Demeble 7, Akinde 45
by Rick Cowdery
REFEREE Brett Huxtable, who hails from Torrington, of all places, was the difference between the two sides at Home Park on Tuesday, when Argyle had their lead at the top of Sky Bet League Two shaved to three points.
Well as the Pilgrims played on their way to a second successive defeat, the odds against them were insurmountable in no small part to Huxtable’s failings. Barnet’s opening goal, from Bira Dembele in the seventh minute, was dubiously fair; their second, from John Akinde at the end of a half in which the Pilgrims had pummeled their visitors, was a travesty: there was a clear crunching foul on Argyle’s Yann Songo’o in the build-up.
In between, Huxtable theatrically dismissed an Argyle claim for a penalty. Well, I say ‘claim’ but no claim was really necessary, so blatant was the foul on man-of-the-match Jake Jervis. The official had a clear line of sight, too.
The key moments having gone in their favour, Barnet made the most of what came their way, defending their spoils with discipline, worried less about possessing the ball than making sure Argyle could do nothing with it when they had it. They rode their luck and disappeared into the sunset with three fortunate points.
Argyle showed five changes to the starting line-up that had succumbed to a 3-0 home defeat three days earlier, only one of which was enforced: a hamstring injury to Ben Purrington required Oscar Threlkeld to be pressed into service at left-back.
There was a welcome return to the centre of defence for Latvian international Nauris Bulvitis, which allowed Songo’o to move into midfield at the expense of Ryan Donaldson.
David Goodwillie was preferred to Arnold Garita as the fulcrum of the attack, starting a match for the first time since September’s 2-0 win at Leyton, and he was supported by Connor Smith, whose previous start had also been in East London, and Jervis.
The Pilgrims soon conceded their fourth goal without reply at Home Park, when Dembele – who might not have been playing had Barnet not sold former Pilgrim Bondz N’Gala to Eastleigh earlier in the day – headed home Luke Gambin’s seventh-minute corner.
The ease with which the Barnet centre-back beat Sonny Bradley, and the Argyle man’s subsequent protestations to Huxtable, suggested something amiss but the consequence was that the Pilgrims were chasing a second successive game at home after conceding for the tenth straight match.
They chased with great inventiveness and purpose, and were unlucky not to level immediately. David Fox played in Goodwillie, whose determination saw the ball eventually teed up for the man who had started the move for a shot that crashed back off the crossbar.
The Pilgrims continued their measured assault on their visitors, who did well simply to keep pace. Graham Carey then made the bye-line and hung up a sweet cross that was nicked away for a corner before Smith glanced a header wide following Gary Miller’s right-wing delivery.
Their patience should have been rewarded with a penalty when Dembele scythed down Jervis after Goodwillie had sprung the trap with a lovely crossfield ball. Huxtable, who was probably five yards from the incident, incredibly waved play on.
The Westcountry-based official continued to not see things seen by others when, after Carey’s shot from wide was deflected on to the roof of the Barnet net, he awarded a goal-kick.
Barnet seldom ventured forward, which was quite a sensible policy, given the Pilgrims’ quality when they had the ball. On one occasion, Threlkeld’s perceptive pass which broke up an opposition attack led to an incisive break that ended with Jervis’s shot being saved by Bees’ goalkeeper Jamie Stephens, reprising an earlier shot and stop involving the same pair.
Huxtable then played a crucial part in Barnet’s second goal just before the interval, ignoring a clear foul on Songo’o that saw the Argyle midfielder still limping long after Akinde had tucked away the through-ball from Mauro Vilhete that followed his munching.
Pilgrims’ manager Derek Adams, who had waited patiently to escort the officials off the pitch at half-time, brought on Garita for Songo’o – still feeling the effects of the not-a-foul, presumably – for the second half, and Argyle kept up their pressure on the Barnet goal.
Jervis was thwarted by Stephens and then flashed a shot over the crossbar in the opening five minutes before Carey’s free-kick saw Bradley head over.
As the possession-meter nudged 70% in Argyle’s favour, Threlkeld found Bradley, who had stayed up after a free-kick, but his meaty header was well saved by Stephens.
Barnet, cannily, noticed that the Pilgrims were stretching themselves to get on to the scoresheet and began to exploit the space, with Akinde as their out-ball. Twice, he threatened to add to his amazing tally for Barnet; twice he was stopped at the last.
Adams tweaked again when he sent on Tanner for Threlkeld, moving Carey to left-back, but Argyle’s patience and inventiveness was evaporating at the same rate that Barnet’s confidence was increasing.
Jordan Slew came on for the last knockings, which left Argyle with a back-four that was Jervis, Miller, Bradley, Carey: you cannot suggest Adams was not going for it but Garita’s decent attempt from long range was all they had left in the tank.
Adams, of course, famously does not swear, for which Huxtable should be grateful.
How he got through this match without letting rip a string of expletives that would have made a sailor blush, goodness only knows.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller, 5 Nauris Bulvitis (8 Jordan Slew 78), 15 Sonny Bradley, 18 Oscar Threlkeld (27 Craig Tanner 69); 4 Yann Songo’o (26 Arnold Garita half-time), 24 David Fox; 10 Graham Carey, 6 Connor Smith, 14 Jake Jervis; 7 David Goodwillie. Substitutes (not used): 11 Ryan Donaldson, 19 Karleigh Osborne, 20 Louis Rooney, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Booked: Smith 62.
Barnet (4-4-1-1): 1 Jamie Stephens; 16 Harry Taylor (22 Ben Tomlinson half-time), 4 Bira Dembele, 6 Michael Nelson (capt), 3 Elliot Johnson; 32 Mauro Vilhete, 7 Ryan Watson (14 Sam Togwell 90), 20 Tom Champion, 11 Luke Gambin (23 Alex Nicholls 85); 8 Curtis Weston; 9 John Akinde. Substitutes (not used): 12 Josh Vickers (gk), 17 Sam Muggleton, 19 Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, 34 Ephron Mason-Clark.
Booked: Watson 62.
Referee: Brett Huxtable.
Attendance: 7,188 (41 away).