Best of Enemies

CHARLIE Hempstead takes an alternative look at Tuesday night’s win at Southend...

Matches between Argyle and Southend are a godsend for those charged with finding 1,000 words to write, because things just seem to happen when the two sides meet.

Eighteen months ago, on the Pilgrims’ last visit to the Essex seaside, the combined Argyle appearances of Barker, Sturrock Junior and Gilbert exceeded those of the players in green on the day. If that was not unique, it deserved to be.

What followed almost certainly was unique. Argyle’s captain was sent off for the only time in his career, the manager was sacked (not for the first time), and the captain was appointed manager while still serving his suspension.

Tonight, themes for an article were again abundant. Southend pushing for promotion, Argyle, er, not. The Shrimpers on their way to Wembley, the Pilgrims possibly on their way to Woking. Guy Branston playing against opposition that he does NOT count among his former clubs. The ability of players who were not fixtures in the Argyle side then to go on and play for teams further up the leagues (Ryan Leonard tonight joining a long list that includes Ashley Barnes, Ryan Dickson, Yala Bolasie, Joe Mason, Craig Noone and Luke Summerfield, among many others).

And then there was the reunion of the two men whose partnership at the heart of Argyle’s defence was central to the team’s rise the last time they found themselves in the basement division, Paul Wotton and Graham Coughlan. A formidable pairing then, best of enemies on Tuesday night.

Wottsy would have been mortified to find himself only on the bench for the match, but the gaffer obviously felt that the Argyle legend’s body needed a break before appearance number 470 could be clocked up. Still, he would argue, at least he has outlasted his erstwhile partner, whose role is now confined to barking out instructions from the technical area.

Early in the game, Argyle were giving Cocko good reason to bark, as the visitors pressurised the man in possession and generally showed more composure than the Irishman’s charges. Three times in quick succession, the home goal came under threat, with dangerous balls being whipped in, first by Paris Cowan-Hall from the right, then by Joe Bryan from the left, before a long throw from Onismor Bhasera caused panic in the six-yard box and Cowan-Hall was inches from prodding the ball home.

Barking from the technical area, dark mutterings in the press box. “They’re playing better than us” was the simple summary from one of the local scribes. 

Sadly, playing better than the opposition butters no parsnips unless you turn dominance into goals. As if Argyle fans aren’t all too well aware of that fact…

Sure enough, having not threatened at all in the opening 25 minutes, Southend came very close to breaking the deadlock when Ryan Cresswell’s far-post header sailed across goal and dropped inches wide of Jake Cole’s left-hand upright.
Just as the “here we go again” thoughts were entering Argyle heads, Bilel Mohsni presented the ball on a plate to Reuben Reid. His quick pass released Jason Banton who, with a trademark step inside, curled his shot towards the far corner. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Cowan-Hall made the fatal error of touching the ball in from two yards, chalking off what would have been Banton’s 6th goal in his brief Argyle career. 

Ten minutes from half-time, Wotton entered the fray, Anthony Charles having given second best to the groin strain that had kept him out of the Fleetwood victory. In truth, given how sharply he pulled up at Gillingham when his groin twanged in the first place, it was a surprise to see his name on the team-sheet.

Match number 470 nearly took a very bad turn as soon as it began, when Britt Assombalonga, who remarkably is just one person, headed over from the same six-yard range from which Chris Whelpdale had obligingly missed the target for Gillingham 10 days earlier.

The early exchanges in the second half were notable for the fact that most of the players appeared to have swapped their boots for Toblerone bars, as pass after pass and clearance after clearance was shanked at unlikely angles.

Not so Wottsy, who put his boot very firmly through a bouncing ball as Assombalonga closed him down and caught him on the top of the boot. Words were exchanged, which from a distance did not appear to be too unfriendly.

Having become the first man since the interval to actually kick a ball straight, Wottsy was called upon to prove that it was no fluke when the hapless Mohsni conceded a penalty as he flattened the flying Bryan after the young winger had turned on the after-burners.

Now, everyone in the game knows how Wottsy takes penalties, and no-one knows better than the two men in the Southend dug-out. The message was relayed to Daniel Bentley in the home goal: he hits them very, very hard, straight down the middle. “Just stand your ground, son, you’ll be fine.”

If the men in the home dug-out know better than anyone how Wottsy takes penalties, then no-one knows better that they know it than Wottsy himself. Cue a calm side-foot into the bottom corner, with Bentley flat-footed.

With goal number 66 under his belt, Wottsy would doubtless have been as delighted as anyone when Reid, playing match number 23 in green (or yellow, or white, or tangerine, or whatever our away colours were in his previous spell) brilliantly curled in goal number one following Cowan-Hall’s perfect pass.  For a man who has waited so long to break his duck, the celebrations were as low-key as they could possibly have been.

Not so at the final whistle, as the players left the field to wild acclaim from the ever-numerous, ever-noisy, deliriously happy Green Army.

Much water has passed under the bridge in the 12 years since Wottsy and Cocko first played together, but the undying support of the travelling faithful is one thing that will never change.