Threlkeld 69, Tanner 90
by Rob McNichol
ARGYLE showed some New Year resilience to see off a tricky Crawley Town side at Home Park to close out an unbeaten December, and end 2016 on top of Sky Bet League Two.
It took almost 70 minutes of a stodgy affair for Argyle to end the stalemate, but Oscar Threlkeld pounced after Glenn Morris pushed out David Fox's cross, giving Argyle a precious lead that they would reenforce in injury-time, when substitute Craig Tanner blasted home to seal the deal.
Derek Adams brought Ben Purrington back in to the Argyle starting 11 for the game, opting to switch Threlkeld, who has been in sparkling form in his adopted left-back position, into central midfield. Connor Smith was the man to make way.
Crawley also made one change, with former Pilgrim Andre Blackman being dropped to the substitutes' bench, being replaced in the team by Joe McNerney.
McNerney came into the side at the heart of a three-man defence, as Crawley looked to tinker with a defence that has conceded more away goals than any other team in Sky Bet League Two. They had plenty to deal with early on, as Arnold Garita was at the fore for several Argyle forays into Crawley territory. One particular piece of industry got him to the bye-line, but a delayed cutback did not quite reach Graham Carey.
Minutes later, Garita picked Josh Yorwerth's pocket and was fouled in the process, but Carey bent the resultant direct free-kick over the bar.
It took 17 minutes for Crawley to fashion anything like a chance, but when it came, it was real heart-in-mouth stuff. A smart corner routine saw Crawley top goalscorer James Collins in a great deal of space but, out of character, Collins made a hash of the attempted shot, and the chance was gone.
From a hopeful ball forward, it was Garita again causing problems for Crawley, bullying Mark Connolly off the ball, and shooting low, where Glenn Morris saved. It was a decent effort, although the onrushing Jordan Slew, to Garita's left, was an interesting, but not taken, option.
Crawley's system had stifled Argyle, and consequently the game. The tempo on the pitch, and the stands, was staccato, with no-one really finding it it easy to get going. After a patient spell of Argyle possession, Jervis prodded goalwards, but had his shot blocked.
It was Crawley, and Collins again, who had the best chance to bread the deadlock before the half-time interval. Enzio Boldewijn robbed the ball from Gary Miller, and released Collins, who bore down on Luke McCormick. Collins' scooped effort was over the Argyle goalkeeper, but over the crossbar, too.
Jordan Slew and David Fox had late half-chances for the Pilgrims, but the first period ended goalless - and largely actionless, it has to be said.
Adams shook his pack at half-time, bringing on Craig Tanner at the interval, in place of Gary Miller. Threlkeld scooted along to right-back, with Graham Carey sitting a little deeper in the midfield, and Tanner in the support role behind Garita.
Carey started to affect the game more from a deeper position, more than once taking the ball forward long distances on his own. Unfortunately, his first incursion saw him run into a cul-de-sac, and in the second he ran out of space on the pitch.
Slew nutmegged Mark Connolly, drawing the latter in to a foul he was subsequently cautioned for, but Jervis' two efforts on goal from the free-kick failed to trouble Morris.
Morris actually troubled himself a minute or so later, miscontrolling a backpass, but he got himself out of danger reasonably quickly.
A piece of Carey magic seemed a likely solution to breaking Crawley down, and although it failed to materialise when he attempted an audacious first-time volley, instead banging it in to the ground and off a defender, his low right-footed effort from 20 yards, though a crowd, was much more dangerous, and forced a decent save from Morris.
Perhaps Crawley were beginning to tire, even as early as the hour mark. Purrington's clipped cross found Tanner, who volleyed straight at Morris, but Argyle seemed to be increasingly finding - or creating - breaches in Crawley territory.
It was Fox who found a crucial one, with a little over 20 minutes to go. The experienced midfielder has an eye that few footballers at League Two level have, and this keen eye saw a chance for a burst in the right channel, at the right time. Getting to the bye-line, Fox fired across the centre where Morris palmed the ball away from goal. He could only push, though, in to the zone Threlkeld was dashing towards, and the former Bolton man capped off a very fine month with a deserved goal, slamming the ball in to the bottom left corner.
Adams was already set to bring on Nauris Bulvitis, and did so anyway, despite Argyle taking the lead. The Latvian replaced Garita, with Argyle shifting Slew up front with Jervis and matching Crawley's three-at-the-back formation. Connor Smith replaced Slew shortly afterwards, with Tanner pushing in to the van, but there was some in the ground that felt that Smith's time on the pitch should barely have lasted a minute.
Smith and Purrington ummed and ahhed over who should play a ball on the halfway line following an Argyle corner, and in the confusion, Boldewijn looked to break through. Smith hauled him down, on the halfway line, with only McCormick remaining as cover. Crawley clearly wanted Smith to be sent off, but referee Brendan Malone deemed the foul to be cynical, but not denial of a goalscoring opportunity. He was probably just about right, but you could understand either interpretation.
Crawley, as you would imagine, pushed bodies forward in search of a late equaliser, and they might well have got it had Jordan Roberts' shot not been aimed towards the goal of the best keeper in the division. McCormick's save, low to his left, was stunning, and as valuable as any goal Argyle have scored this season.
With Crawley pushing men forward deep into stoppage time, Argyle broke away, with Jervis and Tanner overloading Town's retreating backline. Jervis squared to Tanner, who thrashed home to put a bow on a result that sends the Pilgrims back to the summit of the division.
Right, then. Turns out 2016 was the dress rehearsal. Here comes 2017: the real thing.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller (27 Craig Tanner half-time), 4 Yann Songo'o, 15 Sonny Bradley, 16 Ben Purrington; 18 Oscar Threlkeld, 24 David Fox; 14 Jake Jervis, 10 Graham Carey, 8 Jordan Slew (6 Connor Smith 77); 26 Arnold Garita (5 Nauris Bulvitis 70). Substitutes (not used): 7 David Goodwillie, 19 Karleigh Osborne, 20 Louis Rooney, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Booked: Miller 35, Songo'o 43, Threlkeld 69, Purrington 75, Smith 78.
Crawley Town (3-5-2): 12 Glenn Morris; 6 Mark Connolly (17 Bobson Bawling 78), 22 Joe McNerny, 15 Josh Yorwerth; 2 Lewis Young, 8 Jimmy Smith (capt), 4 Josh Payne (33 Sanchez Watt 87), 18 Billy Clifford (24 Kaby Djalo 65), 11 Jordan Roberts; 7 Enzio Boldewijn, 19 James Collins. Substitutes (not used): 13 Yusuf Mersin (gk), 14 Andre Blackman, 20 Aryan Tajbakhsh, 44 Conor Henderson.
Booked: Roberts 35, Yorwerth 48, Connolly 53, Young 68, Collins 72, Smith 84.
Referee: Brendan Malone.
Attendance: 9,039 (84 away).