Tanner 16, Donaldson 87
by Rob McNichol
A BIZARRE winning goal gave Argyle an 13th unbeaten match in succession, in a game befitting the allegedly mystical number.
A stop-start affair, in which Argyle took the lead through Craig Tanner before being pegged back by Craig Slater's equaliser, was won by substitute Ryan Donaldson blocking an attempted clearance by visiting goalkeeper Sam Walker, and watching it loop back into the net.
It was past 5pm before the final whistle sounded, following a lengthy injury to referee Kevin Johnson. In all, the second period lasted over an hour.
Argyle, though, solidified their grip on the top of table with the victory. What do they say about teams that win ugly?
Derek Adams had kept faith with the same starting 11 that had begun the game seven days earlier at Newport County. That game, a 3-1 win at a side yet to win at home this season, preceded the visit of Colchester, who had been victorious just once on the road before their trip to the south west.
For Colchester, 33-year-old Lloyd Doyley was making his debut, having signed as a free agent. This was his 448th career appearance - all but three of the preceding 447 had come for Watford. Having played most of his career at right back for the Hornets, he made a slight adjustment on his U's bow, lining up on the right of a back three.
For the first ten minutes, it seemed both sides were sizing up the formation to see what could work for them. Argyle's three most attacking players - Graham Carey, Jimmy Spencer and Jordan Slew - being matched up by their defensive attendants, until Adams decided to shake things up. Carey and Slew had been operating from the right and left wing respectively, but the Argyle boss switched them, and it nearly paid immediate dividends. David Fox's intricate pass sent Slew away down his right, and his pace caused an issue for a retreating Colchester backline. Slew's low centre found Spencer, who got away from his man with his first touch, but just could not get a second touch before the goalkeeper.
The Pilgrims took the lead on 16 minutes, with Carey popping up twice to influence the goal. His first act was to win - fairly - a 50-50 challenge with Drey Wright that left the United midfielder down injured. This would be a major factor in a goal that came some 20 seconds later.
Wright lay stricken, seeking physio's attention, while Argyle kept the ball. Colchester wanted the game stopped, but Argyle were unwilling to put the ball out, and with the onus on the referee to stop play at his discretion, the game continued. Carey eventually popped up, in an inside left position, and with Colchester a man down, Tanner drifted into the space left. An accurate Carey pass later, and Tanner was in acres, inside the area. His controlled left foot finish found the bottom corner, and Argyle were in front.
Wright recovered from his knock, but was still metaphorically stinging, and he channeled his rage by tripping Tanner twice on Argyle's right touchline. From the second foul, Carey whipped in a wonderful free-kick, straight into the six-yard area. Colchester goalkeeper Sam Walker punched the ball, but hit it straight into the face of Chris Porter. The ball, fortunately for the visitors, went wide for a corner. As a flustered commentator once said: "It could have gone anywhere - and it very nearly did."
As the half-hour mark loomed, Colchester had their first real chance, and in truth should have been level. Denny Johnstone got round Purrington and fired across the centre. Luke McCormick got a touch on the ball, but could only divert the ball into the path of Porter who, mystifyingly, skewed it wide.
Within two minutes, though, Colchester had their equaliser. Porter had been fouled by Sonny Bradley when trying to turn in the D, and United had a direct free-kick, twenty yards out, dead centre. Argyle set up a wall, but practically implored Colchester to find the corner of the net. Slater, stepping up and striking right footed, did so, and we had parity.
Argyle looked to Carey for the response. A direct free-kick of his own was well wide, then a dead-ball from the right uncharacteristically weak, but from a third attempt, this time from open play, he bamboozled his full-back and clipped in a glorious cross to the far post. It took an excellent piece of defending by Colchester captain Luke Prosser, who headed away under pressure, to stop Yann Songo'o steaming in at the back.
Guthrie rattled in a shot that was blocked on the edge of the area, shortly before Slater went to the well again from distance, but shot into the crowd.
It was, then, 1-1 at the interval, and thus ended a rather curious half. Argyle essentially controlled the game, but seemed not to create chances beyond getting balls into good areas. The visitors may not have seen great amounts of the ball, but will have sat in their dressing room wondering how they did not take at least one other of their chances.
In the opening stages of the second period, penalty areas appeared equipped with forcefields. Chances came solely from range; Wright fired over from distance for Colchester before Slew slipped away brilliantly from a defender, but before he could penetrate the area, sliced well wide.
Kane Vincent-Young's effort, just shy of the hour, may have been subject of considerable debate had it gone in. The fact is that he hit a looping ball from 25 yards that McCormick had to tip over his crossbar. The supposition would be that it was a hopeful flick forward from a man almost falling over, or a tremendous piece of improvisation, depending on your stance. Either way, it was a shot on target, but not a goal in the book.
Adams' reaction was to introduce Jake Jervis for Slew on 61 minutes, but Colchester were dictating the game at this stage. Strangely, though, they seemed happiest when slowing matters, reducing the game to little more than occasional set-pieces and slow marches to throw-ins. It was not that they were wasting time, per se, more like taking their sweet time over everything. Yet you sensed, had they upped their tempo and got the ball through the impressive Slater a bit more, they had a chance of seriously unsettling the league's leaders.
It was frustrating to watch on two levels: for one, Argyle were not at their best, and second, it was not exciting fare. The frustration was being felt on the pitch too, as Carey went into the book for a late challenge. It was not the challenge some of the opposing bench were claiming, but it was worthy of the yellow it generated.
Tanner gave way to Donaldson with 16 minutes to go, and Argyle shifted to a 4-4-2 formation, but that quickly became secondary. Referee Kevin Johnson collided with Spencer, with the official taking a horrible fall. Some 11 minutes passed while Johnson received treatment, seemingly for a neck injury. Players in the vicinity showed quick concern, and Johnson left the field on a stretcher. We wish him well. Simon Knapp, previously an assistant referee in the game, took over in the middle.
Seconds after the restart, Argyle took the lead in bizarre circumstances befitting this strange game. Prosser rolled the ball back to his goalkeeper after Argyle had taken a throw-in up the line to get the game back under way. Walker, though, dallied, and smashed the ball into Donaldson, charging the ball down. The ball hit the Argyle sub, looped into the air, and bounced into the net.
Donaldson had been on the pitch, at this point, for approximately 13 minutes, though only two of those had contained any action.
Through understandable circumstances, confusion was reigning in the game. Colchester tried in vain to get a substitute on - after a delay, they brought on three, trying to salvage something - and then the board to indicate stoppage time was held up 57 minutes after the half had begun.
During the closing minutes, Colchester forced a series of corners, with substitute Tarique Fosu firing on target after the third one. McCormick held on, though - as did Argyle.
The final whistle sounded at seven minutes after five. Argyle got what they were after, though - and that is three points.
It is two weeks before any more Sky Bet League Two action. Argyle will return to league action at Crewe on November 13, following Emirates FA Cup and Checkatrade Trophy action. When they do so, their lead at the top of the table will be four points, the gap to fourth place 11 points.
Injury time, stoppage time, good times.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller, 5 Nauris Bulvitis, 15 Sonny Bradley, 16 Ben Purrington; 4 Yann Songo’o, 24 David Fox; 10 Graham Carey, 27 Craig Tanner (11 Ryan Donaldson 74), 8 Jordan Slew (14 Jake Jervis 61); 9 Jimmy Spencer (6 Connor Smith 90). Substitutes (not used): 7 David Goodwillie, 19 Karleigh Osborne, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk), 22 David Ijaha.
Booked: Bulvitis 68, Carey 71.
Colchester United (3-5-2): 1 Sam Walker; 30 Lloyd Doyley, 14 Alex Wynter, 5 Luke Prosser (capt); 2 Richard Brindley, 28 Kurtis Guthrie, 7 Drey Wright, 24 Craig Slater (10 Sammie Szmodics 90), 12 Kane Vincent-Young (31 Tarqiue Fosu 90); 17 Denny Johnstone (19 Macauley Bonne 90), 9 Chris Porter. Substitutes (not used): 18 Tom Eastman, 23 Michael O'Donoghue, 29 James Bransgrove (gk), 32 Glen Kamara.
Booked: Wynter 56.
Referee: Kevin Johnson (Simon Knapp).
Attendance: 8,650 (214 away).