No Déjà Vu This Time

ROB McNichol takes an alternative look at our 1-1 draw with AFC Wimbledon

SENSES of déjà vu are reasonably common in football, and it was with a profound one that I approached the Cherry Red Records Fans’ Stadium.

As last year, it was a Tuesday night fixture. As last year, I had spent the previous couple of days in London, and so approached the ground, appropriately for Wimbledon, via underground and overground.

And as last year, this was a vital game as the run-in to the season engulfs us. Both Argyle and Wimbledon, as last term, both need points to maintain survival.

On March 6, 2012 the two teams met, with Argyle emerging 2-1 victors on a tense night in the capital. Three players that started that game lined up in the first XI some 51 weeks later – Jake Cole, Maxime Blanchard and Onismor Bhasera taking their place in the starting line up once again. Conor Hourihane, a sub that night, also played this time, but none of the remaining seven players that started the 2013 fixture have been at the club longer than two months.

Last year Bhasera took roughly the time it takes Jess Ennis to run 100m to pop up at the far post to nod the Pilgrims in front. The Dons would equalise before half time, but Nick Chadwick’s winner claimed all three points for the grateful visitors. A similar story would prove most welcome this time around.

It may not have been the sub 12-second goal that Argyle ambushed the Dons with last season, but the first serious chance of the game fell to the Pilgrims while the game was still very much in its infancy.

It would be of little surprise to anyone who has seen the bulk of John Sheridan’s reign to date that the chief creator was Jason Banton.

The borrowed Palace winger strikes you as the kind of player that defenders must hate playing against.

They may even get drawn into a false sense of security, as at first glance the lithe winger cuts a spindly figure, arms at legs seemingly at odds at times, but has a lovely knack of retaining a football.

Here, on the left flank and cutting inside, he came out of a 50/50 with the ball then pirouetted inside, leaving a blue wake laying around the edge of the area. A rising strike brought a quality and necessary save out of veteran goalkeeper and semi-professional Russell Crowe lookalike Neil Sullivan.

“David Beckham, he scores when he wants,” sang the Green Army. Assuming we didn’t have a Paris Saint-Germain contingent in the away end, having popped over on the Eurostar for this big fixture, it meant the GA were fondly recalling Goldenballs lobbing Sullivan from his own half some time back.

I wonder if they shared their recollections with Jamie Richards on the Argyle bench, who had not long turned two years old when Becks hit that wonderstrike on the opening day of the 1996 season.

Argyle certainly seemed the brighter of the two sides early on, although there was a slight cup tie feel to the fixture; a symptom, or perhaps a side-effect, of the urgency of which both sides require points. End-to-end, you could argue, might suit an away side fancying a counter attack.

Wimbledon, for their part, were producing more corners than the Nurburgring, but it was from one of these AFC attacks that Argyle broke the deadlock. Upon clearing the ball, the break was swift; reminiscent of Aldershot, Reuben Reid fed Banton with an incisive ball. Touch, poise, finish; 1-0. The ball could not have squeezed tighter in the corner, and the elation from the away stands could not have been more pronounced.

Sadly, the Wimbledon response could not have been swifter. From the kick off, they attacked, and giant midfielder Harry Pell strode into the box to prod home following a Jake Cole save. How quick was the equaliser? Put it this way, when the stadium announcer flicked on his mic to update the huddled masses of the goalscorers’ names, he mentioned Banton and Pell in the same sentence.

Reuben Reid may not yet have scored since his return to Plymouth Argyle, but the work he puts in supporting roles leads to space aplenty for his comrade. Later in the first half he received the ball from what initially appeared a speculative sojourn into a channel. He worked a position and delivered a cross which seemingly presented the ball on a plate for Ronan Murray.

Sadly, Ronan couldn’t direct the ball on target. The final whistle in this game would signal the end of Reuben’s loan spell. Post-match, the gaffer would declare this Reid’s best game since his return. We keep fingers crossed for a renewal of the deal.

A blow to Argyle came towards the end of half when Banton succumbed to what appeared to be a dead leg. Lee Cox had delivered a sumptuous through ball which appeared to put Jason clear, but he strangely didn’t appear eager to reach it. The reason was soon apparent. It had seemed unlikely to be a lack of desire from the buzzsaw of a winger, and so it proved when he limped off with an apparent thigh injury.
The effect was telling. Banton had by some margin been Argyle’s biggest threat, and after his departure chances became at a notable premium. On a positive note, it gave a senior league debut to Richards, with Bhasera shifting forward to the left side of Argyle’s midfield four. Richards would go on to give a more than creditable account of himself in a position that is not his stock in trade; his future is more likely to lie in a central position in a back four.

After the break, the momentum shifted inexorably towards the home side, but there appears a very clear policy from John Sheridan as regards defenders, and Argyle were very strong against the second half onslaught. The back four that concluded the game featured two men at full back who are adept at playing in the centre, and two centre halves that have lost approximately 3% of headers since they arrived at Argyle.

Anthony Charles, in particular, was terrific against The Dons. Seated two places to my right were the Radio Devon and Argyle Player commentary team, and they used phrases along the lines of ‘blocked by Charles’ and ‘Charles heads clear’ almost as punctuation during the second half. His power and reading of the game was vital to Argyle’s efforts.

The second half was as much about the palpable tension as it was the football. Despite an above average attendance and another cracking turn-out from the Green Army, the atmosphere wasn’t awash with noise and chants. It was totally understandable.

Defeat for either team was unthinkable; a win something that could change the fortunes of an entire season. It is hard to know whether the breeze that blew through Kingsmeadow at full time was a climactic occurrence or four-and-a-half thousand people exhaling for the first time since about quarter to nine.

The tension was punctuated by stand-out moments. A brief flare-up in the Argyle technical area which saw a player from either side cautioned, with Argyle sub Paris Cowan-Hall entering the book but not the field of play during the game; a terrific save by Jake Cole to tip the ball over his crossbar; a heartstopping moment where the ball left Jake’s grasp and crossed the line, but this time a foul was given.

Bizarrely, after the board signalled five minutes remaining for the resurgent AFC to nick a winner, Argyle took over and spent virtually all of stoppage time pumping balls deep into Dons territory. However, the home side had taken note of their visitors’ stubborn defensive outlook and repelled the late charge.
One point each. No-one happy. No-one completely dissatisfied. Both teams in the bottom two.

Next up is Barnet. Last time we met Argyle won 4-1. A repeat of that this weekend would be most agreeable. That’s my kind of déjà vu.