by Rob McNichol
ARGYLE drew in another pulsating encounter with Portsmouth at Fratton Park, with Jake Jervis' goal being cancelled out by Gary Roberts' strike. But while the Green Army celebrate a point well earned in Hampshire, eyes and ears remained in a small corridor of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.
The point, in a live television game being played 30 minutes earlier than matches elsewhere in the division, put Argyle in a position to be promoted by day's end, as when the final whistle blew at Portsmouth, Luton trailing Leyton Orient and Stevenage being held had Argyle waiting on news.
In the end, Luton's draw with the O's means Argyle must wait until Monday for the chance to ensure next season's participation in Sky Bet League One - but only four Argyle defeats and four Luton victories can stop the Pilgrims from going up now.
Argyle made one change for the game, with former Portsmouth man Jake Jervis coming into the team, nominally for Gary Miller. The true switch, though, was moving Oscar Threlkeld into a right-back role, from his central midfield berth, the previous weekend. It did not feel like too much of a stretch to suggest that this may have been at least in part because of the presence of Pompey winger Kyle Bennett, a player praised by Derek Adams in previous encounters, and whose pace causes all teams problems. Threlkeld, not short of pace himself, would be tasked with keeping Bennett quiet.
Elsewhere in the Argyle line-up one could find Ryan Taylor and Sonny Bradley, both former Pompey men, while former Argyle loanee Drew Talbot was on the bench for the hosts.
When Portsmouth and Argyle met in May last year, in the Sky Bet League Two Play-off Semi Final, both teams named the same starting elevens for both legs. Argyle's, on those occasions, featured just four players contesting this time round: Luke McCormick, Gary Sawyer, Jake Jervis and Graham Carey. Only two others featured in both squads, with Vincent Dorel and Craig Tanner reprising their roles as substitutes. For Pompey's part, their 2017 team shared six starters from the play-offs: Bennett, Enda Stevens, Christian Burgess, Michael Doyle, Gary Roberts and Gareth Evans.
Late season encounters of 2015-16 were notable, among many other reasons, for some comments from outspoken Pompey attacker Roberts, who accused former Argyle defender Peter Hartley of being a 'yard dog', whatever that insult may mean. Hartley's answer was to score a winning goal in injury time in the second leg; as comebacks go, that was a decent one.
This time, it was Evans chirping up in the build-up. Depending on your alliance, you could decide whether or not he deserved to feel a little bitter towards Argyle. Sporting reasons aside, Evans left the play-off semi second leg early, having been injured in a challenge with Carl McHugh. If you are green, you may feel it was a chance occurrence; blue, and you may believe it was a nasty tackle that went largely unpunished. Evans presumably feels the latter, given that this week he told the Portsmouth News: "I can’t stand them and I don’t like the manager, if I am honest. Maybe I don’t like them because we were knocked out in the semi-finals last season and it was tough to swallow, I don’t know. There is a rivalry there – they don’t like us and we don’t like them."
Game on, then.
Argyle started ferociously quickly. David Fox rifled a shot into a Pompey body after the home side partially cleared a teasing Kennedy cross, and Argyle made two more incursions down the left-hand side inside the opening three minutes, leaving Portsmouth chasing shadows.
From Pompey's first sortie into Argyle territory, Bradley made an excellent challenge to stop an attack, and had to face some physio attention. Meanwhile, Burgess also needed some treatment, from Portsmouth medical staff. Both were fine, but each side were sweating for a few seconds over their respective centre-backs, both of whom were named in the Sky Bet League Two team of the season.
Both men got back on to their feet, but that was proving no average task. The pitch seemed to have been watered to within a centimetre of its life, leaving it treacherous, and resulting in players from both sides slipping over frequently. On a fine spring day, the park seemed to resemble an icy January driveway.
Portsmouth had settled a fair bit, and created a quickfire pair of very good chances. Bennett drifted infield and left Stevens to run into space resembling a runway; when the flying left-back taxied to a halt he squared to Kal Naismith, who looked well-placed to score, but the attention from a combination of Bradley and McCormick saw the chance evaporate.
Moments later, Evans set himself 25 yards out, set to tell the story his media quotes begged for. His swerving effort very nearly wrong-footed McCormick. It is very hard to tell whether Luke was inches away from a bit of a calamity, or whether he actually made a magnificent stop. What is certain is that the intervention was important. Before McCormick had touched it again, Argyle were in front - and it was his three colleague from last season's play-offs that had done it.
Carey, influential in the opening stages, and getting more so, released Sawyer to his outside, who flicked an oh-so-inviting cross to the far post where Jervis was approaching it like a locomotive. Jervis rose first, and highest, to power in a header at the far post. Curiously, Anderlecht had scored an almost identical goal the previous evening to deny Manchester United a win in the Europa League. No matter how raucous the celebrations in the Belgian region, it was likely not quite like the scenes in Fratton Park's Milton End, where 2,500 of the Green Army hailed Jervis' stunning header.
The goal was no more than Argyle deserved. This was not a Doncaster-like rearguard action. Argyle stood up to a very good Portsmouth side and played the better football for at least the opening half-an-hour of the game. By no means did the Pilgrims outplay their opponents, but they forced Pompey back to their own half, and made them make mistakes. This led to the Fratton faithful getting on to the backs of their players, and subsquently the officials, then things were not going their way.
Kal Naismith, for example. After beating Sawyer, Naismith clearly anticipated a foul that did not materialise, and so slid to his knees and appealed. All he got was a yellow card for his simulation. Curiously enough, only a minute or so before, Naismith had sent in a curling effort that McCormick has spilled towards Roberts, who hit the side-netting, via McCormick's recovering hand.
Anything you can do...Argyle broke, again down the left side, with Carey leading the charge. He rolled to Kennedy, who rocketed past two defenders, and fired at goal. As at the other end, though, the net was rippled, but from the outside.
The half-time whistle was met with considerable boos from the home sides of the ground. They were mainly directed at the referee, but a decent amateur psychologist may well suggest the boos were more in frustration at the way the game was panning out. Yes, Argyle were getting a vast number of free-kicks awarded to them, but 75% of the time it seemed that the green-and-white shirt was simply getting there first, drawing the foul.
Argyle had to make a change at half-time. Bradley was substituted, presumably succumbing to the injury sustained early in the game, and replaced by Jakub Sokolik.
If it was not already clear that Sokolik was going to have to come on and so some serious defending, he soon learned it. Roberts wriggled into space several times before corkscrewing himself into the ground and falling over as he took a shot. Soon after, Bennett's hit from range was headed wide by Songo'o. From the corner, Baker headed tamely past a post.
This was all in the opening five minutes of the second half; Argyle knew that it was time for another of their famous survival jobs.
However, the equalising goal had come before the game reached the hour mark. Bennett's low cross was a teasy one, and as Songo'o and McCormick both went for it, neither seemed to deal with it with total conviction. The ball fell loose, and Roberts was on hand to glance it home.
The goal united the home support, now using their collective voice to roar their team on in the game, rather than display annoyance. When Fratton Park is in full voice, it is an impressive place, and Roberts had proved to be both goalscorer and choirmaster. The din was fierce.
Both teams brought off their goalscorers, looking to take control of the final quarter of the game. Roberts was replaced by Conor Chaplin, who caused Argyle problems for fun at Home Park early in the season, while Jervis made way for Connor Smith, seen on the pitch for Argyle for the first time since January 14, following an ankle injury. It was Smith, as a substitute, who scored a late equaliser in the reverse fixture in PL2.
More subs followed, notably tall forward Jamal Lowe for wide-right-man Carl Baker, giving Portsmouth a legitimate front three. Adams' response, before looking to his bench, was to play Kennedy temporarily through the middle, and when Burgess dallied, Kennedy very nearly nipped in to embarrass him. It took some nifty footwork by Pompey goalkeeper David Forde to get them out of a jam.
Kennedy gave way to Tanner shortly after, and went into a forward role. Meanwhile, was operating from the left flank, doing a mostly shape-keeping defensive role.
Bennett always felt like Pompey's dangerman, and as he whipped over another dangerous low cross it was, not for the first time cleared by a Songo'o diving header. Sometimes, it seems that Yann spends a high percentage of his life in a mid-air, horizontal position.
Speaking of mid-air, it is where the diminutive Chaplin found himself, unchallenged, about six yards out, but steered his header wide of the target.
In the final of three minutes of stoppages - that is, time and heart - Bennett flicked a free-kick just over the bar, and that was that.
Except it was not. Cue a wait while things transpire elsewhere.
Portsmouth (4-2-3-1): 1 David Forde; 26 Gareth Evans, 4 Matt Clarke, 6 Christian Burgess, 3 Enda Stevens; 4 Danny Rose, 8 Michael Doyle (capt); 7 Carl Baker (18 Jamal Lowe 78), 11 Gary Roberts (19 Conor Chaplin 67), 23 Kyle Bennett; 22 Kal Naismith. Substitutes (not used): 13 Liam O'Brien, 15 Nicke Kabamba, 16 Jack Whatmough, 24 Amine Linganzi, 25 Drew Talbot.
Booked: Naismith 33.
Argyle (4-3-3): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 18 Oscar Threlkeld, 4 Yann Songo'o, 15 Sonny Bradley (31 Jakub Sokolik half-time), 3 Gary Sawyer; 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 24 David Fox, 10 Graham Carey; 14 Jake Jervis (6 Connor Smith 68), 19 Ryan Taylor, 16 Matty Kennedy (27 Craig Tanner 81). Substitutes: 2 Gary Miller, 11 Ryan Donaldson, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk), 26 Arnold Garita.
Booked: Sarcevic 60, Threlkeld 90.
Referee: Chris Sarginson.
Attendance: 18,625 (2,500 away approx).