By Rick Cowdery
ARGYLE returned to the top of the Sky Bet League Two tree for Christmas thanks to substitute Craig Tanner’s fourth goal from a calculated smash and grab raid at what used to be called the Crown Ground – wham bam! Thank you mam!
Tanner struck 14 minutes from the end of a game in which Argyle’s defence – and especially goalkeeper Luke McCormick – had to be at their strongest to keep Accrington at bay.
McCormick made several splendid saves before and after on-loan Reading man Tanner scored 15 minutes after coming off the bench, latching on to a perceptive pass into the penalty area before firing home.
He was ably assisted by a back four in which Sonny Bradley was again outstanding and a determined attitude from what used to be called 1-11.
It was a day when substitutes were to the fore. The most notable changes on the Argyle team sheet were among the seven replacements, where defender Nauris Bulvitis and on-loan Bristol City forward Arnie Garita took their places after injury.
The starting 11 was, unsurprisingly, the same that had not only beaten League Two leaders Doncaster Rovers seven days earlier to return to the top of the division, but had become the first side this season to deny Darren Ferguson’s free-attacking team a goal.
Troubled Accrington – without a win in seven matches going into the match, having scored just twice in that streak – showed five changes from the line-up that had started their 1-0 defeat at Leyton the previous week, a match notable for seeing 30 of the 50 or so Stanley fans that had made the journey to London ejected for fighting, amongst themselves.
Two of the changes were up front, where former Torquay United striker Billy Kee returned alongside popular ex-Pilgrim and current Plymouth property magnate Rommy Boco.
Both sides closed down the space to such good effect that neither made much serious headway in the opening quarter of an hour. Accrington had a couple of non-threatening forays down either flank; Argyle did not get even that close to the Stanley goal until a route-one release from goalkeeper Luke McCormick saw Slew get in behind for a cross that was hurriedly cleared from the six-yard box.
Slew’s raw speed was an asset Argyle that were not shy to use and the tactic nearly paid dividends midway through the first half when the striker won the ball on halfway and raced forward to receive a perceptive return pass from Graham Carey. His shot was low, hard and across goalkeeper Elliot Parish, but scudded past the goalpost.
These were rare highlights in a half which the Pilgrims’ individual talents took second place to their admirable discipline and willingness to work for each other in pursuit of the greater good.
Accrington were not apparently discouraged by the wall of green which the Pilgrims threw up whenever they were not in possession, and upped their game as the interval approached.
Boco had a shot blocked, fairly routinely, by Sony Bradley with McCormick keeping out Zak Vyner’s subsequent long-range swerving shot from the rebound.
There was, however, nothing matter-of-fact about McCormick’s next save, a twisting tip-over of Jordan Clark’s first-time effort. The stop was more remarkable as McCormick had been clattered by Kee – who seemed unable to challenge for the ball without fouling – in coming for the ball that eventually found Clark, yet still recovered.
Argyle responded through Connor Smith, who had done as much as any to support Slew, but the young Irishman’s measured shot flew wide before the half-time whistle sounded and the Pilgrims were able to regroup in the sanctuary of the dressing-room.
Accrington, though, came out the stronger after the interval, with Boco to the fore of their attempts to prise open the Argyle rearguard, and one teasing cross from Clark was headed just wide of his own goal by Yann Songo’o.
The left side of Argyle’s back four then took centre stage at either end of the field. First, full-back Oscar Threlkeld sent in a teasing cross that Slew headed just wide; then, Bradley stretched to cut out Clark’s dangerous low cross with Kee’s trigger cocked.
Songo’o matched his centre-back partner in twice turning crosses behind for corners as Stanley twisted the knife. Kee was next to put Green Army hearts in mouths as his header inside the six-yard box squirted wide.
As Argyle re-organised after bringing on Craig Tanner for Jake Jervis, Cooneely was next to come close to breaking the deadlock, Very close. His shot from outside the box, was half-blocked and but still looped towards the Argyle goal and would have crept in off McCormick’s right-hand post had not the Pilgrims’ ’keeper got a small, but telling, touch on the ball to tip it on to the post.
Derek Adams, who had, rarely, made no substitutions against Doncaster, this week used all three of his options by the 70th minute, revamping his forward line by bringing on Tanner, Goodwillie and Garita for Slew, Jervis and Ryan Donaldson.
Suddenly, Argyle were in the game as a potent attacking force and it was not a real surprise when the head of steam that they built up resulted in the breakthrough.
Some slick passing saw Goodwillie play the sweetest ball into the feet of Tanner, whose clever run had taken him away from his marker. Tanner turned on a sixpence to slide the ball under Parish.
Accrington flew back at the Pilgrims, working the ball to John O’Sullivan, wide on the right, whose fierce shot was beaten away by McCormick.
The scoreline forced Accrington to gamble and Argyle’s fitness saw them make a lot from the increased space they were given. Garita and Tanner both had efforts cleared off the goal-line and Carey fired wide.
Stanley were not done for, though, and the onus went back on the Argyle back line as Stanley spread the ball wide, firing it in from both right and left.
As the clock clicked into injury-time, Conneely squared a ball back to the six-yard line, from where Clark seemed certain to score. Somehow, though, McCormick grasped the shot.
It summed up the afternoon in an instant.
Accrington Stanley (4-4-1-1): 26 Elliot Parish; 2 Matty Pearson, 3 Mark Hughes, 5 Omar Beckles, 6 Zak Vyner (9 Terry Gornell 88); 27 John O'Sullivan, 8 Scott Brown, 28 Seamus Conneely (capt), 7 Jordan Clark; 14 Rommy Boco (10 Shay McCartan 80); 29 Billy Kee. Substitutes (not used): 4 Arron Davies, 13 Jack Little (gk), 15 Gary Taylor-Fletcher, 18 Steven Hewitt, 26 Ross Sykes.
Booked: Hughes 65.
Argyle (4-1-4-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller, 4 Yann Songo'o, 15 Sonny Bradley, 18 Oscar Threlkeld; 24 David Fox; 10 Graham Carey, 11 Ryan Donaldson (7 David Goodwillie 69), 6 Connor Smith, 14 Jake Jervis (27 Craig Tanner 61), 8 Jordan Slew (26 Arnie Garita 69). Substitutes (not used): 5 Nauris Bulvitis, 19 Karleigh Osborne, 20 Louis Rooney, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Booked: Tanner 64, Garita 82.
Referee: Scott Duncan.
Attendance: 1,573 (433 away).