ROB McNichol takes an alternative look at our New Year's Day defeat to Bristol Rovers.“They say the next big thing is here,
that the revolution's near,
but to me it seems quite clear
that it's all just a little bit of history repeating.”
What are the rules about lightning striking three times?
The last time we were at the Memorial Stadium we were 2-0 down but came back to win 3-2. The time before that, conversely, we were 2-0 down but came back to win 3-2.
It feels so trite, on New Year’s Day, to look back over the previous year and reflect, but in this case it is so appropriate. We didn’t actually come to Bristol in 2012, mind you. That last visit was, on Boxing Day 2011, and it may well have been the moment that our relegation fightback started, or at least the day we started to believe that we’d be okay.
In some ways it was a bittersweet 2012. The avoidance of the drop was an achievement in itself. The football on show and quality of performance was unquestionably up several notches by year’s end – but the results, and league position, showed only very marginal improvement.
Not exactly an “as you were” year, but returning to the Memorial Stadium on another Bank Holiday had more than a slight feeling of déjà vu about it. This was not a must win game in its truest sense, but there was a sense of the tide turning one way or another depending on the outcome.
Twenty-five minutes into the game, the requisite Rovers two goal start was set. First Joe Anyinsah, firing home after Rene Gilmartin punched out a corner kick from under his crossbar, and then Matt Lund, crashing the ball in from another corner to give Rovers a two goal lead. for the third successive time in this fixture.
Incredibly, it took these twenty five minutes (plus a little bit more) for Argyle to get going. The football the Pilgrims played in the last ten minutes or so of the first half was the best in the game to that point.
If it had been at any other ground in the country, we might have fancied ourselves beaten, but not here, surely. 2-0 down at half time? That’s our cue to shine.
Once it was Wright-Phillips, Mason and Zubar. Then it was Feeney, Chadwick and Hemmings. Who would it be in 2013?
All the ingredients were there. Argyle playing in the right direction, and actually creating chances to get back in it. Chadwick’s header well saved by Mildenhall and Cowan-Hall’s drive blocked the two most notable chances amongst other moments where Argyle got into Rovers territory looking dangerous.
But suddenly the déjà vu was of a different kind. It featured flashbacks of far more recent events. The home games with Torquay and Wycombe saw Argyle almost totally dominant, yet emerging with just one point from those fixtures. Tellingly, also, just one goal.
Inability to convert possession and territorial advantage into goals has sadly been a hallmark of Carl Fletcher’s management reign. Improvements have abounded all over the park, but goalscoring hasn’t been one of them.
But wait – almost to cast my doubts as mere folly, Conor Hourihane suddenly found space, and a cross-field ball found him. Conor has been asked to captain the side several times in the absence of Darren Purse, and perhaps displayed a microcosm of the composure and maturity that Fletch has seen him by steering home beautifully.
He could have thrashed at it, but he chose to guide. 1-2. It had started.
And it so nearly continued from the same left boot. Hourihane received the ball from Nelson, who was sweeping the debris after a corner was partially cleared, and thumped a twenty yarder against the post.
The shot was so vicious that it went straight out, untouched, for a throw-in after blasting the woodwork.
But perhaps this was all just a fleeting glimpse of what is possible. A tantalising, teasing sample of something that comes all too rarely.
Those precious goals, unobtainable at the most important times, not just in this game but over many months, are just too elusive. And their failure to materialise is proving just too harmful.
This is not a side devoid of talent. You don’t find yourself on top for such vast periods of games without possessing at least some ability. And you certainly couldn’t level accusations of lack of effort at this squad. Not fairly, anyway.
But at the Memorial Stadium, as many times of late, effort and pressure did not translate into points.
This time the 2-0 deficit was too much to make up. A bridge too far on the day and, it would turn out, for an era.