Ness 34, 49, Carey pen 85
Bristol Rovers 2
Lines 12, Harris 36
THE CHARACTER that has never been doubted came to the fore as Argyle’s remarkable season continued with a win, achieved in equally remarkable fashion, that kept their beyond remarkable season well and truly alive.
A double from Jamie Ness – a major injury doubt before the match – either side of half-time and Graham Carey’s late penalty put them back into the play-off positions with nine matches of the season to play.
Argyle twice came from behind to earn their point. They were in arrears for all but 14 minutes of the first half, after conceding from an early free-kick by Chris Lines’ then, immediately after levelling through Ness’s first, allowing Ellis Harrison to put Rovers back ahead.
Ness levelled for a second time during a rip-roaring start to the second half, which also saw Ruben Lameiras’s penalty saved, before the Pilgrims’ second spot-kick settled a ding-dong derby.
For all their injury travails leading up to the game, Argyle manager Derek Adams was able to select a starting line-up unchanged from the one that had done duty in the previous week's 1-1 draw at Fleetwood Town.
New signing Northern Ireland international midfielder Paul Paton therefore started his life as a Pilgrim on the substitutes' bench.
Rovers had also drawn 1-1 seven days earlier, at home to Northampton. Their manager Darrell Clarke was obviously working on a Clarke Theory as he recalled both James and Ollie of that ilk, at the expense of Lee Brown and Rory Gaffney.
After a period of sparring, Argyle cranked through the gears and got their pass-and-move game going. Lameiras’s willingness to chase a lost cause saw him retrieve the ball form the bye-line and send a cross to the near post which Rovers hastily cleared from Ryan Taylor’s feet.
The resulting corner saw Ness get a decent head on the delivery, but the ball flew over the crossbar.
Rovers had not an attacking threat until that point but they were aided in their search for the opener by a fortuitous free-kick award by referee John Brooks after a fairly innocuous coming together between Zak Vyner and Stuart Sinclair.
Even more fortuitously, Brooks pulled the free-kick back a few yards from where the incident had taken place, which gave Lines just the extra room that he needed to send a well-placed grubber around the wall and past a sprawling Remi Matthews’ left hand.
Any sense of injustice that Pilgrims on and off the pitch may have felt was compounded when Brooks then booked Graham Carey after a challenge on Kyle Bennett when the Irishman quite clearly and quite cleanly took the ball.
Whether or not the goal unsettled Argyle, they momentarily struggled to keep a foothold on the game. Defensively, they looked as uncertain as at any time this season: Vyner nearly sold Matthews short with a pass back; Matthews later saw an attempted clearance charged down by Harrison before the ball was scrambled away.
They emerged from their malaise thanks to a snappy, slick move which took them from one end of the pitch to the other in a twinkling. Oscar Threlkeld won the ball; Carey and Lameiras exchanged passes twice; and Rovers were grateful to snuff out the danger.
Not for long. Carey played another one-two from the corner, with Threlkeld, and crossed from deep on the right, picking out Ness’s run into the box, and the Scottish midfielder helped the ball onwards with a header over goalkeeper Sam Slocombe.
Parity lasted two minutes. Rovers worked their way down the Argyle left and, although there seemed little immediate danger when the ball was played towards Harrison, the opposition striker won a physical battle with Yann Songo’o, cut in from the bye-line and fired low across Matthews.
If the first half petered out in disappointment, the second began with disproportionate drama.
Brooks added to the litany of questionable decisions after Moses Makasi tumbled to the ground in the penalty area, this time favouring Argyle as he pointed to the penalty spot. With Carey having missed a couple recently, Lameiras stepped up and his kick met with similar fate, Slocombe saving.
Argyle were unfazed, though, and soon levelled, again with some more good fortune attached. Ness and Gary Sawyer linked sweetly on the left edge of the penalty area before the Scot let fly with a shot that might or might not have been curling in at the right-hand post, but which hit Ollie Clarke on the head and flew past Slocombe, on to the left-hand post, and into the opposite corner.
It had been some four minutes.
Argyle’s collective tail was up and they pegged Rovers into their own half, except for some more odd aberrational moments at the back. Matthews, particularly, seemed out of sorts, again having another kick charged down. However, he got himself out of self-inflicted trouble, albeit at the expense of a yellow card.
Ness came close to netting a hat-trick when some more lovely play on the left gave him the same sort of space from which he had scored the second but, this time, the ball stayed resolutely on the same trajectory as the one from which it had left his foot and zipped across the face of the goal.
As the game entered the last ten minutes, there were auditions for the role of hero. Rovers centre-back captain Tom Lockyer came up for a corner which bypassed half the Pilgrims’ team on the way to him, but his half-volley went straight to Matthews.
In the end, the mantle went, as it so often has, to Carey. Songo'o was obviously hauled back - and quite badly hurt - in going for a cross and, on St Patrick's Day, the Irish talisman stepped up to the spot in front his adoring Devonport end to send Slocombe emphatically the wrong way.
Rovers kept Argyle keen and Bennett, so often a thorn in the Pilgrims’ side, went close to squaring affairs in injury time with a clever shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Life’s a gas. I hope it’s gonna last.
Argyle (4-3-3): 34 Remi Matthews; 18 Oscar Threlkeld, 22 Zak Vyner, 4 Yann Songo'o, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 14 Moses Makasi (30 Paul Paton 90), 24 David Fox, 6 Jamie Ness; 10 Graham Carey, 19 Ryan Taylor, 11 Ruben Lameiras (17 Aaron Taylor-Sinclair 90). Substitutes (not used): 8 Lionel Ainsworth, 16 Joel Grant, 25 Kyle Letheren (gk), 27 Alex Fletcher, 33 Cameron Sangster.
Booked: Carey 14, Matthews 58.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-1-1): 1 Sam Slocombe; 22 Joe Partington (20 Marc Bola 71), 4 Tom Lockyer (capt), 25 Tony Craig, 15 James Clarke; 14 Chris Lines, 7 Liam Sercombe, 8 Ollie Clarke (11 Tom Nichols 87), 26 Kyle Bennett; 24 Stuart Sinclair, 9 Ellis Harrison (30 Rory Gaffney 87). Substitutes (not used): 6 Ryan Sweeney, 16 Tom Broadbent, 21 Adam Smith (gk), 23 Bernard Mensah,
Booked: Partington 64, Bennett 90.
Referee: John Brooks.
Attendance: 13,466 (1,593 away).