McNulty 3, Roberts pen 51
Matt 9, 19
by Rick Cowdery
AS you were.
After 90 minutes of pulsating, passionate, exhilarating football, the winner of the biggest ever Sky Bet League 2 Play-Off Semi-Final is no nearer being decided.
Precious little separated the two proud naval cities during the regular season, and the first leg of the first play-off match of 2015-16 was as close.
Argyle came back from conceding a third-minute goal by Marc McNulty to take the lead midway through the first half thanks to two goals from Jamille Matt. They were pegged back by Gary Roberts’ penalty five minutes after half-time and, although it did not seem likely then as the Dockyard rivals went at each other hammer and tongs, that was that as far as the scoring went.
The Sky Bet League 2 table will tell you that these two teams are not the best in the division, and that is an argument to be had, but there are surely no two better or bigger clubs lingering in the lower echelons.
After Saturday’s fling with youth, Argyle manager Derek Adams had reverted to the tried and tested: his Fratton Park starting line-up was the same shape as, and showed just one change from, the side that had begun at AFC Wimbledon on the opening day of the season, nine long months previously.
There were plenty more aching limbs and tight muscles, for sure, but the 4-2-3-1 had a comfortably familiar feel to it, the sort of line-up that you will be able to remember years from now: Luke McCormick in goal, behind Kelvin Mellor, skipper Curtis Nelson, Peter Hartley and Gary Sawyer; Carl McHugh and Hiram Boateng protecting the back four; Graham Carey in No. 10 role; Gregg Wylde and Jake Jervis providing the width.
Matt had been with League 1 Fleetwood Town when Reuben Reid led the line at the Cherry Red Records Stadium. However, he started this Thursday evening encounter in place of his recently injured colleague at the ground where he had begun the late victory fightback in last month’s League 2 meeting between the two sides that was finished off by Wylde.
Portsmouth sprang a small selection surprise by including Bournemouth goalkeeper Ryan Allsop in their side. The 23-year-old Cherry, who played on loan at Wycombe Wanderers this season, was borrowed from the Premier League side on emergency terms. There was no other custodian in the Pompey squad.
The game had not settled into any discernible pattern before Argyle were behind to a goal largely of their own making. With the Pilgrims moving forward, Nelson was caught in possession by his oppo with the Pompey armband, Michael Doyle, midway inside his own half.
Doyle played in McNulty against the caught-out and backpedalling Pilgrims’ defence and the race went to swiftest, who shot past the unprotected McCormick.
Argyle, who spent almost all of last season’s play-off in arrears, swiftly redressed the balance. Carey struck one of his seven irons from just about the centre of the Portsmouth half that Wylde headed into the centre of the goal. Matt rose, took the force of Allsop’s challenge, and headed home in front of 2,000 exultant Janners.
Matt was then involved in an off-the-ball incident with Doyle, possibly one we will not have heard the last of. It certainly raised the temperatures on the sidelines between dugouts where resentment has simmered this season and which now boiled over. The result was that referee Oliver Langford asked Pompey manager Paul Cook and Argyle coach Paul Wotton to leave their respective technical area.
If Matt was the villain in home supporters’ eyes, his hero-worship from the Green Army reached new heights soon afterwards when, after expertly shielding and controlling Mellor’s throw, he fired the Pilgrims back in front with an exquisite overhead kick. In a little more than 30 minutes across two matches, he had scored three times against the same defence.
The frenetic and pace and febrile atmosphere continued. Carey was first in referee Oliver Langford’s book, and then came close to putting the Greens further ahead with a long-range shot that had Allsop grasping but which drifted wide.
Portsmouth came back at the Pilgrims. Mellor made a last-gasp block to prevent McNulty from getting in a shot, and then fired just wide after Roberts’ promptings. A sweeping side-to-side move from the home side then ended with Kyle Bennett hitting the post with a shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Argyle responded through the ever-involved Carey, who was fouled a couple of yards outside the Pompey penalty area and got to his feet to send a curling free-kick into Allsop’s side-netting.
Whether by accident or design, the Pilgrims played their way to half-time in rope-a-dope mode, allowing Portsmouth to come on to them and backing themselves to soak it up and hit their hosts on the counter. As risk-reward strategies go, it is at the more perilous end of the scale, but it is one with which they are comfortable.
Portsmouth, maybe appraised of this during the interval, came out with their naval guns blazing and Gareth Evans shot over from just inside the area, before on the opposite side, Hartley felled McNulty. Roberts struck home the equaliser from the penalty spot: it was Pompey’s third successful penalty against the Pilgrims this season, two of which have been converted by Roberts.
The home side’s sails were now full and you felt that Argyle would have settled, there and then, for 2-2 and back to Home Park. McNulty had other ideas and forced McCormick to go full length with a fierce shot after a quick break.
The first half had belonged to Argyle; the second saw a blue tide advancing on the goal that was being manfully defended by the Pilgrims, who struggled for meaningful sustained possession.
Fortunately, the rest of the Green Machine was working and, through a lot of chasing, pressing and generally working hard, McCormick’s goal was well protected.
When the goalkeeper was called into action, after Ben Davies broke into the box, he was equal to the full-back’s driven effort.
We go again.
Portsmouth (4-2-3-1): 22 Ryan Allsop; 2 Ben Davies, 6 Christian Burgess, 15 Adam Barton, 3 Enda Stevens; 29 Danny Hollands, 8 Michael Doyle (capt); 26 Gareth Evans, 11 Gary Roberts, 23 Kyle Bennett (14 Kal Naismith 62); 10 Marc McNulty (7 Adam McGurk 81). Substitutes (not used): 16 Jack Whatmough, 18 Ben Tollitt, 25 Conor Wilkinson, 33 Ben Close, 38 Brandon Haunstrup.
Booked: Hollands 40, Barton 45.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 4 Carl McHugh, 20 Hiram Boateng (16 Ben Purrington 80); 14 Jake Jervis, 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde; 19 Jamille Matt (27 Craig Tanner 90). Substitutes (not used): 9 Reuben Reid, 15 Tyler Harvey, 24 Louis Rooney, 28 Jordon Forster, 31 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Booked: Carey 14, Hartley 50, Sawyer 60, Purrington 85.
Referee: Oliver Langford.
Attendance: 17,622 (1,902 away).