GRAHAM Carey’s ninth goal of the season was far less spectacular than the other eight, but just as valuable.
The strike, just after half-time, was no more than a tap-in from someone who generally deals in long-rang breath-takers; even so, there was something elegant about the way he stroked the ball home to give the promotion-chasing Pilgrims an important victory and move them three more points closer to Sky Bet League 1.
After the previous comfortable home win against Mansfield, the triumph over the Stags' near neighbours was a more hard-earned affair. But equally deserved.
Argyle manager Derek Adams had made three changes to his starting line-up from the one that started Tuesday night’s 0-0 stalemate at Yeovil, one of them forced by injury to Carl McHugh.
The central defensive midfielder had been in the wars at Huish and at Crawley four days earlier – indeed, when is he not among the blood and snotters? – and his bruised body could not cope with a third match in a week. Even granite has its breaking point, it seems.
Josh Simpson came into the engine room, with Kelvin Mellor and Craig Tanner also promoted from the substitutes’ bench. Mellor regained the right-back berth he had lost to Hibs loanee Jordon Forster three games previously in an echo of the switch made during half-time at Huish; Tanner was recalled in place of Jake Jervis.
County also made three changes after their 3-2 loss at Argyle’s promotion rivals Accrington in midweek, including recalling former Pilgrim forward Ronan Murray, who had a 13-game loan spell to the Pilgrims from Ipswich Town at the back end of the 2012-13 season.
Among the Irishman’s team-mates then in the Argyle squad that just avoided dropping out of the Football League was Jason Banton, who returned to Home Park with his third side of the season after spells at Wycombe – for who he scored in a 2-1 home defeat by the Pilgrims in September – and Hartlepool.
Alan Smith, whose previous visit to Plymouth had been under rather different circumstances, was one of the trio to give way to the recalls, as was fellow veteran Izale McLeod – a victory for the fresh legs of youth over the wizened head of experience.
Mellor had the early measure of Banton before the Argyle man hurt himself reaching for a challenge and was incapacitated enough for his former team-mate to take advantage. Banton’s low ball across the face of the goal reached Jon Stead at the far post but Hartley, perfectly positioned, blocked the shot.
It was warning enough for Adams to whistle up Forster, and the new man was soon in the thick of the action, heading Carey’s left-wing corner over the County crossbar.
There was not much else to commend the opening half-hour as both teams probed, but failed to make headway where it counted. Apart from the man selling ice-poles, Luke McCormick and Roy Carroll were about the most underemployed people inside Home Park.
Argyle showed decent patience, though, and their forbearance was nearly rewarded when a long passing movement gave Tanner a clear sight of the goal for a low shot that was as close to the target as any had been to that point.
County replied through a break by Murray who did well, firstly, to convince the linesman that he was onside and, secondly, to hook the ball back from the byeline towards the near post, from where Stead, under pressure from McCormick and Hartley, sent it wide.
County went closer minutes later when Adam Campbell broke against a spread defence. His shot from the right edge of the penalty area flashed past the diagonally opposite post, with McCormick’s dive suggesting it was a very near thing.
The opening two minutes of the second half were more eventful than the entirety of the first, with everything happening down Argyle’s left flank as Wylde twice got in behind the County back four.
The first time, his low shot to the near post was blocked by goalkeeper Roy Carroll for a corner; the second, after Gary Sawyer had received his ninth yellow card of the season, was much more productive. The low, driven, ball was aimed for Tanner but blocked by Haydn Hollis; it broke for Carey, who stuck it sweetly with his trusty left foot, first time, past Carroll.
The goal opened up County and the Pilgrims were obliged to defend their lead. Captain Curtis Nelson and Hartley were more than up to the task, as a pair and as individuals, notably when making important interceptions.
Argyle should have extended their lead when some penalty-area jousting saw the ball break kindly for Oscar Threlkeld, but the young midfielder snatched his shot wide.
The visitors, playing their fifth away game out of their last six matches, were by now completely out of their shells. Blair Adams, their left-back, forced McCormick into his first save of the match with hard drive to the base of the post, and fellow defender Gary Mackenzie made the least of a free shot from the edge of the box.
Their forward momentum left holes in behind, which is always dangerous against Wylde, and Carroll saved from Tanner after one such break and cross. Tanner also went close after Carey had teased his way into space for another delivery from wide on the left.
Tanner gave way to Reuben Reid midway through the half, but, although the personnel had changed, the pattern remained the same: Wylde to Carey, down the left; a low cross; and only fine tackle by Adams prevented Reid from converting
Reid then could not direct another cross to the near post on target before Brunt loosed one off from range that Carroll saved.
County introduced Smith for Banton and Argyle brought on Daniel Nardiello for Wylde as the Pilgrims tried to close out the game. The defence dropped deeper to face up to County’s nigh-on five-man attack but looked no more penetrable for that.
A shot from substitute Liam Noble in the fourth of seven nerve-shredding minutes added on by referee Iain Williamson required a stop, but no theatrics, from McCormick.
So to Barnet, who snatched a late draw at the home of Argyle’s fellow promotion-seekers Accrington Stanley.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor (28 Jordon Forster 16), 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 26 Oscar Threlkeld, 8 Josh Simpson; 27 Craig Tanner (9 Reuben Reid 72), 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde (7 Daniel Nardiello 80); 17 Ryan Brunt. Substitutes (not used): 14 Jake Jervis, 16 Ben Purrington, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney.
Booked: Sawyer 47.
Notts County (4-4-2): 1 Roy Carroll; 18 Elliott Hewitt, 27 Gary MacKenzie, 6 Haydn Hollis, 3 Blair Adams (31 Thierry Audel 85); 24 Adam Campbell, 15 Curtis Thompson, 12 Robert Milsom (16 Liam Noble 77), 28 Jason Banton (4 Alan Smith 85); 10 Ronan Murray, 30 Jon Stead. Substitutes (not used): 13 Scott Loach (gk), 26 Graham Burke, 29 Wes Atkinson, 39 Izale McLeod.
Booked: Carroll 90.
Referee: Iain Williamson.
Attendance: 7,642 (219 away).