Seventh Heaven

AFTER watching Argyle's fantastic 1-0 win at Wycombe on Tuesday, Charlie Hempstead looks forward to two even bigger games at Home Park on Saturday...

First of all, let us be thankful for small mercies. Whatever happens in the remaining 11 matches, this will be the first time in six years that Argyle have improved their League position compared to the previous season.

Against that background, some fans might settle for the fact that there will be no repeat of the last-day jitters at Rochdale nine months ago. Not so, John Sheridan. When asked about his play-off aspirations following the highly encouraging win at Wycombe on Tuesday night, the manager’s reply was succinct.

“Finishing mid-table is no good to me.”

In other words, it’s the play-offs or bust, because eighth is the worst place to finish the season – apart from being in the bottom two, of course.

Just how realistic Argyle’s prospects are of a top seven finish will be significantly affected by the next two matches, the back-to-back home games against the division’s pace-setters, second-placed Scunthorpe and table-topping Chesterfield, respectively.

Both come to Home Park in good but not scintillating form. Although Scunthorpe boast a club record 20-match unbeaten run since Russ Wilcox took over as manager in November, they have won only two of their last 11, having drawn the rest.

Given that they have ex-Pilgrim Paul Hayes in their line-up, and it is a law of nature that players score against their old clubs, Argyle will effectively be kicking off 1-0 down.  That of course does not make the task any easier, but there are reasons to be cheerful (follow this closely).

Scunthorpe only won 1-0 at Fleetwood, whereas Argyle won 4-0 and are therefore proven to be three goals better. Even with Scunthorpe’s one goal head start given by Hayes, Argyle are still two goals to the good.

We will gloss over the fact that if we were to apply the same logic to our matches at Rochdale, Scunthorpe will win 7-0 on Saturday, even without the Hayes freebie.

As any politician knows, the key thing with statistics is to choose only the ones that suit your argument.

As for Chesterfield, they are either the best team in the form table (based on the last 10 matches) or the 12th best (based on the last six). The four-goal blitz in seven minutes at Cheltenham apart, their recent away form has been moderate and has included a 1-0 defeat at Wycombe.

Those still following the tortured logic of the argument will already have gathered that with Argyle having just won by the same score at Adams Park, a 2-0 victory against Chesterfield on Tuesday is pretty much in the bag – and they don’t have an ex-Pilgrim to spoil the party. Better still, Argyle have an ex-Spireite in the form of Neal Trotman, so a 3-0 win is all but guaranteed.

Back in the real world, Argyle’s form is not too dusty, with five wins in the last seven games propelling them to within touching distance of Seventh Heaven, the promised land above the play-off line.

In fact, such has been the Pilgrims’ form since the away win at Mansfield at the end of October – a match which the boss identified at the time as potentially a turning point in the season – that if the season had begun on that day, Argyle would already be in the automatic promotion places. The points-per-game return since then (1.77, in case you were wondering), would have been sufficient for automatic promotion in three of the last five League 2 campaigns.

One other factor that could weigh in the Pilgrims’ favour is the crowd, but not necessarily in the normal way.

It is common knowledge that the Green Army turn out in larger numbers for away games than the fans of anyone else in the division other than Portsmouth’s. The average away following this season is over 700, which is all the more remarkable when the average round-trip of away games has so far been 478 miles.

You might therefore expect to see a link between the size of the away following and the performance of the away team. It certainly seems to work for Argyle on their travels, but not so at Home Park.

Not one of the four victories by visiting teams this season has been played out in front of more than 200 travelling fans, so as long as Scunthorpe and Chesterfield supporters turn up in decent numbers, we’ll be fine.

All of which proves nothing at all, except that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

What is definitely true is that when Argyle were 11 points adrift of 7th place six weeks ago, there was barely a whisper of the playoffs. Now, we are in with a shout, and quite a loud one.