Moore 5, Edwards 25.
Bradford City 1
Canavan og 51
IN the final game to be played at Home Park before the new-look Mayflower Grandstand opens, the Pilgrims triumphed in a battle of wills against fellow promotion-chasers Bradford City.
The Greens led by two goals at half-time, thanks to Byron Moore and Joe Edwards, but were pegged back through a Niall Canavan own-goal early in the second-half.
Having weathered the relative storm that followed the Bantams’ goal, the Pilgrims finished the game strongly – but were unable to force a third past Richard O’Donnell, whose mistake for the Greens’ second goal proved, ultimately, to be the difference.
It had been a lengthy break since the Greens last graced the Home Park turf in Sky Bet League Two action. The Pilgrims’ previous league game at the Theatre of Greens, on October 22, saw them defeat Leyton Orient 4-0 in Carl Fletcher’s first game in charge of the O’s.
A month is an awful long time in football – just ask Fletcher. Argyle have had their share of ups and downs in the last lunar cycle, too. Consecutive away victories over League One Bolton Wanderers and table-toppers Forest Green Rovers, with clean sheets to boot, fueled renewed optimism among the Green Army, leaving a sobering Devon Derby defeat at Exeter City fading in the rear-view mirror.
The Greens’ new-found resilience was to face another stern test in the form of Gary Bowyer’s Bantams, though, who arrived at Home Park in the automatic promotion places, having won four of their last five league games.
Much like the 3-3 draw between these sides at Home Park last season, the game was off to a blistering start. First, Harry Pritchard took advantage of an unfortunate defensive ricochet to send in a dangerous delivery, which Aramide Oteh turned narrowly wide of the far post, caught in two minds between controlling and striking first-time. Not even a minute later, the Bantams were behind.
Antoni Sarcevic, arguably enjoying the best form of his Argyle career, raced down the right flank, muscling his way past Pritchard before delivering a pinpoint cross to Moore at the near post. The forward poked his first effort towards goal only to be denied by O’Donnell. Fortunately for Byron and the Greens, he reacted quickest to stab into the far corner at the second attempt.
Having edged in front, Ryan Lowe’s side were forced to do their fair share of grunt work in the period that followed. Pritchard, who had been in the thick of it at both ends in the early stages, had two opportunities to head Bradford level from inside the box – the first scooping up and over Alex Palmer’s crossbar, before the second was gratefully pouched by the West Bromwich Albion loanee goalkeeper.
Bradford, who, on the balance of play, would have been frustrated to be one goal down, could have nobody to blame but themselves as they went two down on 25 minutes. Dwelling on a routine back-pass with Edwards bearing down on him, O’Donnell hashed his clearance direct to Joel Grant on the right flank.
With composure, Grant infiltrated the box before laying the ball back to Edwards, who smoothly dropped his shoulder to leave Callum Cooke sprawled on the turf before placing the ball into the bottom corner in front of a rapturous Devonport End.
Apparently not keen to learn their lesson, Bradford nearly gifted the Greens another on 35 minutes, as Ben Richards-Everton caught a bout of the O’Donnells, handing Joel Grant possession 30 yards from goal. The striker, who netted in the same fixture last season, danced his way past former Pilgrim Anthony O’Connor, before firing disappointingly straight at the Bantams’ goalkeeper.
Sarcevic was next in on the act for the Greens, whose second goal had taken some of the fight out of the Bantams. Latching on to a well-taken throw-in to break between the lines and trying his luck from outside the area, the midfielder’s strike took a wicked deflection off O’Connor, and would have gone in, but for a super reaction stop from O’Donnell with his feet.
The half-time interval inevitably brought changes for the visitors, as Bowyer introduced another ex-Green, Kelvin Mellor, and Zeli Ismail, for Cooke and Oteh. The result of the changes saw the Bantams switch to a 3-4-3 in search of a response – which came just five minutes into the second-half.
Argyle were unable to clear their lines after repeat entries into the box. Hope Akpan hoisted the ball across to O’Connor on the right-hand side of the box, and his low drive across goal was turned inadvertently into his own net by former Bradford Academy prospect Canavan.
Much like the second goal in the first-half, this goal saw the momentum lurch back towards the visitors, who could have been level on 66 minutes through substitute Ismail, who drifted behind the defensive line, latching on to a Vaughan flick-on – sending it narrowly wide of the far post.
The Greens responded with heart, tussling with the visitors to regain the ascendancy. On 70 minutes, they were inches away from putting the game to bed. Another short corner routine saw Edwards hang a cross to the far post, which was met with force and momentum by Canavan. Every player on the pitch was powerless to intervene as the Yorkshireman headed towards goal, but his moment of salvation pinged narrowly wide of the post.
Not content to sit off and hold on, Argyle surged forward again. Joel Grant’s superb backheel on the half-way line fed the tireless Callum McFadzean in behind, and his low cross seemed destined to be tucked away by substitute Dom Telford, but for a last-ditch lunge from Richards-Everton.
Attack remained the best form of defence for the Pilgrims, who saw two efforts hacked off the line in quick succession. First, Sarcevic’s sweeping drive from the edge of the area was cleared by a combination of O’Donnell and Vaughan, before Canavan, desperate to bring his net contribution back to zero, hooked an overhead kick at goal from the resultant corner - only to see it scrambled away again.
For this reason alone, the five added minutes did not make for comfortable viewing. But Argyle held firm – and so do their promotion-chasing credentials.
Argyle (3-5-2): 24 Alex Palmer (gk); 5 Scott Wootton, 6 Niall Canavan, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 8 Joe Edwards, 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 25 Josh Grant, 10 Danny Mayor, 21 Callum McFadzean; 16 Joel Grant (9 Ryan Taylor 84), 17 Byron Moore (11 Dom Telford 70). Substitutes (not used): 1 Michael Cooper (gk), 15 Conor Grant, 18 Billy Clarke, 20 Adam Randell, 32 George Cooper.
Booked: McFadzean 55, Mayor 85, Palmer 90.
Bradford City (4-5-1): 1 Richard O’Donnell (gk); 22 Adam Henley, 6 Anthony O’Connor, 5 Ben Richards-Everton, 23 Connor Wood; 19 Dylan Connolly, 21 Hope Akpan (24 Danny Devine 64), 26 Callum Cooke (2 Kelvin Mellor half-time), 7 Harry Pritchard, 25 Aramide Oteh (11 Zeli Ismail half-time); 12 James Vaughan (capt). Substitutes (not used): 4 Paudie O’Connor, 8 Jake Reeves, 18 Jermaine Anderson, 30 George Sykes-Kenworthy (gk).
Booked: Cooke 23.
Referee: Ollie Yates.
Attendance: 9,645 (387 away).