Cambridge United 2
Williamson 84, Spencer 86
Matt 71, Carey 90
by Rick Cowdery
THE play-offs it is, then, and the mother of all Dockyard Derbies against Portsmouth. Only the order of the venues is still to be decided.
Saturday’s draw at the Abbey means Argyle cannot now win an automatic promotion place in their final game of the Sky Bet League 2 season next Saturday.
Jamille Matt’s fifth goal in nine starts since joining on loan from Fleetwood Town in early March gave the Pilgrims a sight of a club-record 13th away league win of the season.
However, his 71st-minute strike was wiped out inside 180 seconds, when Ben Williamson and substitute Jimmy Spencer netted a quickfire double for the hosts in the final 10 minutes.
An injury-time Graham Carey strike was not enough to give next week’s home match against Hartlepool more than a home-away leg advantage-disadvantage spin to the post season.
Argyle’s final away league game of the season saw them revert to the three at the back that has been used more sparingly this campaign, than last. Nevertheless, it served them well on their last road trip, at Leyton, and has generally been successful when employed.
Carl McHugh, back from a hamstring injury sustained at the Matchroom Stadium, took his familiar place in the middle of the central defensive unit – Peter Hartley to the left of him, Curtis Nelson to the right – nominally replacing Gregg Wylde in the starting 11.
Another change from the previous week’s shocking 3-2 home defeat by relegated Dagenham & Redbridge was the return of Gary Sawyer in place of Ben Purrington at left wing-back. Kelvin Mellor was on the opposite flank and the midfield trio was anchored by young tyros Jordan Houghton and Hiram Boateng, allowing Carey a free role behind the two forwards.
With Reuben Reid’s thigh still incapacitating the Pilgrims’ leading scorer for the past two seasons, this season’s top marksman, Jake Jervis, partnered Matt in the van.
The combined 12ft 8in front pairing linked well in the opening minutes to send Carey away for clipped little cross into the six-yard box that Matt could not get a firm enough touch on.
Reprieved, Cambridge laid about Argyle and won a free-kick when McHugh tackled Williamson. Referee Trevor Kettle was beset by Cambridge players suggesting Argyle’s number four should be sent off. The Irishman received a yellow, and that looked harsh.
Cambridge came into the game unbeaten in six, having conceded just two goals in that run, and played with a commensurate swagger. Last time out at the Abbey, they thumped Morecambe by a club-record 7-0, taking their total time without shipping a goal at the Abbey to more than six hours.
The home players, who have made great strides under Shaun Derry’s management, were not shy in voicing an opinion to Kettle whenever they won a free-kick, and the referee appeared to give McHugh a final warning after a foul in the 17th minute.
McHugh took heed and was well positioned to block a shot from Ambers’ captain Luke Berry, who scored the winner when the two sides met at Home Park in December, just after Luke McCormick had clawed away an outswinging free-kick from the Cambridge right.
Kettle, no stranger to League 2 controversy this season, then failed to spot a Cambridge elbow that felled Houghton and followed that oversight by making a fuss when Carey rightly pointed out that the official had failed to halt play for an obvious head injury.
For all the defending Argyle were obliged to practice, the pressure was fairly mild and absolutely tolerable. Cambridge could say much the same, as clear chances at either end were severely limited. A Carey corner that Leon Legge headed to safety from under his own crossbar was as near as the Pilgrims came to breaking the deadlock before half-time.
The stalemate favoured neither team and both began the second period with necessary intent. Berry and Williamson tested McCormick while Argyle, now attacking a stand packed with 1,300 footsoldiers of the Green Army, fashioned a half-chance for Carey, who shot over, before McHugh left the field.
Thankfully, it was of his own volition; worryingly, with the season far from over, it looked like his hamstring was again not up to the task at hand. Jordon Forster was his replacement.
With 20 minutes to play, Argyle manager Derek Adams went for broke and was rewarded almost instantaneously.
Substitutes Wylde and Craig Tanner had been on the pitch barely long enough to stretch their muscles when Matt latched on to Boateng’s pass through the United back line, held off his man, and lambasted a shot that goalkeeper Will Norris did not see.
Goals change games, and Cambridge, aware that they needed to score twice to have any chance of keeping their season alive were on their heels. Tanner made ground down the right and found Matt, but his delivery was a smidgen too high to make the header any more than a token effort.
However, United regrouped and, not for the first time this season, Argyle saw victory turn from them in the dying moments of a game they had worked so hard to put themselves in front.
With other results already meaning the Pilgrims needed a footballing miracle to win automatic promotion, Williamson and Spencer's late strikes, both assisted by Zeli Ismail, were potentially more psychologically damaging, than actual.
They showed great heart to come back in injury-time when Carey netted a goal with his trusty left foot which deprived the home side of a play-off place, and Boateng had two good chances to snatch victory right at the death.
Cambridge United (4-2-3-1): 35 Will Norris; 25 Darnell Furlong, 6 Leon Legge, 14 Josh Coulson, 12 Max Clark (21 James Spencer 77); 8 Luke Berry (capt), 23 Ryan Ledson; 20 Zeli Ismail, 16 James Dunne (7 Ryan Donaldson 68), 11 Harrison Dunk; 22 Ben Williamson. Substitutes (not used): 2 Elliott Omozusi, 5 Mark Roberts, 13 Sam Beasant (gk), 15 Robbie Simpson, 17 Shane O’Neill.
Booked: Ledson 82, Norris 90.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 4 Carl McHugh (28 Jordon Forster 51), 6 Peter Hartley (27 Craig Tanner 69); 2 Kelvin Mellor, 32 Jordan Houghton, 10 Graham Carey, 20 Hiram Boateng, 3 Gary Sawyer; 19 Jamille Matt, 14 Jake Jervis (11 Gregg Wylde 69). Substitutes (not used):15 Tyler Harvey, 16 Ben Purrington, 24 Louis Rooney, 31 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Booked: McHugh 7, Boateng 60, Tanner 82.
Referee: Trevor Kettle.
Attendance: 6,714 (1,567 away).