A (Joe) Soap Opera

ARGYLE and Luton share a curious recent history. Liam Spence gives us a rundown on the 2001-02 season, when the Hatters and the Pilgrims battled for the Third Division title...

IT has been six years since Argyle met Luton in a competitive affair with the last fixture, on August 12, 2008, ending in a 2-0 victory for the Hatters as they knocked the Pilgrims out of the League Cup. This Saturday, September 6, will see Argyle and Luton lock horns once again. 

It may not be a title-decider or a battle for bragging rights, but it most certainly brings back the memories of the 2001-02 season, which saw the sides generate an intense rivalry between players, fans and staff alike, which turned into  a two-horse race for the Nationwide Third Division title that went down to the wire. 

This was the most successful season in the Pilgrims’ modern history and saw manager Paul Sturrock and Argyle players hailed by some as the best the club has ever had. The Greens, consisting of Argyle legends Paul Wotton, David Friio and Michael ‘Micky’ Evans (to name just a few) went onto win the Third Division title – collecting a record-breaking 102 points from 46 games. 

So let us hop into the Green and White time-machine and reminisce on a dramatic season of triumph and intense rivalry. Are you watching Joe Kinnear?

Sturrock began his first full season in charge with an opening day 1-0 home defeat to Shrewsbury in a dominant but unsuccessful display. Then it was a trip to Hull, which ended in a stalemate, followed by an early exit from the Worthington Cup at the hands of Watford. This form overlapped into the next home fixture which saw Argyle suffer a 2-1 defeat to Rochdale – capping off a poor start to the season for the Pilgrims. 

Thus, Sturrock’s men took only one point from their opening three league fixtures, compared to Kinnear’s Luton who, despite having injury setbacks, picked up six points from their opening three games. 

Sturrock was keen to address Argyle’s early home form and was optimistic that, if it was corrected, then Argyle would see a change in fortune. 

“If we can put our home form back to its usual standards, then it’s onwards and upwards,” he said and, from that day, the pendulum swung in Argyle’s favour as the Greens generated an impressive 19-game unbeaten streak, with 14 games being three-pointers. 

This championship-winning form boasted a 3-2 away victory over local rivals Exeter and also saw the Pilgrims knock league leaders Luton off their overly-confident perch with a dramatic and atmosphere-fuelled 2-1 victory at Home Park, which was becoming a fortress once again.

Luton took the lead through former Pilgrim Dean Crowe before Argyle turned the game on its head with two goals, the first from Martin Phillips, followed by a David Friio winner. 

This saw Kinnear’s team, who the manager had boasted were “well clear of anybody in the league” made to look anything but, even with them having an advantage of an extra man for the best part of an hour, following the sending-off of striker Evans. This ungracious defeat, with Kinnear referring to Sturrock’s team as a bunch of “odds and sods”, told and Kinnear’s comments backfired as both his pre-match and post-match outbursts galvanised Argyle, with the Pilgrims only suffering four defeats throughout the rest of the season. 

From this day forward, Sturrock’s Argyle and Joe Kinnear’s Luton became intense rivals, with the arrogant Kinnear and his players at the heart of it. 

This fixture was a fond memory, which stuck in Sturrock’s head as he reminisced on the 2-1 victory after securing the Division Three title. 

“If there was one game when the noise was a key factor – even with the thousands we had towards the end of the season – it was this one,” he said. “I have never heard our supporters shout and bawl and support a team like they did that day; it was unbelievable. 

“You felt the whole stadium was full, even though there was nobody in three of the sides. The injustice those remarks had got to the Plymouth people; then the remarks afterwards kept them going.” 

Henceforth, no matter where the Green Army was, home or away, the infamous chants of “Are You Watching Joe Kinnear?” and “1-0 to the Average Team” echoed from street to street, game to game, and from ground to ground without fail. 

The fans would not let Kinnear’s comments slip and they were keen to direct their chants at him and his cocky Hatters again in the return fixture. The game did not quite have the build-up to the previous fixture, but it was just as important in terms of both bragging rights and the destination of the Third Division title. However, it was a result that left a sour taste on Argyle’s tongue, with the game ending in a “2-0 massacre” according to the delusional Kinnear, who conveniently ignored the fact that his side were 11 minutes away from being held to a goalless draw. But a defeat is a defeat, albeit a difficult one to take, as this cut Argyle’s lead at the summit of the table to four points with 16 games to go. 

Following the loss, Sturrock and his players spent the following Monday deconstructing the Pilgrims’ season to try and ensure that it did not destruct and play into the hands of Kinnear and his world-beaters. This self-reflection paid off, with Argyle generating a further streak of championship-winning form which secured promotion after their 3-1 win at Rochdale. 

Argyle had reached one goal by guaranteeing promotion, but they strived for more and, with six games remaining, Sturrock and his Argyle side turned their attention towards that elusive Third Division title; but Luton were ever present and they continued to assert pressure on the Pilgrims. 

However, it seemed that this pressure was affecting the Argyle players as their title hopes jeopardised after suffering a 1-0 defeat at Hartlepool, followed by a stalemate with Southend, which saw Luton go top of the division. 

The Pilgrims then had two away games on the bounce, which piled the pressure on further as they needed maximum points in order to remain in the title picture. 

The first was at Carlisle and then a trip to Darlington, which proved to be crucial for the Pilgrims. Both games were to be played in a matter of three days due to the Darlington game being re-arranged because of an unexpected snowstorm on the original date. Argyle went on to beat Carlisle 2-0 and re-claim top-spot as Luton were unexpectedly held to a goal-less home draw by Macclesfield. 

Two days later, on Monday, April 15, 2002, in the penultimate game of the season, Argyle won 4-1 and were crowned champions – causing an eruption at the Feethams ground, with both players and fans jubilant in celebration, waving their green and white scarves on the pitch while the players invaded the Darlington Directors’ Box. 

Coming into the final game of the season at home to Cheltenham, with a sense of joyous relief amongst the fans and players, captain Paul Wotton said: “We wanted to get promotion and we have done that; we wanted to win the title; and we have done that; now we have one last step to take and hopefully we can break the 100-point barrier.” 

Which, to smiles on every Pilgrims’ face happened, with the “Team of the Century” winning 2-0 in front of the Argyle faithful as they lifted the Third Division title – Champions! 

These celebrations poured out on to the streets of Plymouth when the champions had their open-top bus parade with all the players and staff receiving a heroes’ welcome as the city was submerged with the green and white colours of Argyle. 

“Today was a Plymouth day, rather than an Argyle day,” said Sturrock, at the championship parade. 

“People are proud of their city – the whole of it, rather than just the football club. We’ve waited a long time for it. We should enjoy it.”