by CHRIS PARSONS
A FANTASTIC performance in a bizarre second half at Home Park earned the Pilgrims their first win of the season against an in-form Northampton Town.
The first half? Forget about it. Alex Nicholls scored, nothing else happened.
The second period, though, was brilliant. Fantastic. As good a 45 minutes football as you are likely to see this season.
So what happened? Well first, Onismor Bhasera, who was easily, hands down, man-of-the-match, crossed for Warren Feeney to head home. 1-1. Game on.
Then, just 12 minutes later, and 14 minutes into his Football League debut having replaced Paul Wotton at half-time, Rhys Griffiths stroked the Pilgrims ahead.
Sadly, though, having played just over 20 minutes, Griffiths was forced off with injury, to be replaced by Curtis Nelson.
Nelson had looked hot in the pre-season, rattling crossbars and pinging posts in several of the Pilgrims’ warm-up games but nobody, least of all him, expected to be playing up front in a competitive fixture.
But that is what happened and after less than ten minutes, he had scored Argyle’s third; nodding home Robbie Williams’ cross from the left.
David Artell’s late, late consolation was never going to give Argyle too much worry as, for the first time this season, the Green Army bathed in the glory of all three points.
Argyle manager Carl Fletcher had made a number of changes to the tired legs that had completed 120 minutes against Burnley on Tuesday.
He kept the same 4-5-1 system, though, bulking up his young Capital One Cup charges with a few of the older and wiser heads who had sat out the 624 mile round trip.
Darren Purse, who had sat out with a thigh injury, and Wotton who was rested, were both back in fold, at the expense of Curtis Nelson and Jared Sims in the centre of defence and midfield respectively.
Bhasera's influence as a substitute on Tuesday earned him a place on the left side of midfield, relegating Johnny Gorman to the bench, whilst Feeney made his second start of the season, replacing the injured Nick Chadwick.
Having recovered from a stomach bug, striker Griffiths took his place on the bench at Home Park for the first time whilst Alex MacDonald began his second spell as a Pilgrim in the same manner that he’d began his first, as a substitute in the number 32 shirt. On that occasion, he came on and scored.
Northampton, who had exited the Capital One Cup at the hands of Wolves two days earlier, made two changes – in goal, where Lee Nicholls replaced Dean Snedker and up front, where Ade Akinfenwa stepped into the boots of Clive Platt.
After a lethargic start in the bright, late-summer sunshine, Argyle created their first-half chance after eight minutes when Conor Houriahane’s deft touch just outside the area, set up Bhasera for a shot. The Zimbabwean, playing his last game for the Pilgrims before jetting off on international duty, struck the ball well could not get the direction he had been aiming for blasted wide.
Paris Cowan-Hall was one of Argyle’s standout performers at Burnley and was clearly desperate to show the Home Park crowd what he could do, working hard down the right flank with some clever played before, after 20 minutes, testing visiting ‘keeper Lee Nicholls with a 25 yard drive.
Shortly afterward, Bhasera went close again, heading Durrell Berry’s deep cross into the side netting with Nicholls scrambling to get across.
Up until the 26th minute, Northampton had created nothing but, sadly for the Pilgrims, the first time they did create, they scored as Alex Nicholls turned well on the penalty spot to angle a shot past Jake Cole.
Whilst Argyle heads remained high, they were in hands just a minute later, when Hourihane’s shot from just inside the area bobbled agonisingly wide of the left hand post.
Just after the half-hour, Argyle were dealt another blow when Cowan-Hall was forced to retire from the action, clutching his hamstring, giving MacDonald the opportunity to make his second debut.
After the break, Fletcher opted for a change of system, replacing Wotton with Griffiths to form a 4-4-2. The Home Park crowd gave the former Port Talbot striker huge reception on his Football League debut, with the Devonport End donning fireman’s helmets in homage to the former occupation of their new number 10.
Griffiths’ introduction almost paid immediate dividends, as the Welshman’s touch found Bhasera to fire a shot directly into the arms of the Cobblers’ ‘keeper.
But just a minute later, it was Bhasera who made the difference, delivering an inch perfect cross from the left flank for Feeney to head home, across Lee Nicholls and into the far corner.
Argyle had started the second-half at an alarming pace and could have even gone ahead had Bhasera, now emerging as the clear man-of-the-match, just failed to connect with Feeney’s low ball across the box.
Minutes later, though, Argyle took the lead and it was Griffiths, who since his introduction had changed the game, who got the goal. And what a goal it was, too...
Bhasera, involved in everything going forward for Argyle all afternoon, laid the foundations, supplying a ball to Feeney’s feet, that he stroked off to Griffiths, who in turn spread the play to the right for MacDonald.
Macca drove in and produced a low, out swinging cross that Lee Nicholls could only parry into the space that Griffiths, in the right place, at the right time, filled to slot home with ease.
Then, just a minute later, it was Griffiths who protected the Pilgrims’ lead, throwing himself in front of an Alex Nicholls shot to deflect the ball for a corner.
But sadly, having been on the pitch for just 22 minutes, Griffiths was then forced off with injury, to be replaced up front by, of all people, Curtis Nelson.
Sound funny? with attacking options like Andres Gurrieri, Joe Lennox and Johnny Gorman on the bench, it did seem like a strange tactical move.
But with just over 15 minutes to go, the manager’s decision was justified, when the defender turned striker, out jumped Kelvin Langmead to head the Pilgrims further into the lead in front of an ecstatic Devonport End.
Despite the two goal lead, Northampton were far from dead and buried as Ben Tozer was denied by Cole, before David Artell was denied by the woodwork.
When, well into injury time, Artell did eventually score, heading in from a Tozer long throw, it did not matter too much with all three points already safely in the bag.
Argyle (4-5-1): 1 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Darren Purse (capt), 4 Maxime Blanchard, 3 Robbie Williams; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall (32 Alex MacDonald 33), 6 Conor Hourihane, 15 Paul Wotton (10 Rhys Griffiths h-t) (17 Curtis Nelson 67), 8 Luke Young, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 11 Warren Feeney. Substitutes (not used): 13 Ollie Chenoweth (gk), 19 Joe Lennox, 27 Andres Gurrieri, 28 Johnny Gorman.
Booked: MacDonald 88
Northampton Town (4-5-1): 21 Lee Nicholls; 23 Danny East, 18 David Artell, 5 Kelvin Langmead (capt), 3 Joe Widdowson; 11 Chris Hackett (15 Henoc Mukendi 79), 12 Ben Tozer, 4 Luke Guttridge, 8 Ben Harding (7 Ishmel Demontagnac 69), 14 Alex Nichols; 10 Adebayo Akinfenwa (9 Clive Platt 51). Substitutes (not used): 6 Anthony Charles, 13 Dean Snedker, 16 Lewis Wilson, 19 Louis Moult.
Booked: Akinfenwa 32
Referee: Andy Davies
Attendance: 6,037 (229 away)