Play Up, Play-offs and Playing On

THE last time Plymouth Argyle played Portsmouth in the Football League at Fratton Park, those in attendance saw a game between two sides in the second tier.

It was February 1992, and Argyle, who would ultimately be relegated on the final day of the season under manager David Kemp, lost 4-1 to a Pompey side destined to finish the season in ninth position, five points below the play-off positions.

The attendance that day was 10,467. This Saturday, when the teams meet again, 22 years on, with nothing on the line for either side and in a division two flights lower, the figure is likely to be higher to the tune of over 7,000 people.

“It’s frightening,” said Argyle boss John Sheridan, of the prospect of a near-capacity Fratton Park for what essentially amounts to a dead rubber. “Obviously the two clubs shouldn’t be in this division.

“It will be a big game – there will be a massive crowd there and we want to finish with a win. We’ve finished the season poorly, but it would be nice to get a win before we go onto next season.

“It’s a massive game to finish with. Nothing at stake, but a bit of pride, for both teams.”

At one stage, while Argyle looked strong candidates to reach the end-of-season play-offs, Pompey’s season seemed to be about to end with yet another relegation, which would have been their fourth in five seasons.

Both teams, though, have seen a change in fortune in recent weeks. While Argyle’s upward surge spluttered, Portsmouth, with caretaker manager Andy Awford, hauled themselves out of trouble, winning five games in succession.

Awford has subsequently been named the club’s permanent boss, and is tasked, from now on, with managing not only the playing staff, but also the expectations of a club desperate to end their recent misery.

It is something that will feel familiar to members of the Green Army. While Argyle’s slide might not be in the same sphere of severity as their opponents this weekend, it has been startling enough. After five years of being relegated or nearly relegated, it is high time the slide was halted – and it has been.

“I think we’ve done a lot of good things this season,” said Sheridan. “We’ve had years of doom and gloom, but this year there were a lot of positives. I’ll learn from what I’ve done wrong, try to rectify things, because we weren’t that far away. If we do that next season, we won’t be far away.

“Next season is a big season for me as a manager. I don’t mind saying that.

“I played against him (Awford) once or twice, he’s a bit younger than me. He knows that club and he has done a brilliant job since he took over, with the same group of players.

“They were looking at the wrong end of the table and they’ve picked up massively recently.

“They are a massive club for this division; next season I expect to see them pushing for an automatic promotion spot. I think it will be a really strong league next year; I think Luton will be a strong outfit, and with the teams coming down, it will be a lot tougher.

“I want us to be competing with those teams next season.”