Wycombe Wanderers 1
by Rick Cowdery
ARGYLE failed to take advantage of their promotion rivals’ FA Cup-induced Sky Bet League 2 inactivity as Wycombe continued to exert their Home Park hex over the Pilgrims with a fifth successive victory at the Theatre of Greens.
Recent familiarity has clearly bred contempt between the two sides and the match with last year’s play-off conquerors of the Pilgrims was the Beautiful Game’s ugly sister. Wycombe took the lead in the third minute with a goal, from ex-Pilgrim Gozie Ugwu, which was grotesquely in keeping with what followed.
There followed a masterclass from Wanderers in protecting, not just their lead, but a goalkeeper who made his league debut before half the Argyle side were even born and whose next landmark birthday will be the big Five-Oh. Goalkeeping coach Barry Richardson was pressed into action as 15th-minute substitute and, thanks to his team-mates' discipline and arch gamesmanship, had very little to do.
He should have had to face a penalty soon after coming on after Reuben Reid was wrestled to the floor by Jason McCarthy. However, referee Phil Gibbs crucially took a different view from most inside Home Park when Argyle ought have been given a shot to equalise from 12 yards and Wycombe reduced to ten men.
Gibbs’ refereeing and Wycombe’s tactics had their inevitable consequences after the final whistle went, when both sides were embroiled in an unseemly spat as they left the pitch. Reap and sow.
Argyle manager Derek Adams had resisted any temptation he might have had to hand a starting debut to forward Daniel Nardiello, who had been signed on loan from League 1 Bury on Wednesday.
However, in reverting to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation from the 4-4-1-1 employed at the beginning of the 1-1 draw at Bristol Rovers seven days earlier, he made two changes of personnel.
Josh Simpson, the scorer of the dramatic late leveller at the Memorial Stadium, gave best to injury and was replaced by Oscar Threlkeld, while Craig Tanner was preferred to Graham Carey for the hole role behind lone central striker, Reid. Ryan Brunt dropped down to the substitutes’ bench.
Wycombe, looking to arrest a run of five winless games – including three straight league defeats – included three former Pilgrims forwards in their starting 11: Paris Cowan-Hall, who has returned to Wanderers on loan from Millwall and who made 45 appearances and scored five goals between 2012-13; and loan players Paul Hayes (2013: seven games, no goals) and Ugwu (2013: six games, no goals).
In a surreal echo of what had happened when the two sides met at Adams Park earlier in the season, the kick-off was delayed by several minutes. Then, the players were put on hold while the home side satisfied the referee of Football League approval for the use of their on-board personal GPS; this time, a sprinkler-head exposed by heavy rain needed sorting out.
The coincidences continued. Just as at Adams Park, the hold-up seemed to upset the home side more than the visitors, who took an early lead with an ugly goal following a corner. Jacobson’s sharp, low flag-kick to the near post preceded a huge scramble which ended with Ugwu thumping the ball home from no more than a few inches.
The strangeness continued. Almost immediately, Wycombe’s 20-year-old goalkeeper Alex Lynch collapsed in pain with no-one near him. He re-started a few minutes later, only for his leg to buckle under him again as he attempted to take the subsequent goal-kick.
As he struggled to get to his feet, Reid shot wide of a goal defended only by outfielders – it would be nice to think he deliberately forsook the opportunity through sportsmanship, but one doubts that was the case.
Wycombe were forced to turn to their back-up, 46-year-old Richardson, whose last meaningful action had been as Doncaster’s custodian in a 1-0 defeat by Blackpool in a Football League Trophy game so long ago that Johnstone’s Paint were not then the sponsors.
Richardson’s team-mates ensured that Argyle could not get near enough the Wycombe goal to test the new old man. The visitors looked most vulnerable when Tanner got on the ball and ran from deep, but his surges were snuffed out before he could offload.
With Wycombe determined to protect their veteran ’keeper, and their lead, at all costs, the match developed into a fractious affair, not helped by Home Park’s greasy top and referee Gibbs’ failure to spot McCarthy’s clear penalty-area tug on Reid after the Argyle no. 9 broke clear. The Pilgrims have yet to be awarded a spot-kick this season.
A mix-up over time to be added on for that lost while Lynch was attended precipitated a full and frank discussion between the two benches, to which Hayes – never shy of expressing an opinion – was also party. Eventually, nine extra minutes were played.
That was still time enough for the two sides to square off in the centre-circle as Wycombe continued with tactics designed to frustrate and disrupt. There was nothing wrong with Carl McHugh’s tackle on Matt Bloomfield, save that it was a split-second after referee Gibbs had blown for a free-kick to Argyle, when both players were already fully committed to the loose ball.
Certainly, it was mild stuff compared to Marcus Bean’s earlier swing and miss on a Pilgrim. Yet Wanderers’ players piled in, affecting the utmost aggrievance, with McCarthy, who should have been shown a red card for his foul Reid, among them. McHugh was booked, as was Hayes, presumably for something he said.
Carey came on at the interval, replacing Jake Jervis, and was soon back to what he was so good at before his pre-Christmas injury, probing, creating, keeping the opposition guessing as to which rabbit he would produce from which hat.
As a result of his promptings, the Pilgrims brought Richardson into the game for the first time when McHugh was teed up for a well-placed shot that younger men would have had more trouble getting down to save.
The man who seems to have so much time had, like his team-mates, to put up with time-wasting tactics so blatant that referee Gibbs felt obliged to tell the Chairboys that he knew what they were up to well before the hour mark. Not that he did any more.
A Carey corner saw Curtis Nelson beat Richardson with a thoughtfully placed shot, but Michael Harriman cleared up on the goal-line before Brunt replaced Tanner as Adams switched back to 4-4-2. Having a partner appeared to free up Reid, who found space to drive a ball across the six-yard box that found no takers.
Gregg Wylde, hitherto well-policed by Said Jombati, began to get into his electric stride as Argyle continued to stretch every sinew in search of an equaliser. Again the ball fell to McHugh; again the shot lacked power to trouble Richardson.
Nardiello came on for Threlkeld for the final 15 minutes, which saw the Pilgrims chasing a leveller with effectively four up front but, like everyone before him, had only scraps from which to feed.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson, 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 26 Oscar Threlkeld (7 Daniel Nardiello 81), 4 Carl McHugh; 14 Jake Jervis (10 Graham Carey half-time), 27 Craig Tanner (17 Ryan Brunt 66), 11 Gregg Wylde; 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 16 Ben Purrington, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney, 28 Jordon Forster.
Booked: Threlkeld 44, McHugh 45.
Wycombe Wanderers (4-3-3): 21 Alex Lynch (13 Barry Richardson 15); 2 Sido Jombati, 22 Jason McCarthy, 6 Aaron Pierre, 3 Joe Jacobson; 19 Michael Harriman, 8 Marcus Bean, 10 Matt Bloomfield; 24 Paris Cowan-Hall, 9 Paul Hayes (20 Luke O’Nien 72), 23 Gozie Ugwu (7 Garry Thompson 81). Substitutes (not used): 4 Stephen McGinn, 5 Anthony Stewart, 16 Aaron Amadi-Holloway, 17 Max Kretzschmar.
Booked: Cowan-Hall 34, Hayes 45.
Referee: Phil Gibbs.
Attendance: 8,458 (222 away).