IS it patronising to say this might be the first time in many decades, if indeed ever, that Argyle began a Devon Derby with Torquay United as favourites?Argyle boss Carl Fletcher said as much in his pre-match words to the press. And it is, in honesty, indisputable. The Gulls went into this off the back of a season where they narrowly missed out on promotion, losing in the play-off semi-finals. They went into it after starting this season undefeated in four league fixtures to that point – although admittedly three draws.
Perhaps as crucially as anything, they went into this game after a season in which they beat Argyle twice. Twice they got to lord it over us. And twice they were clinical, and deserved it.
I’ve been watching Argyle for almost twenty years, and until last November, the only win I had ever seen Torquay have over us was in a vaguely meaningless Auto Windscreens game in 2000 where each club essentially fielded a reserve side.
Before last season, you had to go back to April 1st, 1972 for the last time Torquay beat Argyle in the league. No fooling.
The Football League’s efforts to ensure fairness in this, the least combustible Devon Derby combo of the three, went to such a length than in this West v West clash they appointed Mr East – Roger, of that ilk.
Mr East had his first Premier League assignment the weekend previous, officiating Swansea v Sunderland, and indeed deciding Time was up for Chico Flores.
And early on, he was kept busy. The opening exchanges were fractious, and Argyle had two men in the book within fifteen minutes. Tackles that away fans will say were ‘honest’ and ‘mistimed’. Tackles that home fans will say were ‘reckless’ and ‘disgraceful’. Tackles that players, in their ‘player speak’, would likely describe as ‘letting them know you are there’.
There was certainly an element of blood and thunder to the game, as well as thud and blunder. You’ll not see more commitment to the cause than Robbie Williams diving full length to block a goalbound Torquay shot after Jake Cole had parried an initial effort.
Prior to Willow’s intervention, it had looked a sure-fire opening goal. In fact Torquay had carved out most of the decent chances in the opening period, with Warren Feeney’s forcing a save out of Michael (Presumably known in the dressing room as “Long Old”) Poke being Argyle’s only real chance of note.
That said, there were three occasions where The Pilgrims had clearly pre-worked set-piece routines that came off in terms of the planning, but the execution, i.e. the final shot, was sadly lacking.
Direct free-kicks, though, don’t need too much planning. Lately, the plan is ‘Let Robbie ping it’. With a minute to go to the break, he did just that, forcing Poke into a full length save to his left. Cliché time: It was a good height for the goalkeeper.
It was an entertaining first half, considering the lack of goals. The most fascinating battle was waged between Danny Stevens and Durrell Berry, on the left of midfield and right side of defence for United and Argyle respectively. Neither the tallest, but both with pace to burn, the contest was rather evenly matched.
At the start of the second half, an elderly gentleman sat a few seats in front of me, presumably believing Argyle to be less than a passing side, started to ironically count the passes between the men in Green. One assumes his intention was to prove that an attack would fizzle out after one or two passes. He was wrong.
He had got to eight by the time Paul Wotton arrowed a ball down the channel for Berry to chase. Durrell chased it, got there first and had turned two defenders before The Talking Calculator had realised what was happening. His ball across the area was dangerous, but sadly not telling, and it leaked through everyone and to safety.
This incursion, though, signalled a period of Argyle offense not seen thus far in the match; maybe the season. Suddenly Argyle looked a yard quicker, a shade slicker and caused more eyelids to flicker. A towering Feeno header saved by Poke. A Hourihane searcher clawed away by Poke. A Feeno drive over the bar. Another Berry cross pouched.
Then another interesting Fletcher substitution. Heads were scratched against Northampton when Curtis Nelson appeared as a centre forward, but a goal seven minutes after coming on silenced all doubters. This time, it was Matt Lecointe 2.0 coming on, taking Luke Young’s spot in the middle of midfield. And he settled just fine. Chalk up another one to the gaffa.
The longer the game progressed, the more an alternative contest emerged; a contest between the Torquay faithful and the referee. The hostility was entirely focused in one direction - East. The yellow and blue sections of the ground saw practically every decision that went Argyle’s as a personal slight upon them, largely ignoring the fact that their team had simply been second to everything and were committing fouls.
The (slightly paranoid) fear from an Argyle perspective then became that Mr East would buckle under the pressure and find a reason to satiate the home fans and give a crucial spot-kick or reach for a red card.
Fortunately, he didn’t, and the game continued.
Torquay, to their credit, are a decent side, and the second half was far from one way traffic. As the sands in the upper portion of the timer decreased, so the Argyle rear-guard backpedalled. The Gulls had some late pressure, but it came to nought.
As the crowds filed away, having seen no goals, one Torquay voice was heard to utter “They’ll be alright. They are far better than they were last year.” They spoke of Argyle – and they are right. This Argyle side is not perfect and, as the manager often says, has plenty to work on, but goodness me we are streets ahead of where we were last November.
Were Torquay justifiably favourites? Yes, they were. There was certainly more of a sense, post-match, that Argyle were happier with the 0-0 than their hosts.
The two sides will meet once more on Boxing Day. If, by then, Torquay visit south-west Devon and are considered underdogs once more, it will not necessarily be considered a restoration of the natural order of Devon football, but more an indication that post-Admin Argyle are heading in the right direction.