged Luke McCormick to make a sprawling save.
The same combination saw Stevenage reduce Argyle’s lead a few minutes, later, however, with Parrett making ground on the right before sending in a low, slow, cross that no-one on either side appeared to want anything to do with before Lee finally decided to slide the ball in.
The game suddenly looked very different. Stevenage’s dander was up; Argyle’s confidence down; the crowd’s nerves up and down. The space that Argyle had exploited so well in the opening 45 minutes was now being used to good effect by Stevenage.
Argyle’s forays forward were more limited, but no less exciting, and Jervis came close to restoring the Pilgrims’ two-goal lead when he volleyed Tanner’s right-wing delivery only narrowly over the Devonport end crossbar.
The match then entered its third phrase, with chances for either side coming around less frequently as legs tired. This favoured the more intelligent footballer and Reid’s perceptive defence-unlocking pass slipped in Jervis, who turned and fired over.
As the clock ticked down, Threlkeld and Brunt were sent on, and their freshness pepped up Argyle, with the former being denied by Day’s brave spread-eagling at his feet as he bore down on goal.
A fourth goal would have settled a few nerves, but, in the end, proved unnecessary.
Another step closer.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 8 Josh Simpson, 4 Carl McHugh; 14 Jake Jervis, 27 Craig Tanner (26 Oscar Threlkeld 78), 11 Gregg Wylde; 9 Reuben Reid (17 Ryan Brunt 84). Substitutes (not used): 15 Tyler Harvey, 16 Ben Purrington, 18 Deane Smalley, 21 James Bittner (gk), 28 Jordon Forster.
Booked: Tanner 77.
Stevenage (4-4-2): 16 Chris Day; 25 Ronnie Henry (capt), 4 Jamie McCombe, 5 Fraser Franks, 30 Connor Ogilvie (20 Afolabi Akinyemi half-time); 32 Tom Conlon, 11 Tom Pett, 15 Michael Tonge, 28 Keith Keane (18 Dean Parrett half-time); 22 Charlie Lee, 10 Aaron O’Connor (24 Jack Jebb 81). Substitutes (not used): 6 Mark Hughes, 27 Ryan Johnson, 34 Dale Gorman, 50 Ben Jackson (gk).
Booked: Tonge 60, Parrett 64.
Referee: James Linington.
Attendance: 9,546 (92 away).