Sky Of Blue And Sea Of Green

ROB McNichol takes an alternative look at the Pilgrims' 1-1 draw with Exeter City.

WE are used to leaving base at 8.30am for away games, but it is typically for treks across country, across counties.

A jaunt up the A38 is less of a strain on the wheels, but a little more on the nerves.

Approximately half an hour before kick off, the public address within St James Park played Yellow Submarine, and the lyric “Sky of blue and sea of green” resonated in more ways than one.

The sun was indeed shining on a beautiful Devon morning, and the away end was beginning to swell with the massed – and sold out – ranks of the Green Army.

Typically, as this is December, and it’s Britain, it was raining by kick-off. But, really, the entire climactic shift felt symbolic of a game like.

Derbies are, after all, about as predictable as the British weather.

Not only are derbies big games for players and, particularly, fans, they are also big occasions for officials.

Decked in yellow, almost symbolic of Devon football’s third entity, referee Andy Woolmer and his assistants were charged with keeping this as a game of football, not allowing it to succumb to the potentially fractious atmosphere.

After ninety seconds, Andres Gurrieri glided past an Exeter defender and was – let’s be frank – taken out.

It looked the very definition of a textbook caution, but the cards stayed in Mr Woolmer’s pocket. A cop out? Right in front of the Exeter fans, bottling out of a big decision? Or sensible refereeing, using a bit of common sense to not put someone in the book within two minutes, realising that every tackle after that would be under extra scrutiny?

The latter seemed a very fair argument until 18 minutes in, when Max Blanchard was booked for a very similar challenge to that of Danny Coles before him. A yellow card tightrope is not a nice thing to walk for over seventy minutes against Exeter’s not inconsiderable strike force.

Now, while the weather did change, the rain came and went, the game and atmosphere was a little bit of a wet weekend.

Perhaps it was the early kick off, but things just seemed a little subdued. It was similar on the pitch. Argyle’s best chance came from the aforementioned early free kick, while City’s Scot Bennett really ought to have done better with a meek headed effort from a corner.

This was, of course, until Liam Sercombe’s opening goal. It looked like it took a wicked deflection. Sercombe’s stance will be that it was a true strike. What was undeniable was that it came just after the half hour and sparked the home crowd into life. And then it occurred to me what had been the cause of the subdued nature of the game‘s atmosphere. The less-than-tranquil silence was due to nerves. I think the first time anyone in the three home sides of the ground drew breath was after celebrating their goal.

But if this saw a shift in tension, a moment two minutes into the second half saw a shift of hearts from chest cavity to mouth. Robbie Williams, a half –time sub for Gurrieri, tried to head back to Gilmartin, but found only Jamie Cureton, lurking, as is his want. What followed appeared to occur in bullet time. Cureton brought the ball down, advanced on Gilmartin, leaned backwards to avoid several weapons, weaved past two Agents, slayed two sentinels, steadied himself, and clipped it wide.

It was an astonishing miss. And a game changer. It was Exeter’s last meaningful chance of any note. Indeed, they struggled to get the ball into any sort of dangerous area for much of the second half. Initially, Argyle huffed, puffed, dominated territorially, but didn’t really look like blowing Exeter’s house in, made of straw or otherwise.

But as time progressed, confidence grew. Not just in the Argyle attackers, who started to look a little more potent, but in the away end, and the volume grew. Like night follows day and sunshine follows the rain, when the players lift their game, the supporters follow suit. With spirits roused on the park and in the stands, Fletcher sent on Feeney and Chadwick, and the Argyle momentum grew.

Possession turned into half chances; half chances into chances. The pressure grew, and eventually Joe Lennox, with the help of a significant deflection of his own, found the net. Joy unconfined, parity restored – but nerves ramped up even further.

Exeter, to their credit, responded. Cureton was played through and missed the second easiest chance of his season, the first having come half an hour earlier. Dark Argyle clouds appeared to be looming, the sunny spell looking like it was a gap between the squalls. Blanchard – remember that first half caution? – was sent off after bringing down John O’Flynn. Argyle regroup, went form suddenly desiring a win to being happy to take a creditable point. Bennett headed just wide.

The fourth official signalled five added minutes, six and a bit were played.

But Argyle hung on. Exeter fans might suggest that the cheers of the Argyle faithful at the whistle, indicating that they were the happiest with a point, shows how far they have come.

But the cheers were as much for the resurgence as the  scoreline. You can debate about quality of player, performance or match as much as you like, and opinions will always vary. But you can’t disguise heart.

Argyle’s players showed that in abundance today, and they were backed up by their faithful, especially come the end, when it counted.

Come rain or shine, and particularly in derby games, that is needed. We’ve taken a point of them at St James Park. Here’s to all three at HP.