by Charlie Hempstead
ARGYLE booked their place at Wembley for the League Two Play-Off Final as a last-minute Peter Hartley goal secured a 1-0 win over Portsmouth at a raucous Home Park.
Just as everyone was contemplating extra time, Hartley met Graham Carey’s far-post corner to spark scenes of delirium at the Theatre of Greens.
In front of a packed house that included two former promotion-winning Argyle managers, Neil Warnock and Paul Sturrock, the home side served up a performance that suggested that the name of Derek Adams may soon be added to that select group.
Following the decision of the FA not to impose a retrospective ban on Jamille Matt for his clash with Pompey skipper Michael Doyle in the drawn first leg at Fratton Park on Thursday, Adams was able to name an unchanged side, with the personnel on the bench also being identical. Portsmouth’s Paul Cook likewise sent out the same starting eleven, but made one change among his substitutes, preferring one Conor (Chaplin) to another (Wilkinson).
In an atmosphere every bit as charged as in the first encounter three days previously, the hosts were quickly into their stride. Their flying start may well have owed something to Adams’ decision to walk onto the Home Park turf before kick-off and applaud all sides of the ground, bringing over 13,000 home fans to their feet. Cook followed suit, to rather less acclaim.
Within the first 70 seconds, Matt and Graham Carey had both tried their luck from distance, the latter forcing a diving save from Ryan Allsop.
A foul on Carl McHugh by Danny Hollands in the seventh minute gave Jake Jervis the chance to test Allsop from 35 yards, with the keeper having a bright sun to contend with. The thought process was sound, the execution less so.
Other than an off-target effort from Kyle Bennett, Portsmouth did not come close to causing the Argyle defence any concern in the opening quarter-hour.
A Jervis break, after being released by Matt, almost created an opening, but Argyle did not have to wait long for a real opportunity to break the deadlock. Carey was tripped by Bennett on the edge of the area, but his attempt to curl the free-kick into the top corner was always too high.
A pacey burst by Gregg Wylde was undone by a misplaced pass, which largely summed up the opening exchanges from the Argyle point of view. The home side was making all the running, but what was lacking was that crucial bit of accuracy with the final ball.
As the half progressed, the momentum began to shift towards the visitors, although they failed to carve out any clear opportunities to threaten Luke McCormick’s goal.
There cause was not helped by losing Gareth Evans and Danny Hollands to injury in the space of a little over ten minutes, to be replaced respectively by Adam McGurk and Ben Close. The challenge which ended Evans’ participation brought a yellow card for McHugh, who was visibly more cautious in the tackle thereafter.
Despite being behind in terms both of possession and territory, Argyle continued to create the better chances. Perhaps the most clear-cut came when Curtis Nelson’s knock-down from a Kelvin Mellor free-kick sat up invitingly for Jervis, but the striker snatched at the chance with his weaker left foot and sliced wide.
As quickly as Argyle had begun the first period, so Pompey took the early initiative in the second. A surge from Marc McNulty led to the ball falling for Gary Roberts, but his shot was superbly blocked by Hartley, then a Ben Davies free-kick into the side netting had the Portsmouth fans momentarily celebrating a phantom goal.
They were almost celebrating a real one moments later, when McCormick made an ill-judged decision to come well outside his area to clear the ball left-footed, but succeeded only in gifting the ball to Roberts. Luckily for the keeper, the striker’s attempt to steer the ball into the empty net drifted wide.
Argyle’s riposte was swift, carving out several openings in quick succession, although none of them called Allsop into meaningful action. The last of them really should have seen the hosts take the lead, but Matt’s ferocious drive from 12 yards cleared the crossbar.
The same player had another excellent opportunity from a Carey corner in the 64th minute, but his close-range effort was more shoulder than forehead, and the ball fell wide of the near post.
Close had his name taken for a clear tug on Carey directly in front of the away dugout, causing tempers to flare on both benches as the tension mounted. When the ball was pumped into the box, the ensuing scramble almost resulted in an own goal by Christian Burgess, but Davies bailed him out with a goal-line clearance.
Craig Tanner was introduced in the 75th minute in place of Wylde, as Adams tried to find a way to prevent the match entering extra time.
Portsmouth had similar ideas at the other end too. Bennett tricked his way into the box and hit a left-foot drive that deflected off the head of Hartley for a corner, and Close’s volley was, well, close.
Jervis’s header from Tanner’s cross in the 89th minute was closer still, smacking against Allsop’s far post with the keeper rooted to the spot.
An extra half-hour was looking inevitable, particularly when Matt met Carey’s cross six yards out but was thwarted by Allsop’s fingertips.
However, there was still time for one more Carey corner, and from it, Hartley delivered the coup de grace.
A Bank Holiday day out on an industrial estate just off the North Circular Road beckons.
See you there.
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; 14 Jake Jervis, 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde (27 Craig Tanner 75); Jamille Matt. Subs (not used): 31 Vincent Dorel (GK), 9 Reuben Reid, 15 Tyler Harvey, 16 Ben Purrington, 24 Louis Rooney, 28 Jordon Forster.
Bookings: McHugh 31.
Portmsouth (4-4-2): 22 Ryan Allsop; 2 Ben Davies, 15 Adam Barton, 6 Christian Burgess, 3 Enda Stevens; 26 Gareth Evans (7 Adam McGurk 31), 8 Michael Doyle (Capt.), 29 Danny Hollands (33 Ben Close 44), 23 Kyle Bennett (19 Conor Chaplin 92); 10 Marc McNulty, 11 Gary Roberts. Subs (not used): 14 Kal Naismith, 16 Jack Whatmough, 18 Ben Tollitt, 38 Brandon Haunstrup.
Bookings: Close 71.
Referee: Paul Tierney.
Attendance: 15,011 (1,696 away)