Cheltenham 3 Argyle 3 (4-5 on pens)Cheltenham Town 3
Gillespie 6, 61, Taylor 68
Boco 16. Alessandra 17, Bencherif 57
Lowe (Cheltenham) scored 1-0
Boco (Argyle) scored 1-1
Noble (Cheltenham) scored 2-1
Alessandra (Argyle) scored 2-2
Deering (Cheltenham)scored 3-2
Hourihane (Argyle) scored 3-3
Taylor (Cheltenham) scored 4-3
Reckord (Argyle) scored 4-4
Gornell (Cheltenham) saved 4-4
Morgan (Argyle) scored 4-5
by RICK COWDERY
ARGYLE progressed to the second round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy after a cracking, crackling cup-tie which saw six goals and a sending-off, as well as the nerve-shredding penalty shoot-out decider.
When Marvin Morgan slotted home the tenth penalty of the shoot-out – immediately after Jake Cole had made the only save of the post-game decider – it was only the second time in eight attempts that the Pilgrims had been successful at a sudden-death denouement.
Indeed, the only other Pilgrim to score the winner in a shoot-out was current coach Sean McCarthy, 15 years previously.
After playing for a third of the match with just ten men, the Pilgrims forced their way to the sudden-death decider on 90% guts in the face of concerted Cheltenham pressure.
Two goals in a minute, from midfielders Rommy Boco and Lewis Alessandra, had put Argyle ahead before the midway point of the first half after they had gone behind to a sixth-minute strike by Steve Gillespie.
They went further ahead 12 minutes after the break when Algerian midfielder Hamza Bencherif netted with a set-piece header on his debut.
The game then almost immediately turned 180 degrees as Argyle had Curtis Nelson sent off for denying Gillespie a clear goalscoring opportunity and then conceded a second Gillespie goal from the resultant penalty.
As Argyle regrouped, Jason Taylor’s deflected shot brought Cheltenham level in the topsy-turvy tie, and set the stage for the penalty shoot-out decider.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had made the maximum five changes permitted by competition rules to his starting line-up for the Pilgrims’ second visit of the embryonic season to Gloucestershire’s spa jewel.
He gave debuts to new signings Jamie Reckord and Bencherif, as well as recalling goalkeeper Cole, defender Max Blanchard and Andre Blackman, who was handed a wide midfield role.
Fellow goalkeeper Luke McCormick was on the bench, alongside striker Marvin Morgan, while Neal Trotman, Durrell Berry and Dominic Blizzard were all rested.
Likewise, Cheltenham manager Mark Yates named only six of the players that had started the Robins’ 4-1 weekend defeat by Bury, but could find only substitute places for new signing David Noble and his former Exeter team-mate Jamie Cureton, on return from injury.
One of those recalled, Gillespie, continued this season’s tradition of an early goal between the two sides. Freed by Sido Jombti on the left side of the penalty area after the Pilgrims failed to clear their lines, he cut inside right-back Curtis Nelson and sent a measured shot past Cole.
The lead lasted 10 minutes before Boco profited from Reuben Reid’s flick-on to level matters with a sumptuous lob over Robins’ goalkeeper Scott Brown for his second goal of the season – both on the same ground.
Parity lasted less than a minute as Argyle notched their fifth goal of the campaign at Whaddon Road, a venue considered impregnable until the Pilgrims’ 3-1 League 2 victory there last month. Five goals at a rate of about one every 20 minutes.
This time, the hard yards were put in by Blackman, who looks a decent wide midfield raider. He tricked his way into the penalty area before firing in a low cross that Alessandra larruped home after his initial shot had been blocked.
Brown saved a long-range effort from Bencherif as Argyle sought to replicate their three-goal first-half salvo on their previous visit to Gloucestershire, but it was Blackman who continued to catch the eye.
His influence on the game and the perceived threat whenever he dropped his shoulder and turned on the afterburners earned slipstreaming Keith Lowe a yellow card for a cynical ankle-tap.
However, Cheltenham remained a force and it took a fine save by Cole from Gillespie’s low shot to preserve the Pilgrims’ one-goal advantage until the arrival of half-time.
Perhaps mindful of how disruptive half-time has been to Argyle momentum in, arguably, their three previous matches, Sheridan sent his players out early for the second half, with Performance Manager John Harbin: Cheltenham sent on Noble – a player who has a decent back-catalogue of performances in matches against Argyle – for Russell Penn.
The hectic pace of the first half maintained, with the sort of end-to-end attacking associated with cup-ties. Argyle breathed again after Blanchard had been pressurised into conceding possession on the edge of his own penalty area: Brown beat out a fearsome angled drive by Reid.
Then came the second glut of goals for the evening – three inside 11 minutes this time. First, Bencherif stretched forward to power home a header from Conor Hourihane’s inswinging free-kick off the left flank and extend Argyle’s lead to two.
That advantage was wiped out in the 60th minute, when Nelson was deemed to have fouled Gillespie with a clumsy challenge from behind. Referee Mark Heywood immediately signalled a penalty before, to make matters worse, sending off Nelson.
Gillespie took the penalty himself but Cole guessed correctly, diving right to keep out the shot. Unfortunately, the ball rebounded straight to the kicker who, this time, had the beating of Cole.
Argyle reshaped, with Blanchard switching to right-back and Bencherif dropping back to partner Guy Branston in the centre of the back four.
Cheltenham, though, smelled blood and were level within seven minutes through Taylor’s rather mishit, and doubly deflected, shot.
Cheltenham sent on speedster Jamie McGlashan from the substitutes’ bench and he carved a marvellous opening for Byron Harrison, who simply should not have been able to miss from where he was when the ball arrived on a plate. Cole, though, made a simply magnificent save.
The point-blank stop was the outstanding contribution to an overall disciplined defensive display – apart from Blackman’s last-minute-of-injury-time break-out and shot that went just over the crossbar – that withstood Cheltenham’s onslaught and sheer weight of numbers to take the match to its unnatural conclusion.
Cheltenham Town (4-5-1): 1 Scott Brown; 2 Keith Lowe, 15 Ryan Inniss, 4 Jason Taylor, 20 Sido Jombati; 19 Zack Kotwica, 16 Russ Penn (capt, 25 David Noble half-time), 8 Sam Deering, 21 Ashley Vincent (11 Jamie McGlashan 69); 9 Byron Harrison, 23 Steven Gillespie (10 Terry Gornell 83). Substitutes (not used): 7 Jamie Cureton, 30 Harvey Rivers (gk).
Booked: Lowe 34.
Argyle (4-5-1): 1 Jake Cole; 17 Curtis Nelson, 4 Max Blanchard, 5 Guy Branston, 28 Jamie Reckord; 7 Lewis Alessandra, 20 Hamza Bencherif, 8 Rommy Boco, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 3 Andre Blackman; 9 Reuben Reid (10 Marvin Morgan 65). Substitutes (not used): 14 Luke Young, 18 Tyler Harvey, 23 Luke McCormick (gk), 27 Andres Gurrieri.
Sent off: Nelson 60.
Booked: Branston 69.
Referee: Mark Heywood.
Attendance: 1,236 (256 away).